Can you be sexually attracted to someone but not emotionally

Deborah C. Escalante

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Have you ever met someone for the first time and felt like you’ve known them forever? Or become instantly drawn to another person without being that into them physically?

If so, you’ve likely experienced the pull of emotional attraction — being captivated by someone’s heart, mind, or humor instead of their physical appeal.

“Many people go on a date looking for a ‘spark,’” says licensed psychotherapist Rachel Perlstein. “The tricky thing about that feeling is that it’s often more reflective of a physical attraction or sexual chemistry.”

Emotional attraction is a different, deeper type of attraction, she explains, because it not only draws you to someone, but keeps you feeling connected in a lasting, meaningful way.

And unlike physical attraction, it’s often developed based on things like the other person’s values, their personality, and how they show they care.

Can it exist without physical attraction?

Yes, emotional and physical attraction can be completely separate, explains mental health counselor, Lily Ewing.

“You might love someone for their humor or intelligence and just never get interested in them physically or sexually,” she says.

For instance, maybe you greatly admire and trust one of your colleagues or classmates but know you’d never want to date them. On the other hand, you might be physically attracted to someone but the emotional connection never happens.

Sometimes, people find themselves initially drawn to the person they’re most physically attracted to, notes Perlstein. But when there isn’t a deeper, emotional connection, they have a hard time continuing the relationship.

Is it always romantic?

Appreciating someone’s personality doesn’t mean you have romantic feelings for them. For example, think about the bonds you have with your friends.

You’ve likely experienced the feeling of being drawn or attracted to a person at work or a social gathering more than others, Perlstein says, whether it’s because of their sense of humor, shared interests, or just the way they make you feel validated and heard.

“This emotional attraction really reflects this sometimes-instant ability to relate on a different level and connect, to feel understood and cared about,” she says.

Usually, if the emotional attraction continues, you’ll both become closer friends or be pulled into each other’s social circle.

Is it always sexual?

Emotional attraction isn’t necessarily sexual, especially if physical attraction isn’t a factor.

“Sexual attraction builds as we see both emotional and physical attraction connecting into a stronger sexual draw,” Ewing explains.

For example, you might be emotionally attracted to someone but aren’t immediately drawn to them physically. Over time, as the emotional connection deepens, they may start to seem more physically attractive to you.

For some people (but not all), experiencing sexual attraction doesn’t happen without emotional attraction.

A person who identifies as demisexual, for example, may not feel sexually attracted to someone unless they form a strong emotional connection with them first.

“Our minds like balance,” Ewing adds. “So if we’re feeling the butterflies about someone who is funny, smart, and kind, we soon will start to appreciate more and more about their physical appearance. When both are in place, the sexual attraction sparks begin to fly.”

How important is it?

Being open and vulnerable with someone else and having them do the same with you is the basis of intimacy, says Carrie Krawiec, LMFT.

“It’s important because feeling safe, comfortable, accepted, and understood as a person is the root of attachment, connection, and intimacy,” she explains.

If you’ve ever been attracted to someone primarily for their sense of humor, intelligence, or the way they care for children or animals, says Ewing, you know that emotional attraction is just as powerful — if not more so — than a chiseled physique or mesmerizing eyes.

Emotional attraction is “also more important in the long run of a relationship and can create a stronger connection than physical attraction alone.”

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What are some signs of emotional attraction?

Sometimes, it’s easy to tell when the emotional sparks fly. But other times, things can be a bit more confusing.

Here’s a look at some common examples of emotional attraction and how to spot them:

Feeling like they “get you”

If you feel seen and heard by the other person, it’s a sign you’re experiencing a deeper connection. You’re able to communicate easily and things flow effortlessly.

Being with the other person feels nurturing and like they understand you on another level.

Constantly thinking about them

You find yourself day dreaming about seeing them or thinking about what you talked about the previous night. Whether you’re at work or running errands, you constantly draw them to mind and remember the way they make you feel.

Long, late night conversations

If you’re on the phone, talking about things long beyond setting up plans for your next meet up, it’s a good sign of emotional attraction.

