How to tell the difference between lust and love, according to relationship experts

How to tell the difference between lust and love, according to relationship experts
Lust is often one part of being in love.Oliver Rossi/Getty Images
  • The main difference between lust and love is that lust is purely sexual attraction while love is both passionate and compassionate.
  • Signs of lust include spending most of your time with a partner being physically intimate, having little interest in their life outside the bedroom, and having different values.
  • Signs of love include being emotionally vulnerable, looking forward to meeting their friends and family, and feeling secure in the relationship.

If you have butterflies in your stomach, feel giddy when you see them and daydream about your life together, you might be in love. Or is it lust? At the beginning of a relationship, it can be hard to tell the difference between the two.

Understanding the difference between lust and love

Lust and love are often thought of as two distinct feelings, but anthropologists theorize they exist on a spectrum that can be broken down into three categories:

  • Lust: The craving for sexual satisfaction that drives humans to seek out sex partners. Lust is driven by a hormonal desire for sexual gratification.
  • Attraction: Also called passionate love, attraction is associated with feelings of excitement, cravings for emotional connection, and intrusive thinking about the beloved. It involves the brain's reward center and can imitate the feel of drug addiction.
  • Attachment: Also called companionate love, attachment is characterized by feelings of calm, emotional union, and security. This mostly comes into play in long-term relationships including friendships, families, and committed romantic partnerships.
"The most commonly understood distinction between lust and love is that lust is purely physical and sexual, whereas love includes care for someone well behind their function as a source of yearning and sexual gratification," says Alexandra Stockwell, MD, a Relationship and Intimacy Expert at Alexandra Stockwell Coaching and Consulting.
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While the categories can overlap, different hormones and brain chemicals are implicated in each stage. Here's how you can recognize the signs of lust vs. love.

Signs of love

Love can be divided into two spheres - passionate and companionate.

Passionate love, also referred to as attraction or infatuation, is defined as a state of intense desire to be with another person. Emotional arousal and sexual passion are prominent features of passionate love, and people experiencing this type of love are usually distressed when their relationship goes awry.
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When a person feels attraction towards another person or thing, the brain produces "feel good" chemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine that affect the same pathways associated with drug consumption and addictive behavior. This phenomenon explains the obsessive, euphoric behavior often seen in the early stages of romantic relationships.

Companionate love is characterized by strong feelings of intimacy, affection, and commitment to another person. It's often slow to develop and can be seen in close friendships and long-term romantic partners. Companionate love involves the brain chemicals oxytocin and vasopressin which are associated with pair-bonding, like in the relationship between mother and child.
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What the research says: A small 2014 study found oxytocin was significantly higher in new couples compared to single people. The elevated oxytocin levels remained during a 6-month follow up, and couples with higher oxytocin levels at the beginning of their relationship were more likely to stay together.

According to Stockwell, signs you may be in love include:

  • You think of interesting things to tell one another.
  • You look forward to meeting friends and family.
  • You share vulnerable, tender things like challenges you are facing.
  • You know that if you live in different cities for a few months it will be okay.
"Love feels like security, respect, and admiration and typically includes a sense of safety and commitment within a partnership," Neidich says.
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In addition, Stockwell says both types of love can result in physical symptoms like sweaty palms, genital swelling or secretions, and the feeling of butterflies in your stomach - but lust can also cause these physical symptoms.

Signs of lust

"Lust is purely sexual attraction which is often accompanied by physical arousal. Lust occurs both within loving relationships and external," says Haley Neidich, LCSW, a psychotherapist and relationship expert at Haley Neidich Consulting. "Lust is a natural human occurrence. Lust is not always something we act on, it is a sense of sexual interest."

According to Stockwell, you might be experiencing lust if:
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  • When you think of the person, your thoughts immediately go to what your bodies do for one another.
  • When you think of the person you start smiling, feeling flushed, have sensations of excitement, and being turned on.
  • As soon as you see one another you want to kiss.
  • You don't necessarily have much in common, but when you are touching it really doesn't matter.
Lust is an intense feeling that dominates our thoughts and can drive us to do things against our better judgment in order to satisfy longing, Stockwell says. Feelings of lust are controlled by the brain's hypothalamus, which stimulates the production of sex hormones testosterone and estrogen.

Can lust become love?

Relationship experts agree lust can turn into love - but warn that feeling lust does not guarantee an eventual loving relationship.

"Sometimes lust can lead to love and is often experienced within a loving relationship. However, the presence of lust speaks to absolutely nothing about partners compatibility long-term," Neidich says.
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The blinding nature of lust means partners can miss potential "red flags" like dishonesty or selfishness, and have trouble determining if a sexual partner is a good fit for a serious relationship, according to Neidich.

Recognizing the difference between hormone-driven lust and real love can help you determine if there's more to your relationship than just sex. According to Stockwell, your relationship might be limited to lust if:
  • You spend most of your time being physically intimate with one another, and when you do anything else it's not engaging.
  • They aren't interested in getting to know you beyond the bedroom.
  • They are unwilling to make plans for the future.
  • It often feels like you have different values.

Insider's takeaway

Love and lust are exhilarating emotions, but it's important to be able to distinguish between the two when navigating relationships.
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"New love can feel intoxicating and exciting when a couple is first falling in love and imagining their life together. However, long term love that continues to feel "addicting" is actually quite concerning." Stockwell says. "That feeling of 'addiction' is often a major red flag that one or both partners may have a co-dependent attachment style which can lead to unhealthy partnerships."

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