So you’ve gone on a couple dates with her. Maybe you’ve done the whole romantic-evening-under-the-stars thing, brought it back to your place for a night of Barry White tunes. Next thing you know, your heart is pounding with the intense feelings of infatuation, and you can’t seem to think of anyone but her.
Can you call it love yet? Or is there a shallower emotion at work here—like, say, lust?
“Lust is a neurotransmitter love cocktail, [almost like] a drug,” says Megan Fleming, a certified sex and relationship therapist. “It’s a common cognitive distortion. If we feel it, we think it’s true [that we’re in love].”
Broadly speaking, both men and women often confuse emotions surrounding love and lust in the early stages of a relationship. Both sets of emotions, fueled by neurotransmitters like dopamine, are largely driven by physical attraction—especially when that physical attraction results in steamy sex.
The key difference, Fleming says, is that lust is primarily derived from those physical (and, yes, carnal) impulses. In the initial phase of romantic love, people gauge their new partners and develop feelings for them based on relatively surface-level characteristics.
But that means if you’re lusting after someone, those feelings will eventually fade. Lust is a great initial fire-starter, but lust alone doesn’t have enough emotional fuel to sustain a long-term relationship. “This stage is meant to end,” says Fleming. “This is when the rubber meets the road, this is where in my opinion, you learn what ‘love’ is.”
The key to making that leap from lust to love, Fleming says, is realizing when your sphere of emotions goes further than you expected. It’s not just about getting sexual—it’s how you share that experience together.
There are no formulas, guidelines, or timelines for falling in love, of course. But Fleming says there are a few signs to help you gauge if this is what you’re really feeling: Do you accept and embrace her imperfections? Do you put her before things of high importance to you? Do you stick by her side through a hard battle and end up feeling grateful to have her?
As cheesy as it sounds, you’ll need to hit multiple bumps in the road—and climb through the dirt—to get to the next stage. It’s no guarantee for love, but it does help differentiate the fog of emotions in those early stages of a relationship.
Caveat: That fiery sexual attraction is still a key component to making love last. “A huge issue for couples is sexless marriages,” Fleming says. So if you want to keep the connection strong, make sure you maintain a solid balance between those two emotions.