Physical or sexual desire: why romantic love can flourish without lust

Extract of WIRED FOR LOVE. Copyright © 2022 by Dr Stephanie Cacioppo. Retrieved with permission from Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.

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I fell in love with the spirit of John. Still, I couldn’t deny that I found him physically attractive: his intelligent eyes, his broad smile, the way he moved, the fact that he was in such great shape. And that makes me wonder, if John was the same person, exactly the same on the inside, but less attractive to me on the outside, would we have clicked like we did? When I’m in a poetic mood, I say yes, of course we could have – we could have lived, as EE Cummings once said, “by love alone though the stars walk backwards”. But when I’m in a scientific mindset, I become curious about the precise role that physical attraction plays in forming lasting romantic relationships. Is it possible to have the kind of passionate bond that ignites the love network when there is absence or deficit of physical chemistry in a couple? Can love exist without desire?

Poets, songwriters, and philosophers have been asking versions of these questions since the dawn of time, but clear answers have eluded them. Much of the confusion stems from how we define love. If you’ve ever felt intensely and passionately in love with someone you find intellectually and physically irresistible, you know you can’t easily untangle your feelings. On the other hand, if you’ve ever had a crush on a friend, you know you can “fall in love” with someone without wanting to sleep with them. You can develop intellectual infatuation, think about someone obsessively, feel a jolt of excitement when they text you. And yet, the idea of ​​physical intimacy doesn’t cross your mind. This describes all the close relationships for the small part of the population – about one percent, according to recent studies – that is asexual.

In the 1960s, psychologist Dorothy Tennov surveyed five hundred people about their love preferences. About 53% of women and 79% of men agreed with the statement that they had been attracted to people without feeling “a trace of love”; and a majority of women (61%) and a sizable minority of men (35%) agreed with the statement that they could be in love without feeling physical desire. To our modern sensibilities, these numbers may seem startling.

Today we hardly need to look at the evidence to know that lust can exist without love. But what about the possibility of romantic love without lust? Can true love ever be truly platonic?

It may seem far-fetched, but when, in 2009, AARP polled a nationally representative sample of more than two thousand American adults about their attitudes about love and relationships, they found that 76% of respondents from eighteen and older agreed with the statement that true love can exist in the absence of a “radiant/active” physical connection. Interestingly, women were only slightly more likely to agree with this statement than men: 80 versus 71%. And history provides many interesting case studies showing that this type of connection is possible.

Take, for example, Virginia and Leonard Woolf. They were lovers in every way except physically. For Virginia, romantic happiness meant “everything: love, children, adventure, intimacy, work”. Leonard could give him most of those things. He has been a devoted companion, friend, collaborator, guide and source of support during artistic and emotional crises. But he was not a sexual partner; Virginie preferred women. And in a letter from when they were dating, she confessed her feelings. “I go from being half in love with you, and wanting you to always be with me, and knowing everything about me, to the extreme of wildness and distance. I sometimes think that if I married, I could have it all – and then – is it the sexual side that comes between us? As I told you bluntly the other day, I don’t feel any physical attraction in you.

They got married anyway, and for three decades Leonard supported his wife in every way possible. When Virginia committed suicide at the age of fifty-nine, she left him a note in which she wrote: “You have given me the greatest possible happiness. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we were. What is it if not romantic love? And yet, who could also deny that Woolf was missing something that, for most couples, is a necessary ingredient for a lasting and fulfilling relationship?

This brings us back to the delicate question of definitions. If you define romantic love broadly and polymorphically as just deep affection and attachment, it is of course possible to love a person without physically desiring them. But, if you define love based on its unique neurobiological blueprint, it is clear that desire is not an accessory feature of a romantic relationship but an essential ingredient. This desire, as we will discover, does not necessarily mean need be sexual, but it must be physical. By this I mean that it must involve not only the mind, but also the body.

Make love

When you combine desire and love, you move from a physical experience to make love. We think the former is more body-focused, more individualistic, more about satisfying one’s biological wants and needs, more about the present than the future. We believe that the latter is less about the body and more about the mind or heart and soul, less about the individual and more about the relationship, less about the me that we. When a couple makes love, they intentionally merge, mentally and physically communicate what they can’t find the words for, share, realign and resolve differences, embodying the harmony, fluidity and connectedness that couples so crave. often.

Yet, neurobiologically, the more you look at the line between love and desire, the blurrier it becomes. Think of a person you find extremely physically attractive. Even if you think your feelings are only physical, with every touch and kiss (real or imagined), your brain complicates things. The pleasure you feel results from the same neurochemicals, from dopamine to oxytocin, that flood your body when you’re in love. It’s one of the reasons people can get attached to those they once thought of as “friends with benefits.”

Physical intimacy not only helps us establish an emotional connection with our partner. It also makes us feel the importance of the physical body, makes us understand what literary scholar Joseph Campbell called “the rapture of being alive” – ​​which he says is more than a vague sense of “meaning”, was what most of us are. really seek in life. The goal, he said, was “life experiences on the purely physical plane [to] have resonances with our own innermost being and reality.

We experience and react to desire even before we are aware of what is happening. Let’s say you’re going for a walk in the park on a sunny day and you’re holding your partner’s hand. Suddenly a handsome runner crosses your path and your partner’s eyes are drawn like a magnet to the runner’s body. In many cases, your partner won’t even notice they’re watching until you point it out, usually with an annoyed look.

“What?!” asks your partner without understanding.

We rarely realize how our gaze, our attention, is automatically and unconsciously directed by the nature of our interest in someone. Using eye-tracking studies, which can pinpoint exactly where a participant is looking, my research team and I discovered that when men and women see a photo of someone they find physically attractive, their gaze instinctively drops. on the chest of this person (even dressed). But when they look at someone they later say they could imagine falling in love with, their gaze falls directly on the face. And the stronger the potential connection, the more likely they are to focus on the eyes. We knew from previous research that eye contact is one of the most reliable markers of love between couples, but this study showed that people fixated more visually on a person’s face (for relation to his body) when they think of feeling love.

Maybe it’s a component of what people call “love at first sight”? The fact that our eyes are drawn to someone’s face, the way I was drawn to John’s when I met him in Shanghai, signals to us that that person can be someone special. The importance of eye contact in romantic relationships was indirectly reinforced in 2020 when a team of researchers from the Yale School of Medicine showed that real-time direct eye contact arouses activity in a central brain area of ​​the network lovers – the angular gyrus network. In this study, thirty healthy adults (fifteen pairs) were seated at a table apart from each other. Each partner was asked to gaze at their partner for a total of ninety seconds (alternating every fifteen seconds between direct gaze and rest). Taken together, these results suggest that reciprocal gaze between partners increases the activity of neural circuits that play a key role in lovemaking.