Are You In Lust or In Love?

Husband and wife in front of home

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When it comes to lust and love, most people have experienced at least one or the other. However, with that being said, some people might agree that experiencing both in a relationship is pretty rare.

Whether you've always thought of your relationship in terms of one or the other or even if you're just wondering how to tell the difference between the two, there are some important things to know about both of these feelings.

Verywell Mind spoke with Sherry Benton, PhD, a practicing therapist and founder of digital the mental health platform TAO Connect, to find out more about these two feelings and what kind of meaning they carry in our personal lives.

What Is Lust?

Lust is a completely normal biological feeling, however, it is very different than love.

"Lust is purely wanting sexual contact," says Dr. Benton. "This is largely selfish with little thought or regard for the other person’s well-being."

Just because you're lusting after someone doesn't mean that you can't or don't love them. Since it denotes physical attraction and sexual desire, you can truly experience the feeling of lust in or out of a relationship. That said, when people mention love at first sight, they are probably talking predominantly about lust.

"Lust exists on a continuum–you can certainly have [an] initial attraction to people you don’t know," explains Dr. Benton. "Sometimes we have a little attraction, sometimes more. Sometimes the attraction is immediate, other times it builds after we get to know someone."

But, What About Infatuation?

Aside from the feelings of lust and love, Dr. Benton adds the word "infatuation," which occurs early in a relationship and is sometimes called the “velcro stage."

"With infatuation, you tend to idealize the other person and are very wrapped up in a shallow understanding of the other person," says Dr. Benton. "Infatuation can bring people together, but it rarely keeps people together."

Basically, infatuation is the weird in-between phase of lust and love that most people experience as the fun stage of relationships before life kicks in and hard truths are realized.

What Is Love?

Psychologists have long attempted different methods to measure and define love by studying couples with different backgrounds, attachment styles, among other personal attributes.

However, psychologist Zick Rubin determined that romantic love is made up of three components: attachment, caring, and intimacy. Put simply, these three words mean wanting or needing to be with someone, caring about their happiness, and sharing personal thoughts and concerns with them.

Dr. Benton echoes these findings. "Love happens when a relationship has evolved into mutual caring and understanding," says Dr. Benton. "With love, people are focused on fostering each other’s well-being and nurturing the relationship. It can be less exciting than lust or infatuation, but it lasts."

Dr. Benton also explains that "love isn’t as much of an emotional high as infatuation." Unfortunately, this lack of an emotional high can be hard for some people to reconcile, especially in long-term relationships.

In other words, it can mean that you feel like you desire the other person less than you once did or like the relationship has become less passionate. However, this is normal as you grow more comfortable in your relationship. Similar to the infatuation phase, passionate love usually primarily exists in the beginning phases of a relationship.

"In any good relationship, sexual desire increases and decreases from day to day," says Dr. Benton. "It is actually a good thing when infatuation diminishes and is replaced by sincere, realistic love and caring for the other person."

Can You Feel Lust and Love at the Same Time?

You might not be able to cultivate lust necessarily, but it is possible to build on intimacy. Since sexual desire will ebb and flow in long-term relationships, it's more important to focus on keeping the relationship vibrant in other ways. 

To do this, Dr. Benton suggests taking alone time away just for yourselves as a couple. The beginnings of relationships are fun because you are getting to know all of this new information about a person.

While you may not be constantly learning new facts about your partner in a long-term relationship, you can continually cultivate a deeper level of intimacy.

The goal is to continue being open and honest so that you continually build your bond on a foundation of trust. There will be new excitement in exploring a deeper connection with someone, and it certainly leads to something more lasting.

How to Express These Feelings to Someone

If you're in a position wherein you find yourself wanting to tell someone you're in love with them and, in the words of Dr. Benton, "the relationship is appropriate and possible," go for it. While the fear of rejection,and rejection itself, are real concerns, it's also important to express your feelings.

If you want to express lustful feelings toward someone, prioritize honesty. Once you've told the person that you feel attracted to them in this way, move on to prioritizing consent.

Alternatively, if you're in a relationship and you find yourself lusting after someone else, if at all possible, tell your partner the truth so that the two of you together can decide your comfort levels in terms of acting on it.

A Word From Verywell

While both lust and love can cause stress, it's important to remember that these emotions are normal, and everyone is learning how to navigate them.

While it may not be easy sometimes to tell someone how you really feel about them, try to prioritize honesty even if you mostly feel physically attracted to someone.

Also, remember that it's OK not to constantly experience the butterflies that are typically associated with a relationship's beginning stages. Getting to the point of love takes work. To reach the stage of love, you need to take the time to build a connection with someone. While it may not always feel like a head rush, deeper levels of intimacy are always rewarding.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Rubin Z. Lovers and Other Strangers: The Development of Intimacy in Encounters and Relationships: Experimental studies of self-disclosure between strangers at bus stops and in airport departure lounges can provide clues about the development of intimate relationshipsAmerican Scientist. 1974;62(2):182-190.

  3. Leary MR. Emotional responses to interpersonal rejectionDialogues Clin Neurosci. 2015;17(4):435-41. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2015.17.4/mleary

By Brittany Loggins
Brittany is a health and lifestyle writer and former staffer at TODAY on NBC and CBS News. She's also contributed to dozens of magazines.