Why Some People Have An Easier Time Separating Sex & Emotion

Photographed by Lula Hyers.
On the last season of Girls, Hannah goes to surf school and hooks up with one of the instructors. They have a one-night stand, and afterwards she learns that the instructor has a girlfriend. He tells Hannah that he was under the impression that she wasn't looking for something serious. At first, Hannah is mad, but then she decides to try and enjoy the rest of the weekend with him, no strings attached. As it turns out (spoiler alert), there were some strings attached, because Hannah gets pregnant. Baby aside, this is a relatively common experience: Two people have sex, and come out with totally different emotional takeaways from the same experience. So why does this happen? And why do some people have an easier time separating emotions and sex?
Sex and emotion are inherently linked, but people have different motivations for wanting to keep the two thoughts separate, says Lisa Thomas, LCSW, LMFT, a sex and relationships expert. And it can be easier for some people than it is for others to do this. In certain cases, the reason why some people connect sex and emotion, while others don't, has to do with the way that we enter into a relationship in the first place.
Online dating makes it easier for people to be able to compartmentalise emotions and sex, Thomas says. Finding a sexual partner used to be a labour-intensive process, but now you can find someone to hook up with, date, or even marry with a few swipes on a dating app, she says. "There's a lot more openness in general with sex and sexuality; it's celebrated now." (And that, of course, is a good thing.)
Although technology has made casual sex easier for everyone, how a person responds to a hookup or one-night stand is still very individual, says Rachel Needle, PsyD, a licensed psychologist and director of Modern Sex Therapy Institutes. "It's important for a person to understand their motivations behind it, and how they will respond to [a causal hookup] after the fact," she says. Even if you're someone who aims to have little-to-no emotional attachment with your sexual partners, there are still some biological reasons why emotion may eventually come into the equation.
You might have heard that women get more attached after sex than men do, but that's not actually true, Dr. Needle says. No matter your gender, "hormones released during orgasm, including oxytocin, increase bonding, making you feel closer to, and more trusting of, your partner," Dr. Needle says. Researchers have studied how people's brains respond to sex, and a 2012 study found that there's an overlap between sexual desire and emotional love in the brain's insular cortex. So love and lust are definitely different entities in your brain, and they can overlap.
"Just the act of being sexually vulnerable may produce a connection for some people," says Kristin Zeising, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and couples therapist in San Diego. And some people may incorrectly interpret these feelings of connectedness as deeper than they actually are, or they might "mistake the feeling of being physically close, and the feelings that come along with that, with an actual, real connection," she says.
Often, what's really at play when we talk about sex and emotion, is one person's ability to be vulnerable with another person, Thomas says. "I think your ability to separate sex and emotion correlates to how you feel about sex, how you think about sex, and how much sexual experience you have," Thomas says. If you're someone who hasn't had a ton of sexual experience, for example, you might feel more vulnerable about your hookups, simply because there's more weight to them, Thomas says. But again, there are so many factors that go into how one person feels or thinks about sex, and everyone is different.
There's no "good" or "bad" way to view sex and emotion, because ultimately you should do what works for your relationship and makes you happy. Non-monogamous people might find that it's best to have separate partners who fulfill different emotional or sexual needs at once. Those in a monogamous relationship could have passionate, emotional sex one day, and then fiery, emotionless sex another day with the same person. Compartmentalising can also remove performance expectations during sex, which "allows us to be more sexually free and take the pressure we often put on ourselves during sex," Dr. Needle says.
No matter what the terms of your relationship are, you should communicate about your desires and expectations before you have sex, if possible, she says. "And continue to communicate about them if they relationship continues." That doesn't have to involve any sort of grand statement, but if you tell the person you're hooking up with what you're looking for, that will save you a lot of headache and potentially heartbreak down the line. "People might feel disappointment or rejection if they are not on the same page while engaging in sexual activity," Dr. Zeising says.
Whichever category you tend to fall into, just know that there's no "right" way to think about sex, and how you feel can change depending on the person (and the day). A good philosophy to live by? Dan Savage's campsite rule: Leave every person you sleep with in at least as good of a state as you found them. Hopefully, your partners will strive to do the same.
The video below, from SkinDeep, explores how the impressions created by dating profiles play out in real life, and how those expectations align when potential couples meet for the first time. SkinDeep creates content focused on the nuances of human connections in the digital age.

More from Sex & Relationships

R29 Original Series