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.
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.
You don’t actually spend time together
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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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
They make you nervous, and not in a good way
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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