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Relationships

Is It Love or Sexual Attraction?

How do you differentiate love from related emotions?

Key points

  • Love and sexual attraction are both evolved mechanisms to support key relationship processes
  • Love promotes relationship maintanance, whereas sexual attraction promotes sex
  • Love and sexual attraction differ in need fulfillment and their links to honesty and sacrifice
  • Love endures longer than sexual attraction

Whether it comes on strong or unfolds gradually to a point of realization, acknowledging love as love isn't always easy. How do you know if what you're experiencing is actually love?

Love and sexual attraction are easy to confuse but have different goals

Both love and sexual attraction can both be strong emotions and we can experience sexual attraction to people we love. But we can also feel sexual attraction towards people we don't love (e.g., celebrities, random bartenders). The key difference is in their goals. Whereas sexual attraction's end goal is sex, love is oriented towards maintaining a relationship, to keeping a strong connection defined by closeness and shared lives.

Primary ways love differs from sexual attraction

  1. Love fulfills our need for support. Culturally, we often conflate sexual attraction and love, but there's good reason to suspect there are actually three distinct motivating systems. Lust may be the driver that encourages our pursuit of relationships, attraction may help us differentiate between more or less desirable partners, and love may be what keeps us close to responsive and caring others. Love is especially important when we're sad, scared, or otherwise need support.

  2. Love compels honesty. When we feel secure in our relationships—we know someone loves us and that they'll be there for us—we behave more authentically. If we question someone's trustworthiness, fear they'll leave us, or think they may not be there when we need them, we are more inclined to lie or deceive. In other words, feeling secure love in a relationship increases authenticity (Gillath, Sesko, Shaver, & Chun, 2010). Sexual attraction alone is unlikely to compel this same degree of authenticity.
  3. Love makes us open to sacrifice. Sacrificing isn't fun: it involves giving up something valuable (e.g., time, money) and can come at a high cost. In relationships, willingness to sacrifice is associated with higher levels of commitment and investment in a relationship (Van Lange et al., 1997). This kind of connection is more akin to love than sexual attraction; it shows plans for the future and caring for someone and a prioritizing of their needs relative to one's own.
  4. Love changes the effects of engaging in sex. Sex can boost well-being, but this link is strongest in the context of love. Research shows that the association between the frequency of sex and important metrics of well-being (e.g., life satisfaction, positive emotions/mood) depends in part on affection (Debrot et al., 2017). Affection is a positive other-oriented emotion that involves care and concern; it is more love-oriented than purely lust oriented.
  5. Love lasts, whereas sexual attraction often wanes. Feelings of sexual attraction can "shut down" fairly quickly, but love is another story. From an evolutionary standpoint, romantic love is not an emotion: it's a drive, a powerful, tenacious drive (Fisher et al., 2005). Romantic love energizes our attention and does not easily relinquish its grip. Scientists understand the power of romantic love to be grounded in the dopaminergic system, a reward system in the brain. To experience love is deeply satisfying at a biological level. The associated dopamine release reinforces the pursuit of romantic love, which may reflect its role in reproductive success.

Sexual Attraction Can Lead to Love

One of the challenges of distinguishing love from sexual attraction is that sometimes, sexual interest is a launching point for love. Indeed, sexual attraction can ready people for the idea of initiating a romantic relationship. Sexual thoughts can increase people's openness to share their feelings, sacrifice, want closeness, and engage in caring communication (Gillath, Mikulincer, Birnbaum, & Shaver, 2008).

The challenge is deciding if your dynamic ends with sexual attraction, or if you both believe you share similar goals, desire open communication, and want to integrate your lives together. These future-oriented features suggest you have a foundation for a long-term relationship.

Facebook image: boonchoke/Shutterstock

References

Debrot, A., Meuwly, N., Muise, A., Impett, E. A., & Schoebi, D. (2017). More than just sex: Affection mediates the association between sexual activity and well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(3), 287-299.

Fisher, H., Aron, A., & Brown, L. L. (2005). Romantic love: an fMRI study of a neural mechanism for mate choice. Journal of Comparative Neurology, 493(1), 58-62.

Fisher, H. E., Aron, A., Mashek, D., Li, H., & Brown, L. L. (2002). Defining the brain systems of lust, romantic attraction, and attachment. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 31, 413-419.

Gillath, O., Sesko, A. K., Shaver, P. R., & Chun, D. S. (2010). Attachment, authenticity, and honesty: dispositional and experimentally induced security can reduce self-and other-deception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(5), 841.

Gillath, O., Mikulincer, M., Birnbaum, G. E., & Shaver, P. R. (2008). When sex primes love: Subliminal sexual priming motivates relationship goal pursuit. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(8), 1057-1069.

Van Lange, P. A., Rusbult, C. E., Drigotas, S. M., Arriaga, X. B., Witcher, B. S., & Cox, C. L. (1997). Willingness to sacrifice in close relationships. Journal of Personality, 72(6), 1373-1395.

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