Ben and Bernice Finn have been married for 60 years. And they still remember their first date.
“I was very nervous,” Ben said. “She was so pretty.”
“I remember that day very well,” Bernice said. “And no, you weren’t pretty.”
But when the couples all went out that night, there was a chill in the air.
“And I took your arm,” Bernice said.
“I was thrilled by that,” Ben said.
“And the reason I took your arm is, you seemed nervous. And I wanted to make you more comfortable.”
It’s a heartwarming story, and I encourage you to listen to the whole thing. Don’t worry, we’ll wait for you. When you get back, I’ll explain what all this has to do with cognitive psychology.
Are you back now? Good. So what does this have to do with psychology? Stories like this — and our own stories of romantic encounters — can evoke feelings of romantic love. And many people believe there is an important connection between romantic love and sexual desire. After all, one of the primary reasons to get married is to have children, and the most reliable way to produce children is to engage in sexual intercourse. People who are married are supposed to love each other, and they’re supposed to have sex. So it makes sense that romantic love would be associated with sexual desire.
But it’s also true that people can have sexual desires for people they don’t love. They can love people who don’t sexually arouse them. Maybe romantic love and sexual desire are completely different phenomena (and whether they are emotions is a separate psychological debate).
Romantic love, sex, and sexual desire are so closely intertwined that it might seem almost impossible to disentangle them. But a team led by Gian Gonzaga believes it has done just that. Studies have found that different body gestures are associated with romantic love and sexual desire. If someone is feeling romantic love, they are likely to smile, nod their head, gesticulate, and lean toward their partner. Gestures associated with sexual desire include lip biting, lip licking, sucking, touching your own lips, and protruding the tongue.
Gonzaga’s team asked young, monogamous couples to separately fill out a survey about their feelings toward each other, and then asked them to sit facing each other in a room and engage in four different conversations: teasing, a previous relationship, a current concern, and the conversation we’re interested in — recalling their first date. After each conversation they rated their own emotions and guessed what emotions their partner would report. The researchers videotaped the interactions and recorded the amount of time each person spent making each of the gestures I listed above.
So how did the reported emotions correlate with the gestures associated with romantic love and sexual desire? As you would expect, reports of romantic love correlated positively with gestures that correspond to romantic love (r=.26), and reports of sexual desire correlated positively with gestures associated with sexual desire (r=.30). But there was no significant correlation between love and gestures associated with sexual desire (r=-.01) or between sexual desire and gestures that correspond to romantic love (r=.06).
And check out this graph:
If a couple had discussed marriage, the partners expressed significantly more romantic love and significantly less sexual desire (on a scale of 0 to 8) for each other than partners who hadn’t discussed marriage.
There’s a similar result for sexual intercourse:
Couples who had engaged in sex gave significantly lower “love” ratings and higher “desire” ratings compared to those who had never had sex.
Rather than going hand in hand, sexual desire and romantic love seem almost in opposition to one another (we can’t say that this is necessarily so, however — it’s possible that committed couples still have more of both sentiments than non-committed couples).
Gian C. Gonzaga, Rebecca A. Turner, Dacher Keltner, Belinda Campos, Margaret Altemus (2006). Romantic Love and Sexual Desire in Close Relationships. Emotion, 6 (2), 163-179 DOI: 10.1037/1528-35188.8.131.52