Do you do it for love? Or is sexual desire completely separate?

i-93c3e2c4a1cec29c6cefd0d971b4af26-gonzaga1.jpgBen 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."

ResearchBlogging.orgIt'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: 10.1037/1528-3542.6.2.163

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1) On the first graph, one might worry that couples who have discussed marriage have been together longer, and we know that sexual desire decreases over time.

2) On the second graph, it seems that for the right side, its likely that couples who desire each other more are more likely to have had sex, thus the causal arrow probably points the other way. The left side is trickier, and so the only worry I'd have is about the sample. If there is supposed to be a strong connection between having sex and loving each other as we believe there is, then who are the couples who have not had sex yet? And if you do not have sex as a motive to stay in the relationship, then is a higher amount of feelings of romantic love necessary for keeping the relationship going?

Tage: The researchers say controlling for length of relationship in those two figures did not alter the results.

Your second point is quite intriguing -- makes a lot of sense.

Some people don't experience sexual attraction at all, and some of them do experience romantic love - so the two definitely can be separated, see

What's the baseline?

It's arguable that one can experience multiple emotions simultaneously to a degree, but any measurements or expression are certainly limited - if you're expressing one thing, you're generally not expressing the other. Of course, you could alternate (i.e. express multiple things sequentially), or use different means (express one things verbally, and another with body language), but I'd expect a negative correlation between any two emotions a priori anyhow.

So I'm not sure whether it really _means_ much to say that sexual desire and romantic love seem almost in opposition to each other. Compared to which other pairs of expressed emotions?

Wanting to knock someone's boots is WAY different from wanting to help someone recover from a long standing illness. The former helps you have fun (perceptive). The latter helps you maintain ambition. Fun helps us realize who we already are. Ambition helps us become who we wish to be.

For you kiddies out there: It's really awesome when someone helps you learn how to enjoy being the person who wants to become someone better. This feeling of enlightenment makes time seem to stop - sometimes it just might, too - and you understand all the whats and whys of now, the past, and the future. It is wonderful.

Not too surprising for me... try this idea:

Love, in all forms, can be summed up as an basic, visible, commitment to someone else's welfare.

Like most of our mammalian cousins, (and many other vertebrates), our instincts include the facility to make such commitments on a biological level, in a manner that "automagically" affects our behavior, and is (usually) pretty obvious to both the "intended" and bystanders. This is important anywhere that genuine commitment and alliance becomes a question of survival, (q.v. games theory) as it so often is when raising young humans. Of course, there are "cheaters" here too, but mostly the system works pretty well....

In our own species, that same basic facility gets used for not only mating, but a variety of other family and suprafamily relationships -- parents/children, other family members, clan (tribalism/patriotism), and even extra-family alliances (otherwise known as "friendship"). It helps that we like being in love -- it's pleasurable in its own right, and (once bona fides are established) gives a sense of basic security in the world.

When poets and others wonder "what is this thing called love", they tend to try to derive it from abstract principles, or the features of their beloved, or even supernatural influences. But I'd say those are all barking up the wrong trees -- the commitment, the "wanting what's best for them", is in fact the real point, and matters of exact relationship, or even "mating standards", are just the occasion to exercise our capacity for love.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 17 Oct 2008 #permalink

Yeah, pretty horrible isn't it. In order to stay together as a couple you're actually going to have to *like* each other, and not just want to boink each other's brains out while calling it love.

Because of how we view sex, too many people get married under the pretense of loving each other, when what they really need to do is get naked and get to business - without getting married.

I believe in marriage. Committing to spend someone you love so much you want to grow old with them and go through the ups and downs of life. Having sex with that person can be the best. But love and sex are not the same thing. We demonize sex outside of marriage and don't teach our children how to be responsible and respectful of each other.

It's funny that the idea of mutual affection, respect, and genuine caring for each other, you know, love, is considered a novel one in the discussion of long-term marriages. But it's not funny hah-hah.

It makes sense that persons who aren't interested in sex would rate romantic love somewhat higher than those who think sex is important in a relationship. They are merely rating what they value. Any other interpretation of the data is silly.