“Those long late-night conversations about your families, high school heartbreaks, and the like, are full of shared emotional experiences that deepen connection,” says Ewing.

Gushing over their qualities

You love their sense of humor or personality and can’t stop telling other people about it.

When you’re emotionally attracted to someone, you can’t help but absorb these small quirks or qualities and want to share them with others.

Your values are in sync

They welcome you into their personal life and you feel emotionally compatible. When you share similar views on family, work, and fundamental beliefs, your bond becomes stronger and can develop into a long-term relationship.

You never get sick of each other

No matter how much time you spend together, it never gets old. Even if you’re just hanging out and not doing anything exciting, you’ll still feel a sense of connection from their presence.

You’re comfortable being vulnerable

“Any time you’re sharing or listening to vulnerable personal details, emotional connection and attraction grow,” notes Ewing.

Opening up and revealing insecurities and private aspects of your life establishes greater trust between you.

Are there ways to deepen an emotional connection?

Do you have physical attraction but want to strengthen the emotional side of things? Here are some pointers to get you started:

Start small

“Building intimacy is a little bit like the egg toss or water balloon toss game,” says Krawiec.

The gist, she explains, is that you start small and gentle with some reveals of personal information like hopes, dreams, fears, humiliations, and happy memories.

As you go back and forth with safety, nonjudgement, acceptance, and kindness, you can reveal increasingly deep or personal information.

Not sure how to start? Our guide to building intimacy can help.

Ask questions and really listen to the answers

There’s no better way to foster emotional attraction than by asking the right questions.

Older research has shown that you can create closeness and deepen your understanding of another person by asking meaningful questions and truly listening to their answers.

Starter questions

Here are some questions you can try out:

  • What do you feel most grateful for in life?
  • If you could wake up tomorrow with only one quality, what would it be and why?
  • What do you most value in a friendship?

Be willing to self-disclose

When you’re first getting to know someone, you’re more cautious about sharing personal information. But Perlstein recommends being vulnerable, open, and honest about yourself when trying to deepen your connection.

Building any kind of successful relationship isn’t just about learning more about the other person. It also involves sharing your own hopes, thoughts, dreams, and fears.

Introduce them to friends and family

Introducing someone to your inner circle when you’re forming a bond is an important way of showing care and respect.

Inviting them to a family reunion or a friend’s birthday party, for example, are connection-deepening activities that can help increase emotional closeness.

Enjoy high-emotion experiences together

Offer your undivided attention in shared moments that elicit a lot of emotions.

“Bungee jumping, watching a belly-laughing comedy, or attending a wedding together are all high-emotion experiences of joy, fear, and excitement that can bond you together,” says Ewing.

The bottom line

Being physically attracted to someone is a thrilling experience, but it’s also fleeting.

When you’re going through difficult situations, having strong emotional ties is what helps you maintain longevity in your relationships. And it’s these shared experiences that ultimately bring meaning to our lives.

As Perlstein notes “emotional attraction is important because it’s reflective of deep connection and often happens when someone feels truly seen and heard by someone.”

Lust and love can be extremely confusing, especially when sex is involved. As you probably know, lust is that exciting and euphoric stage of courtship. It’s often really intense and can be confused with love. Add sexual attraction to the lust and you have the perfect recipe for romantic befuddlement. So, what are the signs you’re sexually attracted to someone, and not actually in love with them? How do you know that it’s just a little fun and not something more long lasting? It turns out there are some pretty obvious markers to help you figure it out.

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Before getting into the signs, you should know how lust and attraction begin. It’s often thought that emotions are involved in being sexually or physically attracted to someone. After all, you feel all types of things when you see a hot person walk by on the street. But real and deep feelings aren’t involved initially.

The laws of sexual attraction are actually rooted in science (sorry if this doesn’t sound too sexy). Humans are physically attracted to one another at the biochemical level via pheromones, certain scents, and voice pitch, according to a 2017 review published in Frontiers in Psychology, which outlined that “acoustic and olfactory cues can, separately or in combination, strongly influence the perceived attractiveness of an individual and therefore attitudes and actions toward that person.”

