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Interview: Two relationship experts explain the differences between love and lust

Sandra Langeslag, Ph.D., of the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and Terri Orbuch, Ph.D., a relationship expert and author of the recent “5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great,” were guest speakers on the Feb. 12 “In Your Right Mind” radio show called “Love vs. Lust,” which addressed the differences between love and lust. These relationship experts both provided insight on some additional questions about the various types of bonds that exist between partners.

Question: What makes lust different from love?

Dr. Langeslag: Lust I would call infatuation or passionate love. Love is attachment or companionate love. The difference is people usually experience passionate love, and this is very arousing, activating [a] state where people get very euphoric; they get very excited. They also get very nervous. This sort of decreases very quickly; I think most people experience that it decreases in intensity within a few weeks or months. Attachment sort of takes a while to develop, and it is a much calmer state where you want to be with the person for a long time. For me the main difference is arousal levels.

Dr. Orbuch: For me, lust is when you’re drawn to someone based solely on passion and sexual desire; that is what lust is. The feelings and desires of attraction or wanting to be with someone are fueled by your sex hormones, and they really motivate you to yearn or long for that person. Romantic love, on the other hand, it develops over time rather than just at the beginning of the relationship, and it involves a caring and emotional intimacy. It is support and friendship and caring and commitment, and it develops over time.

Q: Can lust become love, and vice versa?

Dr. Langeslag: Yes. So it is possible to have those feelings at the same time, and one can also turn into another. Usually, people don’t get attached unless they’re in a relationship, so if the other person doesn’t love you back, the infatuation will stay pretty strong. But if you’re in a relationship and stay together, lust can turn into attachment. Also, lust can flare up if you go on a vacation.

Dr. Orbuch: Yes. I think oftentimes if you stay with an individual, lust can turn into love, and I also think that long-term loving relationships can involve lust. So if you reignite the passionate love or reignite the lust, it can occur in a long-term loving relationship.

Q: Is there a link between lust and unhealthy relationships?

Dr. Langeslag: Nowadays, in Western cultures, people like lust a lot. So we’re looking for someone who really ignites this spark in us, and this is the person we want to hang out with, to be in a long-term relationship with. Lust is not necessarily a good predictor of how happy a relationship with a person will be. You can be very much infatuated with someone and be with them for a few months and not be happy with them at all. It’s often how relationships in Western cultures start, but it’s not necessarily a good predictor of how this relationship will be in the long term.

Dr. Orbuch: I think there is not a link between lust and unhealthy relationships; however, sometimes people have unrealistic expectations of relationships, and they think a healthy relationship is one that always has lust, or passionate love. So I think that’s an unrealistic expectation of a long-term loving relationship, or a healthy relationship. Instead, the realities of relationships are that lust or passionate love declines over time – after about 12 or 18 months of being with someone – and what happens if you stay with that individual is that love, or companionate love, is formed. So if you think, just because passionate love or lust declines that that is a bad relationship, or something is wrong or your relationship is in trouble, you might break up with the person. But you want to understand that a natural occurrence in romantic relationships [is] that lust declines. You can’t keep that lust 24/7 over a long, long period of time. You can reignite it, you can have it occur in your long-term loving relationship, but a healthy relationship is one where lust turns into love.

Q: How does cognition improve love?

Dr. Langeslag: I’ve done research on what’s called love regulation, and that’s the idea of how we can change love by how we think about certain things. If you think about positive things about your beloved or good things about the relationship, or positive future scenarios, thinking those kinds of positive things will increase attachments. And so that’s a way cognition can improve love. But I’ve also shown that thinking negative things – like “he’s mean,” or “she never puts her socks in the hamper” or whatever it is that bothers you – or about negative things about the relationship, then that decreases how much infatuation and attachment people experience. And so that means cognition can also hurt love, but that can be useful in some situations, like if you love someone who doesn’t love you back.

About Dr. Langeslag

Sandra Langeslag, Ph.D., is an assistant professor with the department of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. Langeslag earned her Ph.D. in biological and cognitive psychology at Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Focusing on how motivation and emotion are affected by neurocognition, Langeslag has examined how attention and memory are affected by emotions and motivation. Currently, Langeslag is studying whether feelings of love can be increased or decreased with cognitive strategies.

An online quiz featuring Langeslag’s work recently appeared on Buzzfeed.com and can be viewed here.

About Dr. Orbuch

Terri Orbuch, Ph.D., is an author, speaker and therapist. Additionally, Orbuch is also a professor at Oakland University and a research professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. She is an author of six books, including the recent “5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great.” Orbuch has appeared on the Today Show, ESPN, CNN and media other outlets. She is also the director of a landmark study, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in which she has been following the same couples for almost three decades.