To Be in Love Is a Sexual Instinct


A neophyte on romantic love would often ask “Why me?” as if on the initial stage, he already becomes a victim of a mystical occurrence. More questions that seem to be very personal and exclusive follow as the intensity of attachment strengthens. Love is one of the more prevailing baffling issues that plague humanity as reflected in various fields of study, such as literature and the arts. It is expressed and presented in various meanings and forms specifically in popular performing arts like music, movies, television, and various forms of literature. This is probably so because love affects the emotions of the majority of humans in all sexes and at varying ages, classes in society and stages of life. It seemed from the dawn of human consciousness, love as one song goes, is all around.

Incidentally, Alexander (1970) noted how philosophers avoided sex “as though sex had no significance for human thought, or as though it made no difference that the thinker was also a sexual creature,” (p 56). This paper will try to explain the role of sexual instinct in the process of loving or being in love and allude to it as a part of nature. It will try to provide an insight on the role of sexual attraction in a romantic relationship understood as “love”.

This paper will try to analyze how philosophers and psychologists throughout history have understood the interplay between sexual instinct and the entire human experience of love. Sexual attraction and instinct will be understood as both physical and emotional desire to bond or form attachment momentarily or in the long term.


Life and Human Relationships: Overview

Freud reduces the world and life itself to forces based on early sexual impulses and repressions. He contrasted the sexual instincts with the ego instincts as well as provided his insight of the juxtaposing between libido or the sexual instinct (eros) against Thanatos or death instincts (Bischler, 1939). Specifically, man manifests his desires and actions through direct and indirect expression of his erotic and aggressive impulses, and often disregards negative repercussions such as pain, prohibitions and penalties for his relationship.

This is seen, however as an act to seek happiness, satisfaction of need as well as avoidance of suffering. Man would soon discover that his moments of happiness are rare and transitory as suffering prevails in-between. As Freud described, his sufferings start “from his own body, doomed to disintegration and dissolution, from the environment, whose physical forces of destruction lie ceaselessly in wait for him, and from society, which constantly impedes the freedom of his movements,” (quoted by Bischler, 1939, p 89). This limits the happiness and actually prolongs suffering for the lover.

Freud has reduced most of the human behavior to physical causes, so that man’s actions are based on the id or the instinctual sense making the conscious ego a product of the sublimation of the primitive being. In addition, nervous and mental illnesses are understood as crystallization, a fixation or even a regression which could be deep, superficial, transitory or permanent reflecting a reality of conflicts (Bischler, 1939). With the influence of life, constructiveness and love, man seeks union and communion, a sexual partner to create with and diffuse life and energy. He seeks and attains enrichment as he both takes and gives.

Philosophers on Love

Schopenhauer has earlier suggested the role of freedom and will in human life closely connects with a universal, unknown and invisible force. Bischler (1939) suggested that dreams fulfill biopsychological functions to compensate the reality of disappointments and realization of wishes caused by the lack of psychic and emotional satisfaction. It was proposed to have ludic and cathartic functions linked with sex life (Bischler, 1939).

For Schopenhauer, the ethics of compassion and disinterestedness makes man leave behind the world of phenomena and sacrifice his ego to attain a passive and contemplative life. Thus, he is perceived to endorse the need to sacrifice and conquer desires and passions in order to attain true happiness. Schopenhauer is also seen to define love as spiritual and born from the pity for human suffering. As Bischler (1939) summed up:

“he exalts and glorifies […] love (which) has nothing in common with the sexual instinct; it is a feeling of sympathy and compassion with others, a wish to relieve them of their troubles, to share these with them. Love, kindness of heart, says the philosopher, transcends and surpasses every other virtue of man. It is this supreme quality, this generosity, which makes for tolerance and tenderness; it urges us to give and to give ourselves; it compensates us for all our miseries and weaknesses. Thus it hallows the pain which is the road to altruism, to sacrifice and to supreme compassion,” (p 96).

On the other hand, researchers have also noted the regressive emphasis of psychoanalysts like Carl Jung on love. Nietzsche is said to have commented,

“…the philosopher abhors marriage, together with that which persuade to it – marriage being a hindrance and a calamity on his path to the optimum. What great philosopher hitherto has been married? Heraclitus, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer – they were not; more, one cannot even imagine them marries, A married philosopher belongs on comedy, that is my proposition – and as for that exception, Socrates – the malicious Socrates, it would seem, married ironically, just to demonstrate this proposition,” (Kauffman and Hollingdale, undated).

Nietszche, known for his biting sarcasm on timeless truths about life, could not have said it better for philosophers. It only means that those who think and ponder the most (philosophers) agree that there is more than what the senses could take when it comes to erotic love so that they devote their time to other pursuits.

The Psychology of Sex and Love

Philosophers and social scientists have always tried to defy the popular (i.e., as expressed in movies, music and pop culture) understanding, depicting love and sex as interlinked but Aron and Aron (1991, 33) argued that “love is really sex” or that interchangeably, “sex is really love” making it a continuum reinforcing earlier understanding that romantic love is estimated to be 90% sexual desire wanting to be sated (Bercheid, 1988).

