Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Love and lust

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Love and lust:
What is the relationship between romantic love and sexual motivation?

Overview[edit | edit source]

The emotional states of romantic love and sexual desire are similar expressions of a single emotion based on attraction. Yet, the empirical research surrounding these two emotional states shows that this is not the case. Love has been associated with a range of behaviours that encourage happiness; and desire is more connected to self-promoting behaviours and sexual activity. Evidence suggests that people can experience these emotions separately, as an individual can have feelings of love without desire and desire without love. To help determine what romantic love and sexual desire actually are, this chapter discusses Drive Theory’s which outlines the purpose of sexual desire, Object Relations Theory and Attachment Theory which explain romantic behaviours as the consequences of the emotional relationships experienced during childhood, and the Triangular Theory of Love which postulates three dimensions of love. Furthermore, an analysis of the neurophysiological and biochemical research shows that the bodily mechanisms responsible for the experiences of romantic love and sexual desire are fundamentally separate and distinct systems. In fact, when incorporating the evolutionary perspective, researchers have found that romantic love and sexual desire can be more specifically described as three components: the sex drive, the attraction system, and the adult male/female attachment system. These three components have separate neurobiological mechanisms and it is argued that their relationship serves the purpose of species survival. Therefore, this chapter highlights the fundamental differences between romantic love and sexual desire, whilst at the same time, explaining that the relationships that exists between these two emotional states is due to their ability to motivate and promote reproductive behaviour and guarantee the survival of the species.

Romantic Love and Sexual Desire:[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. A depiction of romantic love

The relationship between romantic love and sexual desire is a complex phenomenon that may lead some people to believe that these two concepts are separate perspectives of a single emotional state for attraction.  Yet, the research in this field of human psychology has suggested that these two concepts describe two fundamentally distinct and separate emotional states that are governed by significantly different behavioural, cognitive and neurobiological processes (Diamond, 2004; Gonzaga, Turner, Keltner, Compos & Altemus, 2006).  One study, performed by Gonzaga et al. (2006), showed that the experiences of love and desire correlate with dramatically different emotions.  Love, for example, related strongly to feelings of happiness, whereas desire was more closely related to emotions such as fear and concern.  Moreover, love was correlated with a variety of measures regarding increased commitment, whereas desire was significantly correlated with measures of sexual behaviour and satisfaction (Gonzaga, et al, 2006).

In determining the definitions of these two dynamic emotions, the experience of romantic love will refer to a motivational state associated with feelings of attachment and the inclination to seek commitment with an emotionally significant partner (Diamond, 2004).  Additionally, romantic love is associated with the formation of long-term bonds, the development of intimacy and feelings of connectedness with another emotionally significant individual (Ellis & Malamuth, 2000).  In contrast, sexual desires (e.g. lust) typically denote a need or drive to seek out opportunities for sexual activity and are related to feelings of passion and infatuation (Diamond, 2004).  Furthermore, this process also motivates sexual interest, through directing sexual desire to seek out both proximity and contact with potential mates and, as a result, can provide an avenue in which commitment can grow (Gonzaga, et al, 2006).

Drive Theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Sigmund Freud - One of the psychologists credited with developing Drive Theory.

Over the years there has been a variety of theories developed that have tried to provide an explanation for why people experience the emotions of romantic love and sexual desire. One notable theory that became known as ‘Drive Theory,’ it is based on the work of Sigmund Freud (1915) and Clark Hull (1943), provides an adequate explanation for the occurrence of sexual desire (Anselme, 2010; Frank, 2003). Essentially, drive theorists argue that the function of behaviour is to satisfy physiological bodily needs and drives are the means in which the body satisfies these needs (Yahalom, 2014). For example, when one requires food (need), hunger develops (drive) and as a result, the individual is driven to attain food. Therefore, when explaining the purpose of sexual desire; drive theory suggests that human beings have an inbuilt need to reproduce. In order to satisfy this reproductive need, sexual desire develops as a mechanism that drives individuals to engage in reproductive behaviour (Frank, 2003). Moreover, drive theory suggests that human beings have an optimal level of satisfaction that can be described as a natural state of homeostasis. Essentially, this means that the body aims to maintain a set point or natural equilibrium regarding satisfactions and if the body attains too much of a substance or is deficient in something required (e.g. needs food, water, sex, etc.) then this homeostatic equilibrium gets disturbed (Anselme, 2010). As a result, anxiety is felt and in order to remedy this anxiety, drive develops and seeks out means in which the body can return to its natural level of homeostatic satisfaction (Anselme, 2010).

