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It’s highly likely that at some point in your adult life you’ll have asked yourself whether a relationship you’re in is typified by love or lust. However, given that the two are such powerful emotions, it can be hard to confuse the two (especially the latter with the former)! To help you untangle those carnal impulses from true love, here’s a closer look at this age-old conundrum.
Love or lust; a psychological head to head
You might not be too surprised to hear that a fair number of scientists have focused on the question “is it love or lust?” as a source of academic research. Scores of intellectuals from a range of different disciplines (including neuroscience, the social sciences, and psychology) have pondered what’s going on when we are overwhelmed by these intense feelings
Well, as you might expect, there are a number of interconnected theories at play, all of which posit a pretty functional explanation for how love and lust operate. And it’s all to do with our reproductive strategies. One of the most eminent researchers to propose this line of reasoning is Helen Fisher, an evolutionary anthropologist who’s regarded as being the first person to investigate peoples’ experiences of love using brain imaging techniques.
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In her book Why We Love: the Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love1, Fisher fleshes out the idea that lust is a direct correlate of our sex drive and lido. In essence, it’s the cerebral manifestation of our primal urge to procreate with as many partners as possible to maximize our chances of offspring. On the other hand, love serves to create a bond between two people for long enough to raise a child (if you want to learn more about Fisher and her work, check out our in-depth interview with her here).
Another expert to write about the intoxicating upshots of lust is Judith Orloff. Lauded for being one of America’s most forward thinking psychiatrists, Orloff points out that experiencing lust is actually related to regions of the brain that are activated when someone takes a stimulant drug2. She also goes on to suggest that lust is bound up with idealization, especially during the nascent stages of a relationship. Fuelled by an instinctual concoction of sex hormones, lust blinds us and makes us neglect our lover’s flaws. Instead, we only choose to notice what they are or could be (or indeed, what we want them to be), neglecting any problems that might be present.
In simpler terms
Now that we’ve got the scientific rudiments in check, it’s about time to explore how you can tell whether love or lust has a hold on you. First off, and to make things easier, it’s not a bad idea to start by defining the terms we’re talking about.
For lust, that’s slightly easier. In the contemporary vernacular, lustfulness is most commonly associated with extreme pangs of sexual desire. While this is certainly a reasonable description, it doesn’t quite cover all the bases that fall under lust’s remit. In fact, there are a few other significant psychologically quantifiable emotions that are also present. For example, lust can also be in evidence when a person experiences a fervent desire to possess something. It can also be disproportionate and often involves yearning for something (or someone) excessively – having an urge to control the situation is often prevalent, too.
How is love different? Given that there’s probably enough literature on demystifying love to fill up thousands of libraries, it’s for the best we avoid getting bogged down with trying to come up with a concise definition here! However, it’s worth touching on its more prominent characteristics. For starters, love doesn’t have as much of an association with instability that lust is fabled for. We often equate being in love with reliability and an emotional intensity that delves deeper than a relationship that’s centred solely on sexual intercourse. Even the very thought of losing love is unimaginable too.
Spot the difference
If there’s such a gulf between love and lust, how can you differentiate the two when in the throes of a passion? Let’s start with the former again. In a pairing characterized by lust, your partner’s physical appearance and their sexiness will be the overriding priorities. Sex is the order of the day, leaving room for little else. There’s usually a lack of conversation; talking only encompasses pleasantries and you’ll likely have little interest in your lover’s life outside the bedroom. You may even feel uncomfortable when feelings come up in discussion – an unavoidable sense of lovelessness might be present too.
Another telling sign of a lustful relationship is the emphasis you place on ensuring your encounters stay firmly in the realm of fantasy. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve got a penchant for sci-fi inspired hook-ups! It’s more to do with a need to separate your dalliance from the realities of the daily grind. This emotional detachment can also encourage you to keep things secret from friends and family.
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Conversely, love transcends the pure physicality of lust. Temporality seems to slip away when you’re in love; every moment spent in your partner’s company is special. Not only are you honest with them, you’re also true to yourself. In addition, being open about your feelings isn’t difficult, nor is listening to your other half’s emotional requirements. Trust is a mainstay, too.
Making each other happy is a top priority, and one that’s fulfilled without resentment. What’s more, the love you feel in return empowers you to better yourself; it’s not something you want to shroud from view. Above all, strong relationships are built on a love that rolls with the punches – it’s not fickle, it’s enduring.
If you’re wondering whether your relationship is founded on love or lust, or have any other queries, get in touch with our editorial team today via the comments below.
Fisher, H (2004) Why We Love: the Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love
Orloff, J (2011) Psychology Today