For the Arons, love is a self-expansion model that augments and enlarges the Self. Hatfield and Rapson (1996) equated passionate love with sexual desire providing an overlapping of sex and love of the Arons’ continuum. As Hendrick and Hendrick (1987) proposed, “Love and sex are inextricably linked, with love as the basis for much of our sexual interaction, and sex as the medium of expression for much of our sexual interaction, and sex as the medium of expression for much of our loving,” (p 159). For these researchers, they suggest that sex and romantic love are inseparable and one goes automatically with the other.

However, various psychological models have emerged that further attributed influences and factors that affect, cause or relate to love and sex. Among these is the parental investment model — the reproductive fitness or evolutionary success in passing one’s genes as men impregnate as many women as possible whereas women invest on the infants they may produce (Hendrick and Hendrick, 2002). The evolutionary psychology approach joins this model emphasizing sex as a mechanism for reproduction setting aside love. But Lauman et al’s (1994) findings in their large-scale study of sexual behavior in the United States highlights the importance of love and affection to sexuality.

The respondents in monogamous relationships expressed the greatest emotional satisfaction and physical pleasure; on the other hand, Mellen (1981) stressed that bonding between parents guarantee infant survival suggesting that “…Most of us today have strong tendencies to love as well as to make love,” (p 141). As much as people start to realize what has been strongly avoided by philosophers, they are also convinced that there is someone for each of them.

Moreover, Sprecher and McKinney (1993) observed that sex is more acceptable in a loving relationship so that in an intimate relationship, men and to a larger degree women are motivated to have sex to express love. Hence, the amount of love experienced for a dating partner is positively linked with the level of sexual intimacy as well as desire for frequency of the act.

Another theory proposed was from social scientists who emphasize social forces, pressures and scripts (MacCorquodale, 1989). In a more recent study by the Hendricks (2002) that explored peoples’ perceptions of how sex and love could be related in their romantic relationships, four love scales were determined: love is a primary entity; sex is subsumed by love, love comes before sex, and sex is declining.

From a psychological perspective, Sternberg (1986) proposed the triangular theory of love composed of: a) intimacy or the feeling of closeness, connectedness and bonding in a loving relationship, b) passion which drives romance, physical and sexual attraction, and, c) commitment or decision either short term in knowing that one loves another or the long term which decides to maintain love.

In another study conducted by Gillath et al (2008), experimental evidence showed that sexual interest and arousal are linked with goals to form and maintain a close relationship. Exposure to sexual priming or erotic words and pictures increased,

  1. willingness to self-disclose,
  2. accessibility of intimacy-related thoughts,
  3. willingness to sacrifice for one’s partner, and
  4. preference for using positive conflict-resolution strategies,” (p 1057).

This study coincides with the belief that sexual behavior activates and conditions the physiological systems linked with pair-bonding and attachment among adults (Carter et al, 2005). Sex is a motivator for two people to connect and form a close relationship as well as a binding force that holds them together long enough for love and the attachment system to take over and sustain the bonding.

If it is of any consequence, there is a connection between the Schopenhauer theory about love as an ultimate goal to sacrifice for your beloved and the psychological theory of providing satisfaction in sex as a component of love. In providing satisfaction for someone a person loves, he forgets about his own satisfaction, thus, the person being loved attains happiness and contentment in the process, as the studies mentioned have proven.

Spiritual and Instinctual Components of Love

Falling in love has also been linked to culture, as if a form of a universal requirement that those who love each other get married, and expect more than erotic love in marriage (Colman, 1994). Being in love is ancient and universal and assumed greater importance in the erotic lives of other people and cultures more than their counterparts in other regions or localities.

Colman (1994) suggested, however, that modern romantic love drew its variation from antiquity as already demonstrated by Greek and Indian myths. Exploring on the sexual and spiritual phenomenon of erotic love, Colman (1994) suggests that it is rooted in the body and inextricably linked to the imagination to the point of poetry. He has linked it with the Greek’s Eros, thus the erotic spirit.

Drawing from Jung, Colman describes the erotic spirit as an archetype of the collective unconscious manifested in many different forms with unknown essence. They give rise to common patterns of behavior as constantly experienced by humans of all ages and places with a peculiar and distinctive characteristic Jung called, “numinosity” (Jung, 1947, 405). Here, the individual feels helpless and controlled beyond his will although with the two poles of spiritual and instinctual.

Colman (1994) explicitly notes that, “Sexuality is a powerful urge but the erotic spirit is more like a divine – or demonic – visitation” (p 499). This spirit seeks sexual or physical consummation, yet is not fully extinguished by it and when intensity rises, longing, regret and poetry enter. While erotic love exhibits the spiritual and unknown, it does not leave the instinct. A balance is implied by Jung when he suggests that the consciousness should not subordinate the instinct to the spirit as grotesque spiritual complications may draw out of the biological sensuality.

