Can you have sex without love, or love someone you’re not attracted to? It’s a common belief that love and sex should be experienced together. But research has found that psychologically our brains have no connection between the two.
Our Biological Responses to Love vs. Sex
Studies have shown that love enhances our brain’s ability to see the larger picture and think creatively. Whereas, sex enhances logical processing and analytic thinking.
A recent European study asked young male and female participants to think about situations involving either love or sex. The first group was told to imagine a long walk with a beloved or ideal partner. The second group was told to imagine a situation where they have casual sex with a partner they are attracted to, but do not love.
Both groups were then tested on their abilities to either be creative or solve analytical problems.
The group who thought about love first showed much greater creative insight than the sex-primed group. Whereas, those who imagined the sexual situation performed much better on analytical tasks.
In addition, the love-primed group reported more wishes, goals and events that related to future events. The sex-primed group appeared more focused on the “here and now.”
These results were the same when different groups of participants were prepared with subconscious messages about love or sex. Each group was shown words relating to either love or sex very briefly on a screen. They did not have time to consciously process the words to know what they were being primed with.
The fact there is no difference between imagined or subconscious exposure to concepts around love and sex would suggest that our brain’s reactions are processed beyond our conscious awareness.
What does this mean for our relationships?
Researchers suggest there are evolutionary reasons behind why love and sexual desire affect us in different ways.
When we’re in love, seeing the bigger picture may help us focus on building a future together, rather than getting stuck on minor details. And when we’re in a sexual situation, it may help to focus on details rather than the larger complexities of your partner or daily life.
It’s also been shown that being in love can create a bias towards being unrealistically positive about your partner, which only fades during critical turning points in a relationship. Otherwise, the concept of love remains positive, abstract and focused on the desire for long-term goals and commitment.
On the other hand, sexual desire has been shown to exist in the moment. Sexual goals tend to focus on immediate results, physical features of a potential partner, or specific steps of seduction.
The researchers also acknowledged that we are obviously far more complex than simply being controlled by our biological responses. Our background, gender, cultural influences and personal beliefs all affect our reactions to love and sex.
But knowing how we work on a subconscious level can help you gain a greater awareness of why you might behave a certain way in a relationship.
Are you allowing someone to treat you badly because you feel so in love that you can’t see their downsides? Are you making an unsafe sexual choice because you’re only focused in the moment?
This knowledge can also challenge some modern cultural beliefs. Many relationship experts suggest that if a couple really loves each other, they also should be having lots of sex. If love and sex are different psychological functions, this may not be true.
A healthy relationship could potentially include only sex or only love. Hookup culture or sexless marriages might not be the social problems they’re often made out to be.
You could also use these natural tendencies to your advantage. Try fantasizing about a sexual situation next time you’re studying for a big test or doing your taxes. Or maintain thoughts of love while working on an art project or planning a fun family vacation.
We’re all unique individuals who are far more than our biology, but there’s nothing wrong with making it work for us when we can.