In fact, love and lust exist on such different planes that sexual attraction is biologically more akin to fear. “Your body responds to an exciting new love just as it would a masked gunman,” Dawn Maslar, M.S., science of love expert and love biologist, says of the sweaty palms, rapid heart rate, and dilated pupils that descend upon the infatuated. This response is your body’s way of telling you to pay attention. “Just like the masked gunman, time can feel like it slows, [and] you become focused on what’s in front of you,” Maslar tells Romper. This has zip to do with love and is more about sex. Real love might not seem as high-stakes and exciting, but it’s more healthy and nurturing. This doesn’t mean sexual attraction can’t eventually turn into something long term, but it’s good to recognize the difference.

Knowing what type of relationship you’re in (and what kind you want) can help you make crucial decisions about that person and your love life as a whole. Here’s how to know if you’re sexually attracted to someone, but not actually in love.

1

You don’t actually spend time together

if you only hang out to have sex, that's a sign of sexual attraction and not loveMoyo Studio/E+/Getty Images

If “you just want to make out or have sex, not actually spend time” with the other person, then it may not be true love, Melissa Divaris Thompson, a licensed psychotherapist in New York City, tells Romper. If you notice that you don’t really want to take the time to get to know the person (you just want to get to know their body) then you’re not in love.

“They make you incredibly horny, but outside of sex you only endure their company, and the whole time you’re together you’re just waiting to get to the bedroom or the sex,” adds Nadine Sabulsky, founder of The Naked Life Coach coaching practice in Phoenix, and author of Secret Weapons of Mass Orgasm: The Science of Sex & Artistry of Love. If that’s the case, it’s probably just sex you’re wanting and nothing more.

2

The idea of a real relationship seems like a fantasy

It’s important to note that fantasy play can happen during sex in a committed relationship, but if you’re in a land of make-believe all of the time with your partner, it probably isn’t love.

“If you don’t feel you can be open and honest with your partner and would rather pretend you have a perfect life, it is a sign of lust, not love,” psychotherapist Kimberly Hershenson tells Romper. “When you love someone, there should be trust, honesty, and communication.”

3

There is a lack of emotional connection

You may have a really good sex life with this person, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re connecting on an emotional or intimate level. Part of connecting is talking to each other.

“If you’re always up for sex, but there is little interest in having conversations, this is a sign of lust, not love,” Hershenson says. “When you love someone, you should feel supported and be able to express your needs.”

4

You’re only focused on their physical appearance

Being physically attracted to the person you have a relationship with, whether it’s a sexual relationship or otherwise, is certainly important. If, however, you’re only focused on their dreamy eyes and nice butt, it’s probably not love. Hershenson says, “If you can’t stop thinking about how good-looking your partner is or how great their body is, and there is little else that comes to mind when you are thinking of what attracts you to them, this is a sign it’s lust, not love.”

She also notes that there are many other important qualities to look for in a person if you want to commit to a long-term relationship, such as kindness, dependability, support, and trustworthiness. Thompson agrees and says when you’re in love, you tend to look for traits that make a person unique on the inside too, and not just on the outside.

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5

You don’t care about getting to know their family

“When you love someone, you care deeply about getting to know the people they care deeply about,” Thompson says. “If you don’t, this is a sign you are probably more attracted to them physically.” Similarly, you may not find yourself jumping at the chance to bring your lover around your nearest and dearest either.

“While you don’t necessarily need the approval of loved ones, if you completely avoid bringing [the person you’re seeing] around your family and friends, that’s a good sign they’re not ‘the one,'” Jonathan Bennett, relationship and dating coach and owner of The Popular Man consulting group, tells Romper. “Most people want to share the existence of their partner with others, not hide them away.”

6

They make you nervous, and not in a good way

if you don't feel excited about the person you're seeing, you might be in lust and not love.Pyrosky/E+/Getty Images

If you’re feeling nervous and your gut is screaming “red flag,” it may be time to honestly ask yourself what kind of relationship you’re in.

