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What Draws Us to the Body of the Person We Love?

... and if you fall out of love, why does that attraction stop?

Key points

  • A relationship may begin with attraction, sex, or liking, and evolve into love.
  • In some cases, physical attraction and love co-evolve.
  • If the promise of love is fulfilled, two people may become able to give each other a sense of completion just by holding each other.
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Romantic love may or may not involve sex (though psychopaths may equate the two),1 and relationships that involve sex may or may not be loving. Let us begin with sex without love. Could we add anything to sex to make it love?

It may be tempting to suppose that we can; that sex is an element that one can blend with other elements such as mutual liking and enjoying each other’s company, and get the cocktail known as “love.” In this view, when there is sex without love, that’s because some other key ingredient is missing.

Upon reflection, however, that seems unlikely to be true. Two friends may like each other, enjoy each other’s company, and have sex, but have no romantic love. They are, as some say, “friends with benefits.”

It is true that a relationship may begin with sex and evolve into love. I don’t think this pattern was common historically, but today, there are many cases in which a loving, committed relationship begins with sex.

In such cases, however, people are not adding missing ingredients to sex. Rather, sex helps them cross conversational boundaries that they may find difficult to cross otherwise, and it thereby creates the conditions for emotional closeness. The lovers come to feel freer in each other’s presence and able to talk about intimate matters. Emotional closeness, in turn, paves the path to love.

In fact, I suspect an ex is often perceived by a current partner as a threat precisely because of the inkling that two people who have been physically together could maintain a level of intimacy that may persist after a breakup. (The threat is sometimes illusory as former lovers may become strangers if, for instance, there was too much fantasy and wishful thinking in the relationship, and the two discover they were all along a very bad match.)

Love without Sex

Italian poet Petrarca wrote more than 300 love sonnets for a young woman believed to be Laura de Noves, a Frenchwoman married to another man when the poet met her. So far as we know, the two were never together. Some of the sonnets were written after Laura’s death from the plague. Maybe, that's love without sex.

It could be, however–and probably is–that Petrarca only imagined himself to be in love with Laura or rather, that he fell in love with a figment of his own imagination, not with the real Laura, exhibiting a tendency we have to get enamored with fantasies that I discuss elsewhere.

Let us then consider a different type of example. A character named Jake Barnes from Hemingway's 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises is incapable of sexual intimacy due to injury. A person in that situation may nonetheless be in a loving, romantic relationship.

In Hemingway's novel, Jake Barnes's love, Brett Ashley, does not want to be more than (good) friends with Jake. The reasons for this are complex and by no means reducible to Jake's inability to have sex, but Jake’s injury is probably not helping.

However, we can well imagine a different woman in Brett’s place who falls in love with Jake and makes a commitment to him. There may be sadness in a celibate relationship of this sort, but that sadness may be further evidence of the depth of love. Indeed, we can imagine a case in which the partner who cannot have sex, in a spirit of generosity, encourages the able-bodied one to have sex with others, and the able-bodied one does so.

Let us grant, then, that there is sex and even good sex without romantic love and that, on the flip side, there is romantic love without sex. One may suggest at this point that love involves a strong physical component but that the important physical component is attraction.


By all appearances, Petrarca was attracted to Laura–though the two never had sex–as many of the poems he wrote are about her beauty, including her physical beauty. Similarly, a woman in Brett Ashley’s position, if she fell in love with a man such as Jake, would likely desire his body. It is just that sexual intercourse would be impossible. The same would go for Jake.

More generally, when two people discover that even though they like each other, they do not desire each other, they typically conclude they cannot be together. If they stay together for reasons of convenience or because the arrangement is the best alternative each of the two has, there is something unsatisfying about the union, something missing.

Attraction, then, though not necessarily sex, appears to be essential in romantic love. However, love is not merely physical attraction. What exactly does romantic love have to do with attraction, then?

Here too, one may suppose that attraction is one of the ingredients; that mixing it with other essential elements such as enjoying the other's company will give us love.

But friends with benefits cases show the flaw in that idea: Some friends with benefits like each other, relish the time together, and are physically attracted to each other well enough, yet there is no love.

In other cases, physical attraction and love co-evolve. People become more attracted or attracted in a different way in proportion as they come to love. It is as though the embrace of a loved one becomes deeper with time. A silent embrace early on in a relationship is a bit like dreaming side by side. The lovers are savoring a promise. They are next to each other but may or may not be wishing for the same thing.

As months go by, the promise may remain unfulfilled. If so, the two often cease to be physically attracted. Their bodies remain largely unchanged, and they may not have been together for long enough to tire of each other physically yet, the attraction is no longer there. Why?

The answer is that through the body, each was attracted to what each imagined to be the other person. The body was not the final destination: The psyche, the soul was. Once the final destination is revealed to be misguided, the journey itself comes to seem pointless.

If, however, the promise is fulfilled, the lovers’ embrace gradually becomes richer–much richer–as it contains years of shared history, better knowledge of the other, joint battles, burdens, and joys. In other words, more togetherness.

Attraction, thus, changes as we come to love. While we may begin by fantasizing about love in part because we are physically attracted, later, we find ourselves drawn to the body because we love the person. Not surprisingly, the beloved’s body is not simply a body we desire but a body we care about; one we want to protect and treat gently. It is the precious body of the one we love.

If the promise of love is fulfilled, two people may become able to give each other a sense of completion just by holding each other. The embrace is now pregnant with meaning. This is never the case at the stage of mere physical attraction.

This explains why something is missing from sex–even very good sex–when there is no love and, more importantly, why we long for the beloved’s body as we do not for anyone else’s. One attractive person may be an adequate substitute for another if we love neither, but no one can replace the person we love.

Novelist Iris Murdoch, in The Black Prince, says similarly:

The absolute yearning of one human body for another particular body and its indifference to substitutes is one of life's major mysteries. There are, I am told, people who just want 'a woman' or 'a man.' I cannot conceive of this state of affairs, and it does not concern me.2

The point about yearning for a particular body is well-taken. Contra Murdoch, however, there is no mystery here if we understand what actually happens: Attraction to a soulmate, whatever it may have been at first, is not truly physical. It is gentler, deeper, and more intense than its purely physical counterpart. It tolerates no substitutes for its object. We may call it amour's rather than the body's own special magnetic force. This attraction can perceive what is invisible to the eyes. It sees the heart and mind shine through the other's physical movements. It is the attraction of love.

This essay reproduces two passages from my "Beyond I and Thou: Intimacy’s Pronouns," Journal of Philosophy of Emotion 2-1 (2020): 20–26.

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[1] Kiehl, K. (2015). The Psychopath Whisperer. New York, NY. Broadway Books.

[2] Murdoch, I. (1973). The Black Prince. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 326.

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