Object Relations Theory and Attachment Theory:[edit | edit source]

In understanding the individual experience of romantic love, Object Relations Theory (ORT) and Attachment Theory provide an adequate explain that shows how an individual’s ability to love is formed during childhood and carried forward into adulthood.  Underpinning ORT is the notion of relatedness and how particular types of relationships with other people (objects) during childhood can be predictive of the quality of relationships experienced during adulthood (Fishler, Sperling & Carr, 1990).  More specifically, ORT focuses on how childhood mental representations of emotionally significant individuals (e.g. mother, father) are projected onto the child’s personality during youth and consequently carried forward into adulthood (Fishler, et al, 1990).  Therefore, ORT predicts that an adult’s experience of romantic love, is a product of the emotionally significant relationships that individual experienced during childhood.

Emerging out of the understanding of ORT, came Attachment Theory, first proposed by John Bowlby in 1969, and then continued by Mary Ainsworth’s (1989).  Essentially, Attachment Theory identified separate types of emotional bonds that developed between infants and their primary caregiver (Schwartz, 2015).  In particular, Ainsworth (1989) identified three specific types of parent-child relationships: secure, anxious-ambivalent or avoidant.  These categories highlighted specific behaviours an infant would display depending on whether they were in the company of their mother or by themselves (see Ainsworth’s experiment).  From this, Ainsworth (1989) concluded that infants expressing the characteristics associated with one of the specific types of emotional relationship will likely carry forward similar characteristics into their adult romantic relationships.  Further research, based on self-report data and longitudinal studies, have provided support for Ainsworth’s (1989) findings (Mickelson, Kessler & Shaver, 1997; Fraley, Roisman, Booth-LaForce, Owen & Holland, 2013).

Triangular Theory of Love:[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Full description of the Triangular Theory of Love

In trying to explain the many feelings and experiences that relate to the emotion of love, Robert Sternberg (1986) developed the Triangular Theory of Love, where he suggests that the emotion of love can be understood in terms of three central components; intimacy, passion and commitment (Sternberg, 1986).  Additionally, the relationship between these three components can be best explained visually in the form of a two dimensional triangle (Sternberg, 1986).  In other words, Sternberg argues that the type of love a couple experiences when in a relationship can be predicted depending on whether that couple expresses one of, or a combination of, either intimacy, passion and/or commitment (Diessner, Frost & Smith, 2004).  For example, ‘romantic love’ is described as a combination of intimacy and passion, whereas ‘companionate love’ is described as a combination of both intimacy and commitment.  Love involving all three components is considered ‘consummate love’ and is viewed as the highest form of love attainable (Diessner, et al, 2004).  However, a relationship that includes none of these components represents a ‘lack of love’ between individuals (Diessner, et al, 2004).  For a full description of each form of love and what each form means for the couple experiencing them, see ‘Triangular Theory of Love.’

