Is sex a form of love?

What connects sexuality, love and jealousy in the partnership?

Love and sexuality

If one compares love and sexuality, some differences become apparent: Sexuality is primarily a biological need that all human beings share. Your goal is physical satisfaction. The partner love is not a universal, biological need - at all times there should have been people who did not experience this love. And as the sexual need for satisfaction disappears - like hunger for satiety - separation from the loved one triggers violent longing for her.

So love and sexuality are different from each other, but very closely related. One can have very different opinions about the nature of this connection. An extreme view can be pointed to the statement: "Love is actually sexuality", the other extreme to: "Sexuality is actually love". A third belief between these two poles is: “Sexuality is part of love”.

Love is actually sexuality

This point of view says that all love relationships are based on the sex drive - love is, seen in this way, a mere by-product of sexuality.

A well-known exponent of this idea is Sigmund Freud. Freud by no means confused love with sexuality, but he saw sensual and sexual strivings as the origin of tender strivings. He saw love as an expression of the whole sexual tendency, in which all sexual desires are directed towards one person. Rather pessimistic, however, he did not believe that all sexual strivings can be satisfied in long-term human relationships: Humans must either forego the stability of their relationship or full enjoyment.

Sexuality is actually love

In this view at the other extreme, sexuality is only an expression of the longing for love and unity with another person - sexual pleasure is a “child of love”, not the other way around.

This idealistic idea of ​​sexuality and love was represented, for example, by the motivational psychologist Abraham Maslow. He made a distinction between a lack of love and a self-actualizing love. This subdivision is based on his distinction between deficiency and growth motivation: Growth-motivated people are no longer motivated by the deficiency needs for security, belonging, love, status and self-respect because they have already satisfied these needs. You have no deficiency symptoms and strive for self-realization. In this way, they are also free for self-actualizing love: unlike those who are motivated by deficiency, they are not driven to the other, but drawn to him.

Maslow, too, made a distinction between sexuality and love. But he said that in self-actualizing people both can connect and merge. Accordingly, self-actualizing people would be more likely to reject sex if it offered itself without love and affection.

Sex is part of love

This view lies between the two described so far; she sees sexuality as a more or less important aspect of love. An example of this view is the distinction between “colors of love” as presented in the article “Love from a social-psychological point of view”.

Another example is the model by Ulrich Mees: He understands partner love as a person's tendency to experience or show a certain pattern of feelings, thoughts and actions towards the loved one. These feelings, thoughts and behaviors change with the strength of love - so one can deduce from them how strong the love is.

The three strongest feelings (of a total of 30 feelings and actions examined) in the "greatest love so far" are:

  1. strong affection for the loved one,
  2. Grief at the end of this love and
  3. Happiness in reciprocation of love.

Sexual desire plays a lesser role in “greatest love” - it was judged to be the least true of all 30 thoughts, feelings, and actions. However, sexual desire is also an important indicator of partner love, because it was classified as more appropriate for the “greatest love” than for a “mere love affair that you ended yourself”. 70% of the respondents also considered physical desire to be “indispensable” when they are in love and 65% when they are in love with a partner.

Sexual desire is therefore a part of love among many, but it is not predominant: it is not sexual attraction that leads to being in love, but rather in being in love one recognizes in the other an abundance of lovable traits and characteristics, including one (more or less great) erotic attraction.

What connections do couples see between love and sexuality?

Which of the three views described - “Love is actually sexuality”, “Sexuality is actually love” and “Sexuality is part of love” - is of course influenced by the circumstances under which a sexual relationship is desired and enjoyed. Problems can also arise if a couple's ideas do not match (see article “Sexuality in Marriage”).

Most people have already experienced sexual desire even without love, as we know from surveys. This happens a little more often to men; but the difference between men and women is not very great. The opposite experience - falling in love without sexual desire - is far less common, for both men and women.

So if sexual desire is possible without love, then when is sex most beautiful? Only a small minority of men and women believe that sex is most beautiful when there is no love involved. The vast majority are of the opposite opinion: Sex is best with someone you are in love with or with someone you love.

So sex and love can be separated from each other; however, both together are clearly preferred.

Jealousy, love and sexuality

Very few couples are completely spared the stressful feeling of jealousy: According to surveys, around 90% of those questioned have already been jealous - often not without reason, since estimates for marital infidelity range up to 75% of couples in whom one partner has already been unfaithful .

