The Heat Is On: The Chemical Side of Sex
Ah, love—quiet evenings, meetings of the minds, sharing similar goals, and warm connections. People in love enjoy physical intimacy, but it isn’t limited to sex play: holding hands, soft kisses, and snuggling are fun, too. Then there’s lust, characterized by heat, passion, obsession, and red hot sex any time, anywhere. Which is better? How do you decide whether you feel one or the other?
Lust is all about hormones, new relationships, survival of the species, and sometimes, even compensating for dysfunctions like co-dependence, say the experts. Whereas, love is a more settled, permanent, eyes-wide-open kind of human connection that can weather rough spots and doesn’t much depend upon physical attraction. Love can evolve from early lust.
Here’s the chemical reality:
A few years ago, Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher examined people’s love/lust reactions. She concluded that love has three forms, each occupying separate brain parts.
There’s lust, in which estrogen and androgen drive you to find sexual satisfaction.
Then there’s romantic love. That’s the one where you feel on cloud nine when all goes according to plan, but you’re cast into despondence when something goes awry. That one is all about chemicals called serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
The other is attachment, and it’s the one that has the best chance of longevity. It’s the quiet peacefulness and security of melding in a long-term relationship. The hormones involved here are vasopressin and oxytocin.
And here’s how to know the phase of love you’re experiencing:
It’s lust if you can’t keep your hands off each other. All you want to do is see him, text him, check up on him. When your mind wanders, she is the only topic of interest in your thoughts. You want to be naked and together all the time.
It’s romantic love if your day looks brighter after every text message from your love. If mooning and staring into each others’ eyes doesn’t seem pointless, it’s romantic love. If candy and flowers make your heart sing, but three hours without hearing from your love sends you into depression, you’ve got the romantic bug.
Attachment is easy to spot. You’re comfortable together. Sex is awesome, but doesn’t have to be either red hot or hourly. You often think similar thoughts and seem to be connected even when you’re apart. You’re approaching your third, tenth, or fiftieth anniversary together and it still seems like just where you want to be.
What’s better—love, lust, the quest? Depends entirely on your personality and your goals. If you love taking risks and always need excitement and challenge it may float your boat to be in constant pursuit of someone hotly new. If your libido is highly active and security isn’t your dish, then lusty encounters may be quite satisfying. If you seek security, stability, and a soul mate, then putting effort and concern into developing a solid relationship is your best bet.
When you consider that physical chemistry pretty much controls your love life, and even your sex life, it might not seem that love is quite as exciting and sexy as movies portray it. But most of our reactions to any life experiences are governed by chemicals and they aren’t any less real because of that. Learning about love gives you a golden opportunity to figure out what you want, set your sights on the right kind of relationship, and enjoy the ride as you get there.