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Loving Vs Lusting

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emmelyne asks:

How do I know if my relationship is purely based on lust? I am unsure about the difference between "love" and "lust". I really really adore my boyfriend, but I wouldn't call it love yet. We've been together almost a couple of months now and I already trust him a lot, he is such a gentleman to me and I even feel ready to have sex with him. But I wouldn't say I was in love yet. How do I know? Thanks :)

Sam W replies:

The good news is, you're definitely not the first person to ask this question. People have been trying to parse out what, exactly, constitutes love for most of human history. And who can blame them? Loving someone, and feeling loved in return is, in its best form, a really wonderful emotion. And most of us don't want to miss out on experiencing it. So we look for a formula, an equation, some ultimate, objective definition that will tell us that what we are feeling is capital L Love. But love is more complicated than we'd like it to be, and that's what makes your question tricky to answer.

Can you guess where I'm going with this? Greece. Greece is where I'm going with this. Because the Greeks, instead of focusing on the idea of one, true version of love, acknowledged that there were many different kinds of love. Now, I am willing to bet that you kind of knew this already. For most of us, the love we feel for a parent, or a close friend, feels somehow distinct from the love we associate with romantic relationships. The Greeks recognized this diversity of loves. For instance, they had a type of love called eros (or eratos in modern Greek). This love can refer to erotic desire and passion or it can simply mean a deep or intimate connection. One thing to notice about this definition is that doesn't put sexual desire in a separate category from love. And that ties really importantly to your question about whether or not what you're feeling is "purely" lust.

Lust is often thought of as a less complex emotion than love, because we see it as being "only" about sex. That it's purely a physical desire, based on how attracted we are to someones body. But, even sexual attraction is variable and personal, and the equation for lust isn't always as simple as "I think person x is super sexy, ergo I wish to climb them like a tree." I would argue that, for many people, sexual desire is not purely physical, and that it also has an emotional component.

For instance, I have known many guys whose physical traits made them lust-worthy (by my standards), but who I never actively felt lust for because I found them to be jerks. I couldn't uncouple the personality from the body. Some people can, others have an even harder time doing so than I do. There can be instances where you care about someone a lot and are comfortable and happy having sex with them but it doesn't feel like love to you. And you can have a reverse scenario where someone has all the traits you look for and love in a person (brains, a sense of humor, charming smile, etc) but you're just not feeling any spark of desire. Attraction is weird like that.

What I am trying to get at with all of this is that lust (and sex) and love and neither mutually exclusive nor mutually inclusive. That is, loving someone romantically is not an indicator that you're ready to have sex, and wanting to have (or having) sex with someone does not necessarily mean that you love them. But at the same time, the lust you feel for someone may be part of why you love them, and the personal qualities that make you love them may influence how sexy you think they are.

I think we tend to conflate love and sex because a lot of our cultural influences do. I mean, how many stories (hint: a lot of them) use sex as a cipher for True Love? But readiness for sex is about certain factors (you'll find a check-list of them at the end of this article), only some of which may overlap with how you define love. You mention some of those important traits in you question. For instance, you say you trust your boyfriend, which hits high on my list of things that must happen before sex is on the table. So, if you feel attracted to and ready to have sex with him, and he feels the same, then that's a choice that is open to you. If it's important to you to only have sex with people you feel that you're in love with, that's also your choice.

Let's say that you're leaning towards that second option. That brings us right back to the question of how you can tell if what you feel is love. I keep trying to come up with a broad definition, just so that you can have a nice, succinct take-away from my answer. But such a definition is proving elusive, which I think is quite telling. I also think that most people would agree that there are certain markers of a good relationship (trust, communication, mutual respect), the way one person defines romantic love might be totally different from how someone else does. The way you feel when you look at your boyfriend, which traits you value, how the good qualities temper and interact with the negative ones, how your personality and his interact with each other...those are a set of feelings and interactions that are unique to the relationship between him and you. So, it's up to you to decide if whether or not you want to call them love.

It's also helpful to keep in mind that what we define as love (romantic or otherwise) is going to morph over our lifetimes. When we're young, we might put a little more emphasis on passion or desire, while our older self might feel as though reliability or being able to enjoy mundane activities together is what feels like love. That's actually one of the cool things about love. The more people we know and the more relationships we're in, the more complex and varied our sense of love becomes.

Ultimately, neither I nor anyone else can really give you a itemized list of the feelings/qualities that mean you love your boyfriend. What I can give you is some tools that help you figure out and communicate about the kind of relationship you want, and some readings that expand on the variability of love. Beyond that, the best thing you can do is have a little internal dialogue about what you think love means, in terms of both the internal emotions and outward actions that comprise it.

Further Reading

written 25 Feb 2014 . updated 17 Mar 2014

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