The relationship of jealousy with love and sexuality is interesting on several points. First, one can fundamentally differ in how jealousy relates to love:

  • Jealousy is a sign of distrust and puts a strain on the love relationship.
  • Jealousy is a sign of love and protects the partnership against "intruders" from outside.

Second, the beliefs about the relationship between love and sexuality come back into play: It is crucial to the strength of jealousy whether the rival relationship of the partner is viewed more as a sexual or a love relationship or whether the two aspects are not separated at all. This separation of sexual and emotional infidelity is also used in a number of ways to reduce jealousy.

Jealousy and love

A critical view of jealousy is that it is basically a sign of distrust and resentment and is incompatible with love. One of the most striking illustrations of this view is Shakespeare's image of jealousy as a “green-eyed monster” that mocks the love on which it lives. On the other hand, there is the more positive view that jealousy shows the other how important they are and protects the relationship against rivals. Seen in this way, jealousy actually strengthens and stabilizes the couple relationship.

There is truth in each of these opposing views - depending on the type of jealousy you have in mind: "suspicious jealousy" or jealousy, if there are clear signs of the partner's infidelity:

Jealousy when the partner is or could become unfaithful is basically an expression of the desire to maintain the love relationship and the fear of losing it to a rival. Seen in this way, jealousy is of course also a sign of love for the partner.
But: There is also a suspicious jealousy in which one partner sees already harmless incidents as “evidence” of the other's infidelity or is constantly looking for such “evidence”. This type of jealousy without a specific reason tends to indicate a low level of trust in the partner. It can be very stressful for the partner who feels wrongly suspected and controlled.

In everyday language, this second type of jealousy is usually meant when describing someone as jealous. For this reason, jealousy often has a negative connotation of suspicion and pettiness.

But why exactly is it so depressing when the partner becomes or could become unfaithful?

Of course, one reason is that the cheated person is afraid of losing his partner completely to his rival. But also affairs, in which the unfaithful partner never thinks about separation, are a bad experience for most. The focus here is not on the fear of losing the partner. The bad thing about it is that with infidelity something is lost that fundamentally defines their love for partners: the uniqueness and exclusivity of love. The partner's infidelity thus affects the character of the love relationship at its core: the love that is supposed to be shared is no longer the same as the previous undivided, exclusive love of the partner.

Jealousy and loyalty norms

Which concrete behavior of the partner in the eyes of the jealous already violates the exclusivity of love can be very different - also within a couple. Most agree that love includes sexual fidelity and that they would not tolerate sexual infidelity - but where exactly does sexual infidelity begin? Isn't it also possible to allow the other sexual freedom if this does not affect one's own love relationship? And can't emotional intimacy with third parties also go too far? For example, is it acceptable if

  • the partner is obviously enjoying herself at a party with another man?
  • the partner has a best friend to whom he confides things that he would not tell his partner?
  • “Do you go out“ in the evening without ”him“ with friends? Or with a mixed group?
  • the partner kisses another woman deeply?

Couples can answer these questions in different ways; there are no generally applicable standards for this. It is important, however, that the partners know each other's tolerance limits, but also their wishes for independence, and that they come to an agreement that is acceptable to both of them.

Often such ideas remain unspoken. However, if a couple is having trouble with jealousy, it can help to establish specific rules of loyalty. These protect the stability of the relationship and give the partners greater security.

Jealousy of sexual and emotional infidelity of the partner

If jealousy has to do with the loss of the exclusivity and uniqueness of the love relationship, what is actually worse: the violation of sexual or emotional exclusivity? For example, which of these two situations is worse:

  • The partner spends a passionate night with a third person without developing a close relationship.
  • The partner develops a close emotional relationship with a third person of the opposite sex without having a sexual affair.

In corresponding studies, the majority of those questioned judged that the close emotional relationship was worse. A clear majority of women are of this opinion. For men, the proportions of those who find emotional infidelity and those who find sexual infidelity worse are roughly equal.

The research results of the American psychologists David DeSteno and Peter Salovey lead back to the relationships between love, sexuality and jealousy. They show that the relationship between sexuality and love a person assumes is crucial for the strength of jealousy:

  • Sexual infidelity was particularly bad for those who felt that those who were sexually unfaithful were also likely to be emotionally unfaithful.
  • Emotional infidelity was particularly bad for those who believed that emotional infidelity usually sooner or later also meant sexual infidelity.

Depending on their convictions, people feel “doubly betrayed” if the partner is emotionally or sexually unfaithful. So whoever considers “sex without love” to be improbable, reacts more sensitively to a sexual escapade of the partner; those who consider "love without sex" to be rare find an emotional bond with their partner more threatening.

