Lust Vs Love: How Do You Know If It’s Real

I’m currently at the age where slowly but surely my friends are getting married. Facebook statuses continue to update with engagements, weddings, and committed relationships (complicated and not). While it seems that everyone around me is taking their next steps into adulthood with ease and pleasure, I remain single. When catching up with old friends after years of distance and they learn of my professional and personal successes, their eyes light up awaiting to hear exciting news of my relationship bliss only to be dimmed when they learn I still have no significant other. I often am asked if I have a boyfriend, to which I’m not sure how to reply. I hate lying but I don’t want them to think I am some loser who can’t get a guy to stick around. Regardless of who I’m speaking to, I seem to default to “it’s complicated.” But really, it is not. I’m single, plain and simple.

I am constantly going on dates but I am not exclusively with any one guy. However, if I dare say that I’m dating but no one person in particular I look like a slut or as if I choose to be single. Irrespective of my marital status, I am without a significant other and this leaves me feeling left out-like a kid picked last for gym class. Life to me is this long, exhilarating, mysterious, and sometimes calamitous train ride in which we have a series of stops we must get on and off at. Stop one birth, stop fifteen high school graduation, etc. While everyone is getting on the train to head for the next stop, I am stuck standing on the platform and just can’t seem to get on and I pray my train hasn’t crashed at some prior juncture and that it reaches me one day soon.

Every time that I ask my engaged or married friends about their significant others and how they found the one and made it work, they seem to reply “when you know, you know.” I often hear that within the first month of dating someone, or even on the very first date, they find themselves telling friends or family that ‘he/she is the one I am going to marry”-and flash forward to two years later, she has a beautiful ring and he’s whipped. Inevitably my mind, jaded by years of dating disaster and a few heartbreaks, jumps to the erroneous conclusion that there must be something wrong with me. For a long time I convinced myself that I was single because I wasn’t pretty enough and focused the bulk of my energy on my aesthetics in an attempt to “fix myself.” However, a few years and a few dozen dates later, I have accepted that my appearance isn’t really the issue and decided to dig deeper. The reality is, there isn’t anything wrong with me and there isn’t anything wrong with most girls who have bad dating luck-and no, there isn’t anything wrong with most men either. The real problem is that we either tend to get caught up in compelling lust and engage in physicality before the emotional component has time to grow or we go on a few dates, feel no spark, and call it quits. Sure, we all have friends who married someone they weren’t attracted to in the beginning but “grew to love” or who are engaged to someone they slept with on the first date-but this is not as commonplace as it may seem. Many people will say that if someone is the one then it doesn’t matter if you sleep with him on the first or fifteenth date because if it is meant to be it will be. But this is just a lie we tell ourselves to accept being dumped, endure things not working out, or assuage the guilt we feel when we rush into sleeping with a guy and he doesn’t call.

Sure, we all set limitations and rules for our dating lives such as “no sex on the first date” or “don’t get attached.” However, these rules are more like goals and we strive to not break them so we don’t do something that could later make us vulnerable or have regrets. And, of course, we have all broken our rules at some point and our fears were made realities. This doesn’t mean our rules weren’t meant to be broken it just means that we know our limits and sensitivities and whether consciously or subconsciously, we struggle to protect ourselves or at least guard our hearts.

Taking the rule of no physical intimacy until there is a strong emotional connection as a tenant of most women’s dating etiquette, it seems to be both the most widely held and most frequently broken parameter in the book. We all slip up and have sex too soon because sometimes there seems to be this crazy physical connection to a person, like powerful magnets destined to be together. Anyone who has slept with more than a few individuals knows that there are some people with whom you meet and on day one find yourself struggling not to break your rule with; yet, there are also other guys or girls with whom you have sex with after a respectable amount of time only to find that it is awkward or “good but not great.” Sure we all want that insane passion where you can’t keep your hands off the other person and the sex is phenomenal, but is this possible with love or is it just the catch 22 of lust? How can you tell lust from love and are they mutually exclusive? I may have been on a lot of dates and know a lot of do’s and don’ts but I’m not that wise of a guru to have a definitive answer. What it all really boils down to is how you answer the question: what happens if you take the sex away-is there still something there that intrigues you, excites you, and keeps you coming back?

