Psychological Differences Between Making Love and Having Sex

Making love and having sex are two different experiences. They also have different repercussions on a psychological and emotional level. Find out how they differ.
Psychological Differences Between Making Love and Having Sex
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 29 August, 2023

What’s the difference between making love and having sex? This is a much-debated issue and everyone tends to have their own opinion on the matter. For instance, some peoply enjoy casual encounters, while for others, affection is essential. In fact, the same person’s preferences can vary depending on the context and moment. However, what are the psychological differences between making love and having sex?

There’s no universal or objective distinction between these two concepts since language is only an abstract construction for naming specific realities. Therefore, the terms may not have the same meaning for everyone. But, they do share some common factors.

Similar but different experiences

To better understand in what aspects these concepts differ, we’re going to start by defining each one.

Having sex means having intercourse or other activities of a sexual nature with another person to satisfy a desire. These encounters can be occasional or repeated and may vary in frequency, type of contact, and degree of personal revelation, as suggested by Wentland & Reissing (2011) in research published in The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality. Sex starts from a physiological impulse or an attraction toward another individual and is aimed at gratification or pleasure.

On the other hand, making love can be defined as sexual activity with another person as an expression of mutual love. In this case, the motives include the desire to become emotionally close to the other person, generate intimacy, and express the affection or admiration felt for them.

Thus, we can say that the main difference between the two experiences is the degree to which there’s an affective bond and the role that this takes during the encounter.

Psychological differences between making love and having sex

The above arguments give an idea of the distinctions between these two experiences. But, what does each one imply on a psychological level? Here are some keys to recognizing them, based on the acts, thoughts, and emotions involved.

Level of affectivity

The difference between making love and having sex usually lies in feelings. During a casual encounter, the individual might feel attraction, desire, or even appreciation for the other person. However, they don’t experience romantic love and emotions don’t play a major role.


When someone has sex with another person, their objective tends to set the tone. For example, those who are acting on physical impulse or following through the result of a physical attraction, are merely having sex. On the other hand, those who want to connect with the other person, create emotional intimacy, and continue cultivating their relationship are making love.

Verbal and non-verbal expression

For many people, verbal and non-verbal language is decisive in the difference between making love and having sex. In the first case, more delicacy or subtlety is employed. Each individual dedicates more time to seducing the other person and captivating them with soft words and caresses.

On the contrary, having sex is an experience more focused on touch and physical sensations. As a rule, less time is devoted to cultivating desire. Moreover, both verbal and non-verbal language is more direct and aimed at achieving pleasure and orgasm.

However, it all depends on the tastes and preferences of each individual, as there are some less subtle sexual practices in which an absence of feelings isn’t necessary. In fact, forms of expression vary from person to person.

Self or mutual gratification

Another relevant aspect is the consideration that the individual has for their sexual partner, and their desires, needs, and preferences. Of course, every intimate encounter should involve care and responsibility toward the other person, but it’s more common that, when making love, individuals are focused on giving pleasure and making each other feel good.

On the other hand, when having sex, the individual can become somewhat selfish and only attend to their own tastes and desires. Again, this differs greatly from one individual to another.

Postcoital attitude

Since having sex involves an exchange, above all a physical kind, the interaction often isn’t continued after the sexual act is over. For instance, the sexual partners don’t tend to share hugs, caresses, or words of affection (as happens after making love). As a matter of fact, if there’s any conversation, it often revolves around topics unrelated to the link between them.

Future expectations

When having sex, commitment or continuity isn’t expected beyond that moment. On the other hand, when making love, both people assume that their link is going to last over time and that they’ll usually share plans for a life together.

Is making love or having sex better?

These two options are equally valid and the preference for one over the other comes from different determinants. For example, the personality, values, or ideology of each individual. Also, the situation they find themselves in. Each alternative has its own consequences.

The health benefits of sex are undeniable and well-documented. Sex has been seen to help relieve pain, reduce stress, and boost natural immunity. In addition, having sex on a regular basis helps us look and feel younger and even live longer. This is suggested by a study conducted by Dr. David Weeks published in Sexual and Relationship Therapy.

Having casual sex is one way of reaping these benefits, even if the individual doesn’t want to be romantically involved or committed long-term. However, casual sex can generate anxiety and a lack of confidence. This can have a negative impact on an individual’s psychological health, according to a study published in the Journal of Sex Research.

Additionally, components such as post-sex affective exchanges are important for greater sexual satisfaction (Muise et al., 2014). These aren’t usually present in loveless encounters.

Although it may seem surprising, making love is more valued than having sex, even by young people. Indeed, a doctoral thesis conducted by a graduate of the University of Granada (Spain) found that university students considered sex accompanied by love to be the most pleasurable of experiences.

Making the decision

Everyone is different, and how we approach the differences between making love and having sex depends on our individual perspectives. It’s essential to understand ourselves and be in contact at all times with what we want and need so we can choose freely.

Some resort to casual sex as an escape from their emotions or unpleasant situations in their lives. Others have these kinds of encounters on the spur of the moment, only to end up feeling hurt and used or rejected afterward.

On the other hand, there are those who, after getting to know each other and listening to each other, decide that, at that moment, having sex without love is a good alternative and they enjoy the experience without suffering any problems (Mark et al., 2015). Therefore, we should always evaluate our situations and, above all, make sure that our encounters are consensual and safe. We need to find pleasure in the ways that best suit our individual preferences.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.