How can couples deal with jealousy?

If you realize that behind jealousy there is basically the fear of losing your partner's love, then you can accept jealousy as a “normal” part of love relationships. Because for most people, their love relationship is one of the most important areas of life that they definitely do not want to lose. Even so, jealousy can become a problem that both partners have to deal with. It is particularly difficult when a partner repeatedly and violently reacts jealously on trivial occasions ("pathological" jealousy). But jealousy on understandable occasions can also become a burden to which the couple has to react.

Dealing with morbid jealousy

One speaks of “pathological” jealousy when a person often reacts jealously in a way that others cannot understand the reason for and the severity of the reaction. It is a serious danger if the person concerned uses or threatens violence against the partner or rival. This jealousy is less of a couple problem than one of the jealous personality. It is highly recommended that you seek professional help in these cases. Suitable contact points are e.g. psychological psychotherapists and specialists in psychiatry and psychotherapy.

Dealing with "normal" jealousy

Even if the jealousy does not exceed the "normal level", which is still understandable, there can be good reasons to look for solutions and better ways of dealing with things. For example when

  • a partner has been unfaithful and the couple wants to save the relationship.
  • one partner wants more freedom than the other tolerates.
  • the couple is in an open sexual relationship and wants to reduce their jealousy.

In these cases, jealousy (or infidelity) is a couple conflict in which both have to coordinate their expectations and needs. In many cases this is certainly possible without professional help; Otherwise, marriage and family counseling centers can be a point of contact.

An important point at which a solution to this conflict can begin is the agreement of loyalty norms mentioned above. Couples who want to allow themselves greater sexual freedom, for example, often orientate themselves towards a loyalty norm that separates sexuality and love from one another. The partners admit to being sexually intimate with others - but not to falling in love with others. So you renounce sexual exclusivity, but strengthen your love relationship through emotional exclusivity. A sexual relationship between the partner is then less threatening, since it is not equated with a lack of love.

Even in a less radical form than completely renouncing sexual fidelity, “moderate” fidelity norms can help to deal with jealousy - especially since the idea of ​​absolute exclusivity is illusory: The idea that you are the only lovable or sexually attractive person for your partner cannot be implemented . However, such absolute standards of loyalty are often the cause of jealousy and couple conflicts. Milder loyalty norms that can replace these unrealistic ideas could be, for example:

  • “The partner also finds others sexually attractive, but only with me is he actually sexually intimate” or
  • “The partner also finds others lovable, but only with me does he actually live in a love relationship”.

Another important task when dealing with jealousy or with the infidelity of the partner is the strengthening of the couple bond: On the one hand, a sexual affair usually weakens the couple bond (see article "Sexuality in marriage"), on the other hand, jealousy is often a sign of one weak bond. One way of strengthening the couple's bond (again) is to emphasize what they have in common, which may be in the common past, future plans or interests. Another possibility is for the couple to ensure a mutual bond - be it through words or gestures and symbols.

Both for dealing with jealousy and for the relationships between love, sexuality and jealousy, however, the general rule is that there are no “right” answers and solutions for all times and all couples. What role sexuality plays in love, under what circumstances and how strongly the partners experience jealousy and what this means for love, is not determined once and for all. These questions must be agreed in every love relationship between the partners; even in a partnership, the answers are not fixed for all eternity. Rather, partners will deal with these questions again and again in the course of the mutual relationship history and possibly come to different answers at different times.


  • Mees, U. (1997). Love and being in love. Insights - research magazine of the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, 25, pp. 12-15 (on the Internet at
  • Mees, U. & Schmitt, A. (2000). Love, sexuality and jealousy. In P. Kaiser (ed.). Partnership and couple therapy. Pp. 53-74. Göttingen: Hogrefe.
  • Schmitt, A. (2000). Jealousy. Bergisch Gladbach: BLT. Human & Knowledge series.
  • Schmitt, A. (1997). Jealousy - a child of love. Insights - Research magazine of the University of Oldenburg, 25, pp. 15-17 (on the Internet at


Dr. Annette Schmitt
Institute for Psychology
University of Oldenburg
26111 Oldenburg

Tel .: 0441 / 798-5519

Prof. Dr. Ulrich Mees
Institute for Psychology
University of Oldenburg
26111 Oldenburg

Tel .: 0441 / 798-5516

Created on September 2nd, 2004, last changed on September 2nd, 2004