8 Ways To Tell If It's Love Or Lust (And What The Difference Is)

Written by Simone Humphrey, Psy.D. & Signe Simon, Ph.D.
Dr. Simone Humphrey, Psy.D. and Dr. Signe Simon, Ph.D. are psychologists in New York City and founders of the company LOVELINK, a platform providing relationship education.

Image by Kathrin Ziegler / Getty

To love or to lust? That is the question.

As therapists, this issue frequents our offices, particularly in the early stages of dating. We often get questions like, "Am I in love, or is it simply infatuation?" "Can this relationship survive beyond the sexual connection?" "Can I be in love if I'm not physically attracted to my partner?" Excellent questions to ask, but the answer may not be so simple. 

The difference between love and lust.

Most romance portrayed in Hollywood films (in which two people chase each other, fall madly in love, and the movie ends as soon as the relationship begins) looks more like lust than secure and stable love.

Lust is an intense sexual attraction to another person. At its best, lust can be the glue that draws us to a partner and allows for deep physical connection. At its worst, lust is fueled by idealization and projection of what we want to see rather than the reality of the person and situation. Additionally, it is a wild and dangerous misconception that ongoing lust is the expectation for a long-term relationship.

So what is love? One of the most popular subjects in literature and the arts, love in all its delights and sufferings has often appeared a mystery, defined in an infinite number of ways throughout human history. Making it even more complicated, love takes on many different forms depending on its recipient. For example, love for a spouse is different from love for a parent, which is different from love for a child, a pet, or even a god.

But let's keep it simple. From an attachment perspective, love is a basic human need that keeps us bonded to the people who matter most. A secure, loving attachment with a romantic partner involves a deep affection, trust, and acceptance of a person, flaws and all.

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How to tell if it's love or lust.

It is no surprise people have a difficult time discerning between love and lust given that the two phenomena activate similar neural pathways in the brain that are involved in view of the self, goal-directed behavior, happiness, reward, and addiction. Love and lust, however, are not identical and can appear in any combination, with or without the other, to varying degrees, and even fluctuating between the two states over time.

While there are no rules when it comes to love, here are some helpful distinctions to consider if you are worried that the relationship is simply based on lust and not sustainable for a long-term relationship:

  1. Lust alone is interest only in the partner sexually. Love is interested in getting to know the person over time.
  2. Lust attempts to keep the relationship on an ideal level. Love expands to having difficult conversations and exploring painful emotions.
  3. Lust loses interest when you discover a person's flaws. Love accepts a person's positive and negative qualities.
  4. Lust is about immediate gratification. Love develops trust and commitment over a long period of time.
  5. Lust enjoys the fantasy and excitement of the interaction. Love feels risky and vulnerable because it involves opening yourself up and letting yourself be known.
  6. Lust can be impulsive, obsessional, and desperate. Love tends to be steady and secure.
  7. Lust is a high than can feel like an addiction and consume all your mental space. Love holds a more balanced perspective and allows for the ability to maintain a balanced life.
  8. Lust dissipates over time. Love persists.

Stages of romantic love.

Our culture spins a narrative that romantic love starts with a strong physical attraction (lust), but the process of falling in love is usually more complicated and involves a negotiation of many factors including physical appearance, intelligence, similarity, and resources. Some people experience an instant sexual attraction while others feel a strong emotional bond that gradually develops into romantic attraction.

Regardless of how your love develops, here's a quick guideline to help you sort out your romantic stage. Biological anthropologist and well-known relationships researcher Helen Fisher, Ph.D., has studied romantic love and outlined three key stages humans move through in romantic love:

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1. Lust 

In lust we are intensely sexually attracted to another person, causing our hormones to rage. Testosterone and estrogen are supercharged, and we're ready to get it on. Signs you're in the lust phase:

  • You feel intensely driven to tear the other person's clothes off. 
  • You desire sexual gratification from this person.

2. Attraction

You'll know you've arrived in this phase when you feel like your world has been transformed by another person, and they've taken on a new level of importance in your life. All you want to do is spend time with them. Attraction is defined by changing levels of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. Norepinephrine energizes you and can suppress your appetite and need for sleep. Increased dopamine leads to goal-directed behavior, and depleted serotonin is associated with obsessive thinking. Signs you're in the attraction phase:

  • You can't think straight because you're obsessing about your partner.
  • You want to be close to your partner all the time.
  • Your friends are asking where you've been.
  • You're not sleeping well.
  • You're rarely hungry.
  • You get butterflies in your stomach when you're near your partner.
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3. Attachment

This is the phase of commitment and growth. You know you're here when the tidal wave of emotion has calmed, and life feels more normal again, yet somehow better. The stability and emotional trust you've created make you feel safer to face life's challenges. Vasopressin (a hormone associated with monogamy) and oxytocin (the "cuddle" hormone associated with mating and mother-infant bonding) are in high gear. Being in this stage doesn't mean sex and excitement is over, but you'll have to be more intentional in maintaining desire and intimacy. Signs you're in the attachment phase:

  • You feel a sense of calm and contentment.
  • You hold your partner in mind (but not all the time).
  • You're focused on developing and growing with your partner.
  • You easily make eye contact with them.
  • You're able to openly express your needs and anxieties.

Love vs. lust: Is it even the right question?

Reflecting on whether a relationship is love or lust only goes so far. To get to the heart of the matter, think about why you are asking the question. 

Stepping into any romantic or sexually charged experience with another person is a vulnerable act. When we step into this unknown place of romantic attraction, we can easily find ourselves in a sea of overwhelming feelings that can drive us to seek a sense of safety and control. Before we ask the question, "Is it love or lust?" it might be more helpful to ask which anxiety is making you ask this question in the first place. Are you wanting a committed relationship and worried it won't develop in that direction? Are you worried you're staying in a relationship because of a strong physical connection? Are you having a sexy fling that's suddenly making you think you might want more?

In love and lust, there are no norms, no shoulds, no right way. You can fall in love after a single passionate night and end up married with three kids. You can be friends with someone for years and with a single touch or change of perspective, find yourself head over heels. You can have a year of steamy casual sex with someone and never fall in love. You can love someone you're not sexually attracted to anymore. You can find yourself feeling dead inside after years with a partner and have passion reawakened by touching your partner in a new way or seeing how desirable they are in the eyes of another. All of the above and everything in between is possible. 

If you're asking if it's love or lust, you might really be asking how much you should invest in a relationship. Instead of trying to define the relationship and place it in a box as love or lust, check in with yourself about how the other person makes you feel. Do you trust them? Do you feel free to be yourself with them? How aligned are your values and dreams for the future? Maybe instead of asking, "Is it love or lust?" ask, "How am I experiencing myself with this person, and what does that tell me about what I'm wanting or needing?"

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