You might have had an ex that you once said “I love you” to but, years down the line, you realized that you really felt a different kind of “L” word: lust. Whether you came to this conclusion after a bout of serious soul searching or because you finally found “the one” who you feel all sorts of warm, fuzzy and totally different feelings for, you now know that the two “L” words are easy to mix up. So how can you tell if you are in lust or in love?
Experts agree that making the distinction is challenging, even for a grown-up. This can be exacerbated by the fact that being “in love” is actually super similar to what it means to lust. “Lust feels very powerful and being ‘in love’ is like a spell that makes you feel happy and draws you together into a sense of wonder and oneness,” says Paulette Sherman, Psy.D., psychologist and author of Dating from the Inside Out and The Book of Sacred Baths. They sound pretty in sync, right?
She explains, however, that this “in love” phase usually lasts only 1-3 years and than fades or morphs into a more companionate love that has a less addictive quality. “Love is more gentle and balanced,” she adds. “It doesn’t waiver through difficult feelings and periods of challenge and goes beyond sexual attraction to a deeper heart connection and caring actions.” Sounds pretty damn beautiful, we know.
In case you’re still not sure whether what you’re experiencing is love or lust, we turned to relationship pros to set the record straight. Here are the key differences between lust and love.
If your relationship revolves around sex...it’s lust
Sex might play a huge role in your relationship, especially in the very beginning—whether you're in lust or love—but if there’s hardly anything but sex going on, it’s probably the former. “Feeling an insatiable desire that gets no gratification until sex, and then it is short lived, spells out lust,” says Lisa Bahar, a marriage and family therapist.
If you feel incredibly safe with this person...it’s love
A sense of safety, that you have someone who will be there for you and care about your wellbeing, is a strong sign of love, Bahar explains. If you feel as though this person is constantly looking out for your wellbeing, even in circumstances that surprise you (think: sticking up for you when someone is being rude at a party), this person most likely has strong and substantial feelings for you.
If you can’t get this person out of your head...it’s lust
If you find yourself obsessing over this person constantly, to the point where you semi question your sanity, you’re most likely in lust. While the feeling of being “in love” can be quite similar in the beginning, you shouldn’t feel totally preoccupied and incapable of doing basic things like going to work and exercising. “Lust is a mesmerizing feeling, almost hypnotic, where you find yourself fixated on the person and it’s tough to break that,” says Bahar. “In fact, when you do try to break it, it hurts deeply, in an almost primal way.”
If you feel a deeper sense of connection on an emotional level...it’s love
Love is about having a deeper connection. “If you want to be inclusive with this person and begin opening up areas of your life that you are bit more protective of, such as meeting family and friends, it’s probably love,” says Julienne Derichs, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Chicago. Some signs include sharing the day-to-day news of your life, your feelings about certain events going on in the world and your hopes and dreams for the future, it most likely means you feel safe, secure and stable in the relationship.
If neither of you is considering the future...it’s lust
With lust comes fairly low expectations in regards to future plans. We’re not talking the far future, as in marriage and babies, but the near future, as in taking your relationship one step further by perhaps moving in together. “Physical and emotional availability are two very different things,” explains Rhonda Richards-Smith, L.C.S.W., psychotherapist and relationship expert. “While you may have frequent encounters with the same person over a long period of time, that alone does not mean you’re in love.”
If you feel compelled to work through conflict...it’s love
When you’re not that into someone—truly and fully—it’s your cue to ditch when situations become difficult. In other words, when a fight begins, you don’t have much invested in the relationship to come to an actual resolution. When you are willing to take emotional risks and be vulnerable in your relationship, however, is when love starts to develop, according to Richards-Smith.
If you have no interest in what the other person thinks or feels...it’s lust
If you don’t know all that much about your S.O.’s personal life—their friends, family, hobbies, beliefs etc.—chances are you’re experiencing lust. In fact, Richards-Smith notes that avoiding the discovery or sharing of personal details can at times be a giant red flag that true, long-lasting love is not in the forecast.