The Scientific Difference Between Love And Lust

Though you may have used them interchangeably when describing your feelings for someone, lust and love are fundamentally different experiences. Taking time to reflect on the differences could be key to help you zero in on either the kinds of relationships you are seeking or, if you are in a relationship, to get clear on what you want and if the relationship is providing that. 

First, what exactly is the difference between lust and love? Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D., a social psychologist and research fellow at The Kinsey Institute, tells Healthline that there isn't an agreed-upon definition, so you will get somewhat different answers, depending on who you ask. That said, he explains that lust is generally defined as an intense sexual attraction to another person. "Love, on the other hand, is a much broader concept that includes deeper emotional connection and, usually, a desire to make that relationship last," he says. Love and lust can sometimes overlap in their qualities, but love is more specifically going to be an emotional, romantic, and spiritual connection, whereas lust is always sexual. "Lust is primarily about physical excitement and craving for someone else," Lehmiller explains.

How to tell if you are feeling love or lust

Trying to discern what you are feeling for someone you are interested in may take some time. "In the early stages of a relationship, when the sex hormones are raging, lust is fueled by idealization and projection — you see what you hope someone will be or need them to be — rather than seeing the real person, flaws and all," Judith Orloff, M.D., a psychiatrist, explains to Psychology Today.

The lust stage can eventually lead to love, and both lust and love can also co-exist; neither is mutually exclusive. However, as the relationship evolves, if you each begin to feel a different kind of connection — for instance, you're in the relationship to satisfy your lustful "friends with benefits" feelings, but your partner admits to wanting to be in a long-term, loving relationship with you — this could become problematic.

To better understand what your feelings are, Dr. Orloff suggests you ask yourself some questions: How focused are you on your partner's appearance? Do you just want to have sex but not a real conversation? Or, conversely, do you want to spend time with your partner beyond the bedroom? Do you want to have an honest exchange of feelings? Does your partner inspire you to be a better person?

The experts at Healthline explain that both love and lust have benefits and purposes but can evolve differently. Knowing how to recognize the differences can help you make more informed, honest decisions about the kind of relationship you seek. Having this level of clarity and self-awareness can also save you and potential partners from unnecessary pain down the road.