What’s the relationship between love and lust?

relationships-logoRELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS (#12 in a series)
To access previous posts in the series, use the “Relationship Questions” link under “Categories” and the “Older Posts” button. (This is the final post in the series.)

Are love and lust opposites?  If so, can one turn into the other? Or is there not one without the other?

I’m not comfortable treating love and lust as opposites, unless we clarify what we mean by them. We typically use the word “lust” to refer to a kind of carnal desire that has an immoral air about it. “Love” has a much broader range of meanings, but is generally the more noble of the two. If the words are used that way, the question practically answers itself.

But there seems to be an underlying anxiety here, the fear that one might turn from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. One version of the anxiety may have to do with how we think of ourselves as Christians: If I’m a Christian, does being overcome with desire make me a pervert? Another version may have to do with how we’ve actually been treated: Why is it that the guys I date seem nice at first and then turn into sex maniacs? Is that just how it has to be? (In case you’re wondering, the answer to the latter is no.)

It might help to reframe the original question in a way that’s a little less circular: can sexual desire be a normal part of a loving relationship? And the answer, of course, is “Absolutely.” But what then, is “lust,” and what makes it bad?

Think of it this way. In every relationship, there will both give and take. In a healthy relationship, the balance may shift from moment to moment, but overall, there should be a sense of fairness. Neither feels consistently taken advantage of by the other, and both are therefore willing to give of themselves to the other and to the relationship itself.

Sexual desire, by its nature, is like an appetite that needs to be satisfied: it’s more take than give. Ideally, however, it’s only one movement in an ongoing relationship in which both people care for each other’s wants and needs. “Take” is balanced by “give.”

I suspect that this is where desire goes off the rails and earns itself the name of “lust” — when all I want is to take, with no commitment to give. In that sense, lust dehumanizes its object: You’re not a person with your own wants and needs, hopes and dreams. You’re just a means to an end, a way for me to get the gratification that I want. 

Think, for example, about the hookup culture, where sex is supposed to be recreational and commitment-free. What doesn’t get talked about is how partners begin to bond with each other even if they don’t intend to. And when that happens, they may find themselves dealing with the pain of abandonment and rejection, over and over again.

To be clear: the matter of a balanced give and take isn’t just about sex, but about what the relationship as a whole needs to survive and thrive. But sadly, sexuality is one area where people feel the most used, the most victimized by someone else’s selfishness.

So, back to the original question. If love and lust are opposites, it’s because we associate the former with selfless giving, and the latter with selfish taking. And at any given moment in a relationship, either of us may lean more in one direction or the other. Sexual desire is normal, but needs the context of an ongoing commitment to each other’s care and well-being. Without that, desire may become all about me — and you disappear.