Analysis of Research:[edit | edit source]

Through an analysis of the empirical research regarding the relationship between romantic love and sexual desire, Diamond (2004) suggested that the experiences of romantic love and sexual desire are fundamentally independent emotions.  Diamond (2004) explained that both men and women can feel romantic love for a person, yet at the same time, feel no sexual attraction towards that same individual.  Additionally, the opposite can be experienced, in which an individual can express sexual desire for another person, but at the same time, hold no feelings of romantic love (Diamond, 2004).  While desire without romance is reasonably understandable, the opposite is somewhat more complex.  Nevertheless, evidence exists of both men and women having reported experiences of romance in the absence of sexual desire (Diamond, 2004).  Moreover, prepubescent children, who have not undergone the hormonal changes responsible for adult sexual motivation, have experienced times of intense romantic infatuations (Hatfield, Schmitz, Cornelius & Rapson, 1988).  There is also evidence of notable differences in the physiological processes that underpin such emotions.  For example, the experience of romantic love is associated with increased levels of oxytocin and a range of other endogenous opioids.  Sexual desire, on the other hand, is generally governed by gonadal hormones such as estrogens and androgens (e.g. testosterone; Diamond, 2004).

Other research in this area has highlighted that people’s general understanding of the concepts of romantic love and sexual desire are significantly different (Fehr & Russell, 1991).  In a study by Fehr and Russell (1991), researchers presented participants with variety of words and asked them to exclude any words they thought did not belong in a category with romantic love.  Results revealed that few participants excluded the words ‘love’ (2%), ‘caring’ (8%) and ‘affection’ (27%).  Yet, many participants excluded the words ‘desire’ (59%), ‘infatuation’ (82%) and ‘lust’ (87%; Fehr & Russell, 1991).  In another study, participants were asked to write a list of people with whom they currently felt love for and another list of people they felt a sexual attraction towards.  What researchers discovered upon analysis of this data was that the overlap between the people described in one category, compared to the people described in the other category was relatively minimal (Meyers & Berscheid, 1997).  Taken together, what the results of these studies reveal is that romantic love and sexual desire can occur independent of each other.

The Physiological Difference between Love and Lust:[edit | edit source]

In identifying and measuring the physiological processes that govern the experiences of both romantic love and sexual desire, modern day medical technology can provide some assistance.  Particularly when measuring sexual arousal, current methods can administer both valid and reliable assessments, simply by monitoring blood flow to the genitals.  Nevertheless, a definitive test that accurately measures the existence of romantic love is yet to be developed (Diamond, 2004).  In an analysis of the research that suggests possible ways to measure love, Diamond (2004) proposes that the marked differences regarding love and desire are best measured by monitoring each process’s distinct neurochemical signatures.  For instance, if technology can accurately identify a specific chemical that regulates the experience of love, then a measurement of love may be produced (Diamond, 2004).  The most promising findings regarding this research involve the connection between the experience of love and the chemicals that promote interpersonal bonding behaviours (Diamond, 2004).  Additionally, animal research examining the bonding processes responsible for rewarding functions within the mammalian brain have found that the same chemicals already known to be associated with the experience of romantic love, also contribute to the occurrence of bonding behaviour: endogenous opioids, catecholamines and neuropeptides such as oxytocin (Diamond, 2004).  This, therefore, suggests that there may be a link between the experience of love and the processes that enable mammals to bond with others.  If this link is found, a measurement of love may be developed (Diamond, 2004).  Notwithstanding, this research is still in its infancy and more studies will be needed in order to fully understand how these chemical processes interact in order to produce the experience of romantic love.

Another technique used to examine the physiological regulation of romantic love and sexual desire involves the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).  The purpose of the research using fMRI’s is to identify brain regions that regularly activate when the participant is experiencing either feelings of romantic love or sexual desire (Bartels & Zeki, 2000).  Results from these studies have found romantic love is associated with heightened activity in the middle insula and the anterior cingulate cortex.  These areas have been associated in prior research with positive emotions, attention to both one’s own and one’s partner’s emotional states, as well as being a neural area specifically targeted by opioid medication in order to induce euphoria (Bartels & Zeki, 2000).  Additionally, the brain areas deactivated when romantic love is experienced include the posterior cingulate gyrus and the amygdala, as well as the right prefrontal, parietal and middle temporal cortices.  All of these neural areas are associated with sadness, fear, aggression and depression (Bartels & Zeki, 2000).  Notwithstanding, the brain regions that displayed patterns of activity during experiences of romantic love, did not correlate with the brain regions active when an experience of sexual arousal was induced (Bartels & Zeki, 2000).  fMRI technology, therefore, provides compelling evidence for why romantic love and sexual desire are experienced independent of each other.

