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On the big screen it’s fairly easy to deduce when a character is feeling lust or love for another.
In “The L Word,” for example, it’s obvious that lust is what Alice feels for Papi, while love is what she feels for Dana (#CoupleGoals).
Similarly, lust is obviously what Seth Cohen of “The OC” feels for Alex, while love is what he feels for Summer.
But in real life — especially when it’s your life — it can be far harder to figure out what’s what. This guide is here to help.
The SparkNotes version is that love is primarily rooted in emotional, spiritual, and mental intimacy, while lust is primarily rooted in physical and sexual intimacy.
Key word here: primarily.
“There isn’t a widely agreed upon definition of each,” explains Justin Lehmiller, PhD, social psychologist and research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of “Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life.”
So, it depends who you ask.
He defines lust as a state of overwhelming sexual and physical attraction to another person.
“Love, on the other hand, is a much broader concept that includes deeper emotional connection and, usually, a desire to make that relationship last,” he says.
|sometimes sexual||always sexual|
|emotionally driven||physically driven|
|romantic, emotional, mental, and spiritual connection||sexual and physical connection|
|sometimes accompanied by sexual or physical connection||sometimes accompanied by emotional, mental, romantic, or spiritual connection|
|can be experienced with or without lust||can be experienced with or without love|
With some self-reflection, lust and love are usually fairly easy to distinguish.
- What, if any, are the physical sensations I experience when I look at this person?
- Do I want this person to touch me sexually? If they already have, how does it feel?
- Do I fantasize about a future with this person? Do I fantasize about this person sexually?
- Do I want to bring this person to family, work, or friend events? Or do I want to bring them to my bed, only?
- How would I describe my relationship with this person?
“Lust is primarily about physical excitement and craving for someone else,” Lehmiller explains.
“So, if you get heart palpitations every time you see this other person, you feel a rush of excitement from even the slightest touch of your bodies, and you can’t stop fantasizing about them sexually, it’s probably lust,” he says.
By contrast, “if you find yourselves disclosing personal details to each other that you don’t normally share, you’re providing each other with emotional support, you’re integrating them into your life, and you’re thinking about your future together, it’s probably love.”
Basically, if you have a connection that transcends physical attraction, it could be love.
Eh, not really.
For starters, lust and love aren’t mutually exclusive. “While you can experience love without lust or lust without love, it’s possible to experience both at the same time [for the same person],” Lehmiller says.
Second, people express love in different ways. “Some express their love through words,” he says. “Others express it through actions.”
Finally, the best way to find out what someone is feeling for you is n-e-v-e-r to run down a checklist of behaviors and characteristics. It’s to communicate with them.
(And that stands whether the person is your potential partner, fiancé, or FWB!)
All that said, notes Lehmiller, one of the main signs of love is an intimate, emotional connection that develops over time through shared experiences and self-disclosure.
“So, if someone is wanting to spend a lot of time with you outside of the bedroom, if they’re sharing really personal and intimate details about themselves, if they’re asking you a lot of questions and seem invested in learning about you, if they’re introducing you to family and friends, or making future plans with you, these are all likely indicators of love,” he says.
Meanwhile, if someone only wants to spend time with you in bed and doesn’t seem invested in your life beyond the walls of the bedroom, odds are you’re dealing with lust, Lehmiller says.
Ever been minding your own beeswax in a coffee shop, sipping your brew, when a hottie walks in who makes your undies wet/tighten? That’s lust.
Lust is also the feeling you might get when an attractive actor, model, or educator pops up on your Instagram screen.
But while lust often *is* something that hits you whammo-bammo, lust is also something you can cultivate.
How? By communicating.
“In order to lust after someone — or be lusty with them — you have to get to know them and who they are and what they like, as well as share your own intimate wants and needs,” says sex educator Andrew Gurza, chief disability officer and co-founder of Handi, a company that creates sex toys by disabled people for disabled people.
To do that you might:
- Read 64 Flirty, Dirty, and Ultimately Revealing Questions to Ask Your Partner together.
- Purchase and play with the BestSelf Intimacy Deck or Use Your Mouth Sex and Relationship Conversation Starter Kit together.
- Fill out this worksheet together.
- Fill out a Yes, No, Maybe List together (like this one, this one, and this one).
- Start talking about sex more *out* of the bedroom.
- Compliment each other more.
- Leave lusty notes for your partner to find.
“There’s no guarantee that any of these tools will work, but the idea is to try some different things and see if it can lead you to more interest, sexually,” says Jor-El Caraballo, M.Ed, relationship expert and co-creator of Viva Wellness.
“Cultivating love is a much lengthier process than cultivating lust, but again, it relies on communication with the other person,” Gurza says.
Cultivating love also requires:
- commitment to removing feelings of judgment
That said, both Gurza and Caraballo are skeptical about whether it’s possible to cultivate love that isn’t already there.
“Love can happen over time, but you shouldn’t force anything,” Gurza says.
“Sometimes love is either present or it’s not,” Caraballo adds.
That’s why Caraballo recommends cultivating relationship sustainability and maintenance skills instead of attempting to cultivate love.
“Relationships can be maintained by each partner communicating how they actually feel and how they like to receive love,” he says.
Relationships can also be sustained by:
- listening to your partner’s needs
- honoring both your boundaries and theirs
- communicating with intention
- sharing your more vulnerable feelings, and giving your partner(s) space to share theirs
Often when we talk about lust versus love, a hierarchy is created where love is scripted as being superior to lust, says Mary-Margaret Sweeney, LSW, an Indiana-based sex therapist and founder of Seek and Summon.
But that isn’t the case!
“Lust is not inferior to love, it’s just different,” she says. “Lust can help us feel sexy, desired, playful, and attractive, which is important in its own right.”
First, know this: “You’re allowed to want both love and lust, and you shouldn’t resign yourself to just one,” Gurza says.
Next, he suggests asking yourself:
- Am I willing to accept, make room for, and prioritize someone else’s needs in my life?
- How important is sexual fulfillment to me right now? How important is partnered sexual play to me right now?
“There are no wrong answers to these questions, but they’re a starting point to find out whether love or lust is what you want or need,” Gurza says. Noted.
Knowing the difference — and being able to recognize the difference — can help create relationships that are most in-line with what you have interest, capacity, and time for.
Let’s say, for example, you don’t have time for an emotional relationship. Being able to notice when your relationship begins to shift from just physical (lust) toward physical *and* emotional (love) gives you the agency to stop the relationship before it becomes something you don’t want.
Likewise, if you’re interested in a long-term relationship, being able to recognize when your connection falls on the lusty side of things gives you the power to get out of dodge before someone (you) gets hurt.
If you’re NOT involved with anyone physically or emotionally, spend some time figuring out what kind of connection(s) you’re interested in forming, if any.
If you’re involved with someone and you’re curious about how they’re feeling toward you, you gotta ask!
Some ways to bring it up:
- “I’m realizing that I’m starting to feel more than friends-with-benefits feelings for you. I’d love to know: How have you been feeling about our connection?”
- “Before we go on another date I want to be transparent about the fact that I’m looking for a long-term, serious relationship. What kind of connection are you looking for?”
- “For me, this is starting to feel more romantic than we initially signed up for. Would you be open to talking about what’s happening between us?”
- “I want to be transparent about the fact that this feels more physical than romantic for me. I’d love to continue seeing you, but I want to make sure that we’re on the same page about what this is before we do.”
Love and lust both have their own benefits, but their benefits are different.
Ultimately, the only way to know what you’re feeling is to self-reflect. And the only way to know what they’re feeling is to ask.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.