What are the differences between love, attachment, and sexual desire?

From time to time, our romantic relationships can be difficult to understand. Part of this confusion stems from the fact that our relationships are influenced by three powerful, yet separate, emotional systems.

Often these three emotional systems work together to create satisfying outcomes. But that's not always the case.

Sometimes these three emotional systems compete with each other—leading to mixed feelings and confusion.

Sexual Desire

The first emotional system is sexual desire. Sexual desire involves the lustful, sexually passionate feelings people have for each other. Sexual desire is a very intense and powerful emotion; it can cloud one’s judgment, and prompt risk-taking. Sexual desire is often based on physical appearance, novelty, and the chemistry between two people. And while sexual desire motivates a lot of our behaviors early on in a relationship, intense levels of sexual desire are difficult to maintain with the same person over the course of time (see section on the coolidge effect).


The second emotional system entails love. And love, in and of itself, is composed of a complex set of feelings. Love often entails feelings of closeness, genuine appreciation, and concern. But, the experience of love is not the same for everyone. For some people, love is delusional and needy, or based on emotional game playing, or experienced as the desire to take care of another person (see styles of love).


The last emotional system involves attachment. Attachment is the feeling of security and comfort we get from being close to someone else. Attachment provides a sense of stability, certainty, and safety—the feeling that someone will always be there for you in a time of need. And, as with love, there are individual differences in the experience of attachment (see attachment styles).

Again, these three emotional systems can work together to produce a healthy and satisfying relationship. Sexual desire can turn into feelings of love, resulting in a lasting attachment (see romantic attachments).

However, these basic emotional systems do not necessarily work in sync over time. Long term, it can be difficult to find one person who consistently satisfies all three needs. In many cases, these three emotional systems work against each other—creating competing desires and interests.

For instance, it's possible to be attached to one romantic partner, be in love with someone else, and have sexual desire for yet another person (see will he leave his wife).

Being aware of these competing emotions, and that not everyone experiences love and attachment in the same way, often helps us to make sense of the problems that arise in our romantic relationships.

Understanding these basic emotional systems can lead to a greater understanding of the types of affairs people have (see typology of cheating – Truth, Lies, and Romance Blog).

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