Belief in the erotic spirit may be traced back to the prehistoric ea with the fertility goddesses prior to Judeo-Christianity: Hathar in Egypt, Ishtar in Assyria, Aphrodite in Greece (Larousse, 1959) and Devi among the Hindus of India. In Aphrodite, no one is spared of love uniting the instinct and the spirit of which Homer merits through her girdle containing all kinds of seduction, desire and sweet dalliance which ”entrals the hearts of even the wisest,” (quoted from Colman, 1994, p 500). As Jung noted, there exists fatal compulsion in love, which worsens when one is not in love, that love can be hell and can be heaven, terrible and ensnaring or delightful and enchanting (Colman, 1994). But as earlier described by Freud, it is but rare and momentary experience, as described by Patmore’s (1973) poem:

Love wakes men, once a lifetime each;

They lift their heavy lids, and look;

And, lo, what one sweet page can teach,

They read with joy, then shut the book.

And some give thanks, and some blaspheme

And most forget; but either way,

That and the Child’s unheeded dream

Is the light of all their day. (Quoted from Colman, 1994, p 501)

Going back, even philosophers are not spared of love, as Freud already theorized: “All these tendencies are an expression of the same instinctual impulses,” (Strachey, 1957) that craving for sexual union. Yet there are always preventive and divertive circumstances that either intensify or dampen the feeling. Alexander (970) cited Judeo-Christian sexuality from the writings in the Bible to the romantic works of art highlighting the religious union of spirituality and sexuality such as depicted on the sculpture of St. Theresa in Ecstasy. Alexander (1970) analyzed the crisis in western male sexuality, which was caused by philosophical challenges to man’s primary cosmic position and thus his control over his erotic energy.

As Plato described in the ladder of love in his Symposium, there is a distinction between sexual and spiritual love. Sexual love is the first step of the ladder going up to the consummation of absolute beauty. It is popularized by the myth of Androgyne also depicted in the Shiva and Shakti myth. This story tells of an originally whole characteristic of two human beings who challenged Zeus, who divided them apart. The severance created a longing for the two to be reunited, and find wholeness once again to heal the wound of human suffering. As Plato (1951) proposed, there is the desire “to melt into their beloved and that henceforth they should be one instead of two. The reason is that this was our primitive condition when we were whole,” (p 64).

The popularity, however, of Christianity’s doctrines from St. Paul separating sex from the spirit severed Plato’s ladder. His exposition on the desires of the flesh as against the spirit made the two mutually hostile enemies, so that early troubadours of history were seen depicting unreachable erotic love and unfulfilled desire (Colman, 1994). The Middle Ages’ romantic love also depicted erotic love as the enchantment of a moment and separate with physical ecstasy and sexual gratification.

Plato’s ladder theory, however, was exorcised as poets and Western Christians such as John Donne celebrate spirituality and sexuality as intrinsic to achieve what is greater than the self. The lovers are inside a sealed world which Donne describes as “make one little roome, an every where” in The Good-morrow (Colman, 1994, p 506). In the process from infanthood where there was the mother and the baby, to separation of the child to his mother, until such time he discovers the possibility of finding that love in a romantic relationship once again.

Plato’s Androgyne is echoed, but here, Colman (1994) recalls the story of Narcissus who felt obsessed with his reflection showing three features of the erotic spirit: illusion, idealization, and the sense of unquenchable longing that in turn causes pain and suffering. In this situation, love’s bliss is seen as illusion, as lovers need also to accept the inevitability of parting and separation.

In the process where separation is mixed with sexual urgency, erotic passion leads to madness and disease. “Psychologically, it has been described as extraordinary hallucination or even temporary psychosis,” (Coleman, 1994, p 508). This notion and actual prevalent experiences of men made erotic love acceptable as still undefined kind of illness.


There is a prevailing notion amidst convincing arguments about the separation of the physical from the emotional, psychological, or spiritual realms of erotic love, and the role of sex in love. Physiological, sociological and psychological studies have pointed out the parallel roles of both physical and a higher form of awareness about the role of sex and the physical aspect of a person in romantic relationship, specifically love.

This has been, however, downplayed by either Judeo-Christian religion or philosophy as it tries to separate physical from the spiritual or even intellectual. As noted, philosophers veered away from the direct confrontation of erotic love or sexuality as it focused on a purified form of love as if this is entirely separate in romantic or erotic love. The same can be said of religion, which further severed the physicality and psychology or spirituality of erotic love.

This leaves the followers of religion and philosophy torn and confused so that it embraces one and discards another, leaving a huge gap and maintaining the mysticism that has been perceived from ancient times about erotic love.

As psychology argues, this should not be the case. Humans should both accept and understand the union of these spiritual or psychological and physical or instinctual aspects of erotic love. In doing so, the importance of understanding expectations and roles of these aspects are intertwined in a relationship for a more positive outcome and the smoother construction of a romantic relationship. It is therefore necessary to treat sexual instinct as an intrinsic part of a romantic relationship or in the process of loving to experience love’s full capacity.


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