Other research has identified visually observable physiological features that are generally expressed by people when they are experiencing either romantic love or sexual desire.  The research in this area has largely involved identifying different subtle behaviours people regularly display when engaged in such emotions (Gonzaga, et al, 2006).  For instance, romantic love proves to be associated with emotions that promote approach behaviours (e.g. happiness) and is signaled by regular nods of the head, consistent smiling, gesticulation and a tendency to lean inwards when in conversation (Gonzaga, et al, 2006).  In contrast, sexual desire has been related to behaviours that promote attention and is signaled by sexual cues: biting, touching and licking lips, as well as protrusion of the tongue (Gonzaga, et al, 2006).  Therefore, when providing evidence for why romantic love and sexual desire are not part of the same emotional state, one must observe the behaviours expressed by individuals experiencing either of these two emotions.

The Evolutionary Perspective:[edit | edit source]

In explaining the relationship between romantic love and sexual desire through an evolutionary perspective, Fisher, Aron, Mashek, Li and Brown (2002) argue that there are actually three categories of emotional states that encourage reproductive behaviour.  Moreover, each category serves a purpose to maximise the likelihood of an individual’s genes being passed on to the next generation.  Fisher, et al, (2002) explains that these categories include the sex drive, the attraction system and the adult male/female attachment system.  The sex drive (aka. Libido or lust) is characterised by a craving for sexual gratification and it is associated primarily with hormones such as estrogens and androgens (Fisher, et al, 2002).  The attraction system (aka. Romantic love, passionate love, infatuation or limerence) is characterised by increased attention, focus and interest in a preferred mating partner.  Moreover, individuals categorised in the attraction system are expected to experience high levels of positive affect around their partner, consistent intrusive thinking (e.g. obsessively thinking about their romantic partner on regular occasions) and a craving for emotional union when separated from their partner.  The evidence regarding this affective state is primarily associated with increased secretion of dopamine and norepinephrine, as well as a decrease in the level of serotonin throughout the central nervous system (Fisher, et al, 2002).  Finally, the adult male/female attachment system (aka. Long-term or companionate love) is associated with calm and comfortable feelings when around the beloved partner, coupled with a sense of security and emotional unity.  The neural anatomy associated with this category of attachment is primarily associated with elevated amounts of the neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin (Fisher, et al, 2002).

In relating these three categories back to the evolutionary perspective and how they can define the relationship between love and desire, evolutionary psychologists argue that the relationship such emotional states have, is a common interest for an individual’s genes to be passed on to the next generation (Francesco & Cervone, 2014).  Therefore, the specific function of each emotional state relies primarily on how that emotion can help the individual acquire and retain the motivation necessary to survive long enough in order to reproduce and guarantee the survival of the offspring (Francesco & Cervone, 2014).  For instance, the sex drive evolved in order to motivate individuals to seek out any sexual partner capable of reproduction (Fisher, 1998).  Nevertheless, the sex drive does not guarantee the offspring's survival after conception and as a result, the attraction system evolved.  The attraction system allows the individual to discriminate against sexual partners that lack appropriate traits or abilities that may aid in the survival of the offspring.  Moreover, the system allows courtship to focus on appropriate potential mating partners (e.g. genetically, socially or financially appropriate) and allows for more effective expenditure of time and energy when mating (Fisher, 1998).  Finally, the male/female attachment system evolved primarily to motivate individuals into maintaining connectedness and affiliation long enough to complete parental duties and guarantee the survival of the offspring (Fisher, 1998).  Notwithstanding, evolutionary psychologists maintain that these motivations do not reflect conscious strategies, but instead are viewed as subconsciously induced behaviours that have been hardwired into the human brain through countless years of evolution (Fisher, 1998).

