We humans

Is it lust or is it love? How to tell — and how you can have both at once

Feb 9, 2018 /

Researcher and therapist Terri Orbuch shares what she’s learned from studying couples for three decades.

I’ve studied the romances and relationship patterns of thousands of people for three decades, and I’ve heard many of them talk about that wild, out-of-control feeling at the beginning of a new relationship — you know, when you can’t eat, you can’t sleep and you can’t get anything done because you’re constantly thinking about this person. It’s like an obsession. I bet if I asked you to close your eyes, no matter your age, you could remember that powerful and amazing feeling. I can, and I’ve been married for 25 years.

But when we’re in that heightened arousal state at the beginning of a romance, many of us wonder: “What am I feeling? Am I in lust or am I in love?” After talking to hundreds of couples, I’ve come to believe there are four signs that differentiate love from lust.

The first sign that it’s love rather than lust is connection. When you’re in love, you want your partner to connect with all the people in your life. You want them to spend time together and to like each other. You want to show them off to your friends and family, and you want your friends and family to be impressed by them. Instead of wanting to keep them to yourself, you bring them out and introduce them to the people who are most important to you.

The second sign is using “we” language rather than “I” language. When two people are in love, their lives become intertwined and they begin to think of themselves not as separate individuals but as a couple. The more intertwined their lives are, the more mutuality. Mutuality is when you refer to the two of you as an “us” or “we.” For example, if I asked you what you were doing last weekend, a person in love would tell me, “We went out to the movies” or “We went up north for the weekend,” instead of “I went to the movies with Sandy” or “I went up north for the weekend and Sandy came along.”

The third sign is self-disclosure. Love can motivate us to reveal a lot about ourselves to the other person. When we’re in love, we want to share our dreams, our fears, our goals, our past, our future. We might tell them secrets that we’ve never told anyone before. When we’re in lust, you only peel away a few layers of our personalities. We tell the other person about our hobbies, our movie or music preferences, but that’s about it. We don’t go to the deep core of ourselves. When you’re in love, you go straight to the core. Not only are you sharing about more topics, but what you say about each topic is deeper, more personal in nature. So, if you want to distinguish between lust and love, look at what you’re talking about with the other person.

The fourth sign is influence. When two people are in love, what one person does — or wants to do — influences the other person in meaningful and strong ways. For example, if you’re thinking about moving to another state because of your job, you’d go to the other person before you made a decision. Likewise, if something upsetting happens to you — a medical diagnosis, job loss, the death of a family member — you’d go to this person for support and assistance. Or, if something good happens to you — you got a promotion, you receive a surprise inheritance — you’d go to this person because you’d want them to share your good news and celebrate with you.

As you can see, lust and love are very different from one another. Yet we want that lustful desire in a loving long-term relationship too. Can you re-create that urgent longing? Absolutely! From my work with couples, I’ve learned there are three behaviors you can add to your relationship to reignite that desire. Those three behaviors are actually the same ones that fueled your lust when you first met that person.

The first strategy to bring back lust is to engage in new activities with your partner. Think about it — when you first got together, everything was new for the two of you. Every date you went on, every restaurant you ate at, every activity you did, was a novel experience for the two of you. Of course, as time went on, the newness wore off. To re-create lust, you need to find new things to do with your partner. It can be as simple as going to a different part of the city that you’ve never been to, or doing something for the first time — like ice skating, bike riding, fishing — with your partner. My husband and I signed up for a cooking class. Neither of us had ever taken that kind of class and when we did it together, it fueled the lust. Anything new can inspire those feelings of freshness and excitement.

The second strategy is to add surprise or mystery. Again, think back. At the beginning, everything you learned about your partner was so interesting and exciting. She told you she had a pet snake when she was a kid, or that he was closest to his grandmother growing up, and you went, “What? Wow!” It was all fascinating to you. Of course, as time goes on in a relationship, you feel like you know your partner almost too well. You know what they like to do on Sundays, you know that they snore when they sleep, and they chew with their mouth open. But no, adding surprise to a relationship isn’t just about lingerie and roleplaying. Show up at your partner’s workplace unexpectedly and take them out to lunch or dinner. Send a flirty text in the middle of the afternoon. One of the wives in my long-term study on couples said she made a treasure hunt for her husband. He went around the city without her, following little notes she left for him, and he found the experience full of adventure.

The third and final strategy is to do arousal-producing activities together. But it’s not what you think; this is about doing things that give you an adrenaline rush, things that are novel and interesting. What relationship scientists have learned is if you do an arousal-producing activity with your partner — like exercising side by side, watching a comedy show or a scary movie, or going surfing — your adrenaline rush can actually get transferred to your partner and your relationship.

Now I realize this may sound like a lot of work. But I can assure you that it’s worth it. The good news is that lust and love, as different as they are, can exist together in a relationship. Just remember: moments of passion are some of the highlights of our lives, and you can never have too many.

This piece was adapted from a talk given at TEDxOaklandUniversity.