Are you in Lust or Love?

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Eccl 3:1). Research that examines the science of love confirms that love has different stages; specifically, there are three distinct areas of our brain that correspond with three types of love – lust, romantic attraction, and attachment. 

See if you can guess what statement below corresponds with each stage:

  1. I can’t get my partner off my mind. I’m totally distracted throughout the day with thoughts of him/her.
  2. Thinking about my partner makes me smile, especially because I know s/he will be there for me, even when things get ugly.
  3. My partner is perfect for me as they have all of the qualities I hoped and longed for – and they can do no wrong in my eyes.

Ready for the answers? Scroll down to find out!

  1. Romantic Love
  2. Attachment
  3. Lust

Let’s briefly examine what exactly research shows about each stage of love.

Lust

When you are in the stage of lust, you feel physically and sexually driven to the other. You have a strong sexual desire, thanks to your hormones (primarily testosterone in men and estrogen in women). There is often an element of mystery, intensity, and fantasy in this stage. You idealize the other, put them on a pedestal, and believe they are the balm. Essentially, you think the other is perfect when you are in lust. But here’s the problem—you don’t actually know the person. Not on a deep level. You just know there’s chemistry and attraction. Lust, like a mammalian drive, is temporary; once the need is met, you move on. Lust is a distinct emotion system regulated by our hypothalamus, associated with primary neural and brain structures. 

Romantic Love

This is that all-consuming, can’t-get-him-or-her-off-my-mind stage. It’s the time when your stomach starts feeling queasy, your palms get sweaty, and your mouth becomes dry when you’re in the presence of your “crush”. You can thank your neurotransmitters, specifically epinephrine (aka adrenaline), for this bodily reaction. Believe it or not, when you initially “fall” for someone, your stress response gets activated, increasing your blood levels of cortisol and adrenaline. Romantic love activates an emotion category that is distinct from the sex drive as it goes beyond the fantasy of lust and is focused on a relationship with a specific person. 

Attachment

Attachment is an emotional bond between two people who genuinely care for one another. It does not occur instantly but grows over time. Oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone”, is involved in this deep sense of belonging; it is released during lovemaking, childbirth, and breastfeeding. And get this: humans have a genetic constellation that causes oxytocin receptor sites in the brain to respond to long-term intimacy. In other words, when we are in intimate relationships for the long haul, our oxytocin receptor sites in our brain are activated. Additionally,research indicates that long-term romance is sustained by attachment, as attachment challenges us to move from self-absorption to attunement with another.

So there we have it: three distinct types of love, correlating to specific neural and brain systems. Unlike the many distorted cultural messages portrayed all around us, science reveals that, most often, love grows from passion to intimacy to commitment. When we understand the science behind the stages of love, it can help us develop more realistic expectations of our partner and the relationship. 

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