In all my years of dating I’ve been dumped, had mutual splits, and blown off guys who really liked me but it is highly uncommon that my upset after parting ways lasts more than a few weeks. Typically I am dismayed and especially insecure until I meet someone new, sufficient time has passed, or I become physical with someone else-all of which I render as proof that those connections were just regular plain old dating or lust in the heat of the moment, not love. It is, however, in those very rare instances in which I still hold a part of my heart open for months or years after our active relationship has ceased in the hopes that he will come back that I really question what went wrong and was that my chance at love.

To date, there has really only been one person whom I haven’t given up hope on. When I look back at all the guys I’ve dated over my adult life, there are so many who at the time of our involvement I was convinced were the one. Yet, after time passed and the dust settled they developed a drug problem and married a stripper or never grew up while I grew light years or still can’t commit or came crawling back but the spark was gone and I ask myself “what was I thinking” while simultaneously telling myself “thank God I dodged a bullet.” Everyone has these moments when reflecting on the ghosts of boyfriends past but the real confusion and malaise strikes when we think of “the one who got away” or the one who still gives us butterflies in our stomachs, brings tears to our eyes, and who makes us doubt ourselves because if they were so were right, what went wrong and is it fixable? Many times we continue to sleep with them in hopes of changing their minds or making them fall for us, but most guys don’t operate like us. To the vast majority of them, sex and emotion are separate, at least they are in the early stages of dating whereas for a large percentage of the American female population, the two are intertwined, and thus the lust/love dilemma ensues.

In the case of my “one who got away,” if you were to take away the incredible sex, unparalleled attraction, and certain “je ne sais quoi” he possesses, is there still something that would bring me back? The answer is maybe. Sure, I can be myself with him, am comfortable and confident around him, would “bring him home to mom,” and have to hide neither my intelligence nor my deepest secrets and fears. We may share common interests, like each others’ friends, and despite having seen me at my worst he still hasn’t stopped caring about me. But, to admit that this might be love, not lust, and that my feelings for him stem from my heart not my something further south would also be to admit that he is in fact quite possibly “the one who got away.”

I am not the only person I know to have a story like this. In fact, most people have experienced a similar set of circumstances in which they had an intense relationship with someone whom they shared a consummate connection and for an indeterminate amount of time after it ceased they continued to hold feelings for that person-feelings that they didn’t quite understand and were afraid to face. To confront these emotions would force us to determine whether this was just an instance of us having mistaken lust for love or having had something real and lost it. Realizing that we may have been with the best person for us and thrown that chance at happiness away or that despite our unwavering perspective on things that we weren’t the best person for them and so they chose to walk away is the hardest reality to endure. This would bring about a series of questions, worries, and tears that could never be answered, eased, or dried by anything other than being with that one person or finding someone more suitable. We typically opt to hold on in desperate hope for the former because the latter seems unachievable. However, whether he or she was “the one” is irrelevant and it is only our belief that he/she was the preeminent person who could one day be worthy of our eternal devotion that makes it so impossible to move on.

There’s a saying that all the power in a relationship lies with the one who cares the least. Sadly, this leaves the one who cares the most vulnerable and dependent upon another for happiness and self-worth. So, how do you tell lust from love? The answer lies in how you respond to the two part question of “how do you feel if you take away the sex and are you willing to admit powerlessness in your own life and take the risk of diving into something that may very well render you heartbroken?” If you can articulate what you love about the other person aside from all things physical, are willing to admit that your contentment no longer lies in just your hands, and are prepared to risk heartache for a chance at lifelong devotion, desire, and friendship that is how you know you are in love. Anything short of this is lust, desperation, fear of loneliness, and/or settling and no one should ever base a serious relationship on anything but love because it is the only entity worth the risks.