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Jan 17, 2022

Dr Zhana X Feeld: Catching Feelings

It can be the best of times, it can be the worst of times - but here's how to cope with new romantic or sexual energy for someone when you're already in a relationship

By Femmeish Feminist

The Open Smarter Social is a free virtual monthly event where people from all over the world come together to deepen their knowledge about non-monogamy, share experiences without judgment or shame and build community. The Socials are hosted by Dr. Zhana Vrangalova, a professor of human sexuality at New York University and the creator of Open Smarter, an online course that helps people make smarter decisions about their relationship choices. Each month, Feeld is bringing you some of the best content from that month’s event. 

‘Catching feelings’ is one of the most beautiful and most painful experiences that humans can have. It’s something so powerful that we can feel we have very little control over it. For single people, ‘catching feelings’ for the wrong person can be a source of suffering. And it’s one of the most common ongoing challenges for monogamous and non-monogamous couples alike, as they either try to prevent feelings for others from developing or try to manage caught feelings without losing what they have. How do you do this?


First things first: What does ‘catching feelings’ mean? From an evolutionary and behavioural perspective, there are three main systems of attraction and love that exist in humans (and other animals): lust (sexual desire), infatuation (romantic passion or ‘new relationship energy’) and attachment (long-term companionate love or pair-bonding). To learn more about these three, when we talk about ‘catching feelings’, we typically talk about the infatuation stage of attraction. 

‘Mutual attachment consists of two components: feeling care for and feeling cared for.’ – Dr. Zhana

‘If you want to increase the feelings you have for someone, increase the intimacy and commitment between you. If you want to decrease the feelings you have for someone, decrease the intimacy and commitment between you.’ – Dr. Zhana

‘Infatuation is when you’re supposedly doing “Netflix and chill” but nobody actually finishes the movie. Attachment is when you actually finish the movie and the popcorn.’ – Dr. Zhana

The pros and cons of catching feelings

New love – often called new relationship energy (NRE) in non-monogamous circles – can be exhilarating. It’s one of the best highs we can experience as humans. The novelty is exciting, different and there’s so much to explore and discover about our new love interest, that we barely want to sleep or eat, not to mention the incredible dose of endorphins pumping through our bodies when experiencing infatuation. 

But infatuation isn’t all butterflies and rainbows. It has a dark side that can lead to regrettable decisions being made and time being lost. Rose-coloured glasses make us blind to important deal-breakers, our mood yoyos back and forth with each sign of interest and disinterest, it’s terribly distracting and impacts our productivity and that’s all when it’s reciprocated and going fairly well. Unrequited love – or ‘catching feelings’ for someone who’s not available – is its own unique version of hell. And ‘catching feelings’ for someone else while you’re with a partner or partners is one of the most threatening experiences for an existing relationship.

Here’s Sarah’s story…

She’s been seeing a couple and is getting the sense that the wife has caught feelings for her. Sarah hasn’t directly addressed this concern yet and she continues to sense some jealousy from her. Sarah doesn’t know how to address it (Sarah doesn’t have feelings for the wife). Sarah continues to maintain emotional boundaries with the married couple to prevent herself from getting hurt. There is lust and liking but no romantic passion from Sarah’s side. What are the wife’s fears? Dr. Zhana recommends renegotiating the boundaries while Sarah caters to her new relationship so the wife can better manage her expectations.

Did you know Feeld was born out of the idea of exploring sexually with feelings? The app is all about transparency. That’s one of the many reasons I recommend Feeld. Help support these events by joining Feeld here. 

Sarah went on to explain how she tries to prevent herself from ‘catching feelings’, especially in this dynamic where she could very easily get hurt. She tries to remind herself that in this scenario, she is most likely to get hurt and her role is very clearly as an addition to this couple's marriage and not a replacement for either married partner. Dr. Zhana adds that an essential part of reducing feelings (if that’s the intention) is to reduce time and intimacy. This could look like going from seeing each other once a week to once every two weeks as well as limiting the types of activities that you do together, in particular doing fewer romantic things together.

What to do about ‘catching feelings’?

‘Catching feelings’ is powerful and disruptive, there’s no doubt about that. But it doesn’t have to throw our lives into chaos. We can use strategies to either stop ourselves from ‘catching feelings’ or maintaining them at a level that is less disruptive for our lives and existing relationships. For example, limiting physical and emotional intimacy, time spent together and communication between meetings can all work to keep feelings in check, as can having a rotation of partners. Managing ‘caught feelings’ for one person while in a relationship with someone else is a very delicate balancing act that requires lots of empathy, communication and self-control. 

The Open Smarter Course has an entire module (videos, quizzes and resources) on infatuation and how to deal with it. Check it out here.  

Want to listen to our last Open Smarter Social? Sign up for Dr. Zhana’s mailing list to get the recording.

Want to join the next Open Smarter conversation live? Our next topic is Navigating Sexual Health in Non-monogamy. Get your FREE ticket here. 

Stay connected with Dr. Zhana on IG and Twitter.

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