“Your subconscious has picked up cues that they’re not what they seem to be, but maybe you’re disregarding the signs because you want the sex, or you’re just plain lonely,” Sabulsky says. “Put aside your sexual attraction for a moment and ask yourself what it is about this person that’s rubbing you the wrong way.”

7

Your close friends dislike the person

If you have honest friends, it should be easy to find out rather quickly what they think.

“Unless your friends dislike everyone you meet on principle, in which case it may be time for new friends, they are probably noticing the things that your lust-hazed brain isn’t capable of seeing,” Sabulsky says. “Ask them why they feel this way, and take the time to really listen to their response without defending your choice or your lover.” Pay attention when your friends don’t like the person you’re seeing, because it’s probably for a reason.

8

You don’t worry about their well-being

Not that you wouldn’t care at all if something happened to them, but you’re not really concerning yourself with whether they’ve had a good day at work or not. “When you’re falling in love with someone, their well-being becomes important to you,” Alexis Auleta, LCSW, an individual, couples, and family therapist, tells Romper. “When they have a bad day, you’re all ears. If they get a nasty cold, you’re showing up with chicken soup. Some people find themselves overly concerned with their partner’s physical safety,” says Auleta.

When you’re actually in love with someone, you can even experience what Auleta calls “irrational anxieties,” like worrying about everything that could go wrong when they’re on a plane or in a car. “If their health and happiness isn’t a concern, it’s a sign this isn’t a love match.”

9

You can’t see a future together

“If you want to rip his clothes off, but can’t think of any scenario where you two could live happily ever after, it’s a good sign you’re just in it for the sex,” Bennett says.

Being in a relationship solely for the sex isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if that’s what you want. But knowing the difference between the two will be key in securing your emotional happiness.

10

They don’t check your non-sexual boxes

“When you’re in lust, your partner checks the boxes when it comes to physical and sexual attraction,” Auleta tells Romper. This is also a great thing to have with a long-term partner, but it’s far from the extent of your needs. “There may be other categories left unticked that get in the way of developing a real love connection,” Auleta adds. “From personality quirks and annoying habits to vastly different belief systems or mismatched communication styles, differences can start to add up.” If it’s love and not just lust, they’ll tick a lot more for you.

11

You “place card” them

You’ve been hanging out for a while and maybe you initially hoped for the connection to turn into something more, but it’s just not. Instead of cutting them loose right away, you keep them on the line to see what might happen. They’re essentially just holding the place of someone for the time being until you find a partner who better suits your needs. “Even on a subconscious level, you might decide to ‘place card’ your partner until something better comes along,” Auleta explains. “When you’re falling in love with someone, ambivalence isn’t on the menu.”

A sex-only relationship isn’t inherently a problem — flings can be fun! — but if you’re looking for a serious, long-term love, these clues can help you recognize that this person might not be the best fit. You’re better off finding someone who gives you butterflies and also connects with you on an emotional level. That’s the kind of relationship that is built to last.

Studies referenced:

Verhaeghe, J., Gheysen, R., & Enzlin, P. (2013). Pheromones and their effect on women’s mood and sexuality. Facts, views & vision in ObGyn, 5(3), 189–195.

Groyecka, A., Pisanski, K., Sorokowska, A., Havlíček, J., Karwowski, M., Puts, D., Roberts, S. C., & Sorokowski, P. (2017, May 18). Attractiveness is multimodal: Beauty is also in the nose and ear of the beholder. Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00778/full

Sources interviewed:

Dawn Maslar, M.S., science of love expert, love biologist, science writer, and adjunct professor at NOVA Southeastern University and Kaplan University

Nadine Sabulsky, founder of The Naked Life Coach coaching practice in Phoenix, and author of Secret Weapons of Mass Orgasm: The Science of Sex & Artistry of Love

Kimberly Hershenson, psychotherapist

Jonathan Bennett, relationship and dating coach and owner of The Popular Man consulting group

Alexis Auleta, LCSW, individual, couples, and family therapist

This article was originally published on July 11, 2017

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