In an analysis of the interconnectedness of these emotional states that motivate reproductive behaviour, Fisher, et al, (2002) explains that lust, attraction and attachment can and often do operate independently of one another.  For instance, both men and women can experience deep attachment to a long-term mate or spouse, but at the same time, feel attraction towards someone else (Fisher, et al, 2002).  Moreover, men and women can copulate with individuals in which they are not in love and can experience love for an individual they have had no sexual contact with (Fisher, et al, 2002).  Finally, both men and women are capable of developing attachment to a mate that neither involves sexual desire, nor romantic passion (Fisher, et al, 2002).  Thus, lust, attraction and attachment are independent of one another and may be experienced separately.  This implies that these emotional states are governed by separate cognitive and neurobiological processes, as well as having been evolved to serve different purposes in order for the species to reproduce.

Conclusion:[edit | edit source]

The evidence supporting the argument that the emotional states of romantic love and sexual desire are governed by fundamentally distinct and separate processes is overwhelming.  Love, for instance, has been shown to be associated with both approach behaviours and a sense of commitment.  Desire, on the other hand, is largely concerned with sexual satisfaction and the promotion of behaviours that attract attention.  The theories examined attempt to explain why these emotions occur and provide a framework for how they are experienced.  Drive theorists provide an explanation for why sexual desire is experienced.  This theory depicts sexual desire as a driving force that reduces anxiety by means of seeking sexual engagement in order to return the individual to their original state of homeostatic satisfaction.  In relation to love, Object Relations Theory and Attachment Theory explains how the experience of adult romantic love is a product of the emotional relationships experienced during childhood.  Whereas, the Triangular Theory of Love provides a framework of what love is and is best described visually in the form of a two dimensional triangle.

Research supporting the notion that romantic love and sexual desire are independent emotions point to the fact that people can experience both feelings of love without desire and desire without love.  Additionally, studies examining the emotions of prepubescent children have shown that despite not having undergone the hormonal changes responsible for adult sexual motivation, children have reported feelings of intense romantic infatuations.  Differences in the physiological mechanisms in regards to the experience of such emotions provide further evidence for independent systems.  Particularly, sexual desire is associated with gonadal hormones, whereas romantic love requires the involvement of particular neuropeptides.  In measuring the individual experience of both romantic love and sexual desire, modern day medical technology has proven beneficial when assessing sexual desire.  However, a definitive test that accurately measures romantic love has yet to be developed.  Notwithstanding, research focused on analysing the chemical makeup of the experience of romantic love has the potential to develop technology capable of measuring love.  However, further research is required.  Other studies, experimenting with fMRI technology, have discovered that patterns of neural activity within particular areas of the brain are different depending on whether the participant is experiencing feeling of romantic love or sexual desire.  Finally, the evolutionary perspective argues that there are three categories of emotional states that promote reproductive behaviour and define the relationship between love and desire.  Essentially, evolutionary psychologists argue that romantic love and sexual desire are more effectively described as involving three components: the sex drive; the attraction system; and the adult male/female attachment system.  Additionally, these three emotional states have evolved separate neurobiological processes that provide specific functions that help maximise the likelihood of successful reproduction.  In other words, the purpose of these emotional states is to help the individual acquire and retain the motivation necessary to survive long enough in order to reproduce and guarantee the survival of their offspring.  Therefore, the relationship between the emotions of romantic love and sexual desire is that they have both evolved to become sophisticated bodily mechanisms that aid in the production and survival of offspring.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

Test your knowledge regarding love and lust.


1 What theory suggests that sexual desire is a means that forces an individual to engage in sexual behaviour in order to reduce anxiety?

Attachment Theory.
Drive theory.
Triangular Theory of Love.
Object Relations Theory.

2 Research involving fMRI technology have discovered that:

The brain regions active when romantic love is induced are the ‘same’ regions active when sexual desire is induced.
The amygdala is deactivated when romantic love is induced.
Activity in the anterior cingulate cortex is ‘not’ associated with romantic love.
That the middle insula is associated with negative emotions.

3 Visually observable physiological features of sexual desire include:

Consistent smiling.
Regular head nodding.
Biting, touching, licking.

