In Love or in Lust?

How lust can cloud your better judgment.

Posted Feb 08, 2020

Jim was a 26-year-old single guy who felt ready to find a life partner and settle down. He was looking for a girl-next-door type when he met Cindy at a party. Cindy was hot—the type he usually thought of as out of his league. Looking at Cindy across the room when she thought no one was watching, though, he noticed her “resting bitch face.” Jim decided that while he wouldn’t mind having casual sex with someone that sexy, she wasn’t really his type for a long-term relationship. She seemed entitled and full of herself, and not the warm fuzzy maternal type he wanted to be the mother of his children.

Jim didn’t even try to flirt with her. There seemed to be too much competition; many guys were hitting on her. To Jim’s surprise, though, Cindy approached him with a warm smile on her face and started a conversation. Jim thought to himself that perhaps he had misjudged her. Cindy started to seem like the friendly and approachable type he liked, and perhaps not so narcissistic. It was starting to feel like “love,” a dream come true. She was giving him a green light to ask her out, so he did, and she accepted.

When they started dating, Cindy was very flirtatious, and the sexual tension was high. Dates ended with some passionate kissing but for one reