What Does Lust Mean? Separating Lust From Love, Attraction, And Other Powerful Feelings
Perhaps you’ve encountered the word “lust” in a romance novel, a dramatic movie, or even in a discussion of the seven deadly sins. In many contexts, lust is looked down upon. But what does lust really mean, and does it deserve its less-than-stellar reputation?
Like many human emotions, lust is complicated. In this article, we’ll unpack the definition of lust, distinguish it from love, and explore how therapy can help you better understand your feelings of lust, love, and related emotions.
Wondering If It’s Lust, Love, Or Something Else?
In the psychological community, lust is generally defined as an intense psychological impulse that leads someone to acquire a person or object of desire.
Lust is often used in a sexual context: therefore, it’s often described as an intense sexual desire that can lead to unexpected and sometimes unacceptable behavior.
Some psychologists use lust interchangeably with “libido” or sex drive, describing it as a “craving” for sexual gratification that is associated primarily with hormones. In an evolutionary sense, the human sex drive evolved as a motivator to seek out sex with any appropriate partner.
When discussing these definitions, it’s important to remember that we can monitor and usually override the power of lust. In addition to lust and love, our brains are also equipped with a remarkable capacity for reason, choice, and self-directed action in both sexual and non-sexual contexts.
Lust, Attraction, And Attachment
Many researchers break the development of love into three categories: lust, attraction, and attachment. Together, these emotional systems evolved to promote mating and reproduction.
Lust is a powerful feeling, and it can occur alongside attraction and attachment – but not always. Both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that lust and attraction do not always occur simultaneously. Studies have found that people can express sexual desire for someone without feeling deep attraction or attachment.
Compared to lust, attraction involves feelings of increased energy and attention toward a preferred partner. You may describe attraction as “passionate” or obsessive love, even infatuation; and when you’re attracted to someone, you may think about them frequently (and sometimes, intrusively), coupled with feelings of exhilaration.
Finally, attachment is characterized by an emotional union and “companionate love” for a partner. When you’re emotionally attached to someone, you’ll likely feel a sense of calm and social comfort.
Importantly, these three emotional systems can function independently or in tandem, and they’re experienced in varying sequences by different people. For instance, you may begin a relationship with someone merely for sexual pleasure, and then develop an emotional attachment as you get to know them better.
Ultimately, there’s no “correct” way to experience these feelings. Depending on your gender identity, sexuality, and experience of attraction, you may encounter only some or none of these emotions – and that’s perfectly okay!
Lust In The Brain
To better understand the science behind these emotions, some researchers use imaging technology to study lust in the brain.
Several studies have shown that the hypothalamus of the brain plays a major role in lust. A 2002 study, for instance, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study participants’ brains while they viewed scenes from erotic films. Based on the fMRI footage, several brain regions “lit up” in response to these scenes, including sites related to visual processing, emotional processing, and reward. These areas – most notably, the hypothalamus – are also associated with sexual arousal. These results show the biological reality and power of lust.
Hormones And Lust
The hypothalamus also stimulates the production of testosterone in the testes and estrogen in the ovaries. Regardless of gender identity, testosterone can increase libido – and therefore, lust – in most people.
The production of testosterone and estrogen is indirectly stimulated by gonadotropin-releasing hormones (GnRH), which are produced by the human endocrine system. Once produced, GnRH stimulate the pituitary gland at the base of the brain, which makes and releases follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH). FSH and LH are known as “gonadotropins,” and they’re essential to reproductive health.
In the female reproductive system, a decrease in FSH and an increase in LH stimulates ovulation, which is often associated with greater sexual motivation. In the male reproductive system, LH affects the production of testosterone and androgens (male sex hormones), while FSH influences sperm production. On a daily and monthly basis, your individual biology can influence your experience of lust, love, and everything in between.
Note that everyone’s body is different: while scientists generally use these hormonal systems to explain changes in sex drive and other emotions, your hormonal balance may differ due to a health condition, lifestyle factor, and other considerations. If you’re concerned about your hormones, a licensed doctor is the best resource for personalized care and a professional treatment plan.
Lust Vs. Love
Are you falling in love, or in lust? Once again, the science can help you decide.
While lust and love are related, they’re not entirely the same. Compared to lust, which actives thoughts related to the present, love is more related to thoughts in the distant future.
In one study of lust and love in relationships, the researchers defined love as a wish to expand oneself, grow, and care for another person, combined with feelings of infatuation and emotional bonding. Comparatively, they described lust as a feeling of sexual desire, which can include the wish, need, or drive to seek out sexual objects or to engage in sexual activities.
These broad definitions are based on other researchers’ studies of love and lust. Of course, you can apply your own experiences to form personal definitions of lust and love, as well as attachment and attraction.
Love On The Brain
Similar to lust, the science of love is rooted in the brain. In a foundational study of the effects of romantic love on the brain, researchers used fMRI imaging to analyze participants’ brains while they looked at photos of romantic lovers. The researchers found that levels of dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, increased in participants’ brains; in addition, there was more activity in brain regions associated with reward, expectation, pleasure, and attention.
Brain regions such as the ventral tegmental area, the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex are all involved in the brain’s “reward” circuit, which is sensitive to rewarding activities: think sex, good food, and other pleasurable experiences.
Even in a long-term relationship, research suggests that it’s possible to revive the initial spark of attraction, excitement, and sense of novelty that we often feel when falling in love for the first time. Engaging in more sexual activity, for instance, can increase oxytocin, also called the “love hormone,” which strengthens feelings of attachment to your partner.
Continually investing in your relationship with your partner can help you combat the potentially destructive impacts of lust. Brain science enhances our understanding of both lust and love; and with this knowledge, we can notice and appropriately respond to our individual needs for love, sex, and companionship.
Therapy Can Help You Improve Your Understanding Of Love And Lust
Whether you’re looking for more support with a romantic relationship or simply want to learn more about love, working with a board-certified therapist can help you live a healthier love life.
Some people prefer face-to-face therapy to discuss these concerns, but a growing number of people are utilizing online therapy to support their mental health, well-being, and relationships – all from the comfort of their homes. Online therapy platforms like BetterHelp match patients to licensed therapists within 48 hours. Many BetterHelp therapists have years of experience working with romantic partners, married couples, and other people looking to deepen their relationships and perspectives on love. Researchers are still studying the long-term value of online therapy for people of all backgrounds, but the current results are promising.
One study focused on an online therapy program for “underserved” couples: romantic couples who lacked high-quality mental health care due to racial discrimination, lack of income, and other socioeconomic factors. The researchers found that an internet-based, relationship-focused intervention could be an important tool for under-served couples who lack high-quality therapy. They also noted the importance of culturally sensitive interventions, both online and in-person, to ensure that patients feel seen and heard.
The following BetterHelp counselors have assisted real couples, recently single people, and others seeking support with their relationships. Read their clients’ testimonials below:
BetterHelp Counselor Reviews
“Samantha Toney has been a very positive influence in my life since I began counseling with BetterHelp. She helped me navigate my way through the end of my relationship and coping with my partner's addiction as well as becoming a single mother. I highly recommend her to anyone going through struggles in life no matter what they may be.”
Wondering If It’s Lust, Love, Or Something Else?
Our brains are designed to experience lust, love, attraction, and other powerful emotions – and understanding the science behind these feelings is equally powerful. With this knowledge, you can become more aware of emotions that may arise during an intimate relationship.
A therapist can provide professional support as you work through these feelings, and ultimately improve the strength and stability of your relationships. Healthy love is sustainable love; and although it’s challenging, it’s a worthwhile goal for many people.
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