4 What emotional category that is 'not' included in the evolutionary perspective?

The adult sexual motivation system.
The male/female attachment system.
The sex drive.
The attraction system.

5 Sexual desire has been primarily associated, biochemically with:


See also:[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Ainsworth, M.S. (1989), Attachments beyond infancy, American Psychologist, 44(4), 709-716. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.44.4.709

Anselme, P. (2010), The uncertainty processing theory of motivation, Behavioural Brain Research, 208(2), 291-310. DOI: 10.16/j.bbr.2009.12.020

Bartels, A. & Zeki, S. (2000), The neural basis of romantic love, Neuroreport, 11(17), 3829-3834. DOI: N.A.

Diamond, L.M. (2004), Emerging perspectives on distinctions between romantic love and sexual desire, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13(3), 116-119. DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-7214.2004.00287.x

Diessner, R., Frost, N. & Smith, T. (2004), Describing the neoclassical psyche embedded in Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, Social Behaviour & Personality: an international journal, 32(7), 683-690. DOI: 10.2224/sbp.2004.32.7.683

Ellis, B.J. & Malamuth, N.M. (2000), Love and anger in romantic relationships: a discrete systems model, Journal of Personality, 68(3), 525-556. DOI: 10.1111/1467-6494.00105

Fehr, B. & Russell, J.A. (1991), The concept of love viewed from a prototype perspective, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(3), 425-438. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.60.3.425

Fisher, H.E. (1998), Lust, attraction and attachment in mammalian reproduction, Human Nature, 9(1), 23-52. DOI: 10.1007/s12110-998-1010-5

Fisher, H.E., Aron, A., Mashek, D., Li, H. & Brown, L.L. (2002), Defining the brain systems of lust, romantic attraction and attachment, Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 31(5), 413-419. DOI: 10.1023/A:1019888024255

Fishler, P.H., Sperling, M.B. & Carr, A.C. (1990), Assessment of adult relatedness: a review of empirical findings from object relations and attachment theory, Journal of Personality Assessment, 55(3), 499-520. DOI: 10.1207/s15327752jpa5503&4 9

Fraley, R.C., Roisman, G.I., Booth-LaForce, C., Owen, M.T. & Holland, A.S. (2013), Interpersonal and genetic origins of adult attachment styles: a longitudinal study from infancy to early adulthood, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(5), 817-838. DOI: 10.1037/a0031435

Francesco, F. & Cervone, A. (2014), Neurobiology of love, Psychiatria Danubina, 26(1), 266-268. DOI: N.A.

Frank, G. (2003), Triebe and their vicissitudes, Freud’s theory of motivation reconsidered, Psychoanalytic Psychology, 20(4), 691-697. DOI: 10.1037/0736-9735.20.4.691

Gonzaga, G.C., Turner, R.A., Keltner, D., Compos, B. & Altemus, M. (2006), Romantic love and sexual desire in close relationships, Emotion, 6(2), 163-179. DOI: 10.1037/1528-3542.6.2.163

Hatfield, E., Schmitz, E., Cornelius, J. & Rapson, R.L. (1988), Passionate love: how early does it begin?, Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 1(1), 35-51. DOI: N.A.

Meyers, S.A. & Berscheid, E. (1997), The language of love: the difference a preposition makes, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 347-362. DOI: 10.1177/0146167234002

Mickelson, K.D., Kessler, R.C. & Shaver, P.R. (1997), Adult attachment in a nationally representative sample, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(5), 1092-1106. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.73.5.1092

Schwartz, J. (2015), The unacknowledged history of John Bowlby’s attachment theory, British Journal of Psychotherapy, 31(2), 251-266. DOI: 10.1111/bjp.12149

Sternberg, R.J. (1986), A triangular theory of love, Psychological Review, 93(2), 119-135. DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.93.2.119

Yahalom, J. (2014), Freud and epicurean philosophy: revisiting drive theory, Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 50(3), 395-417. DOI: 10.1080/00107530.2014.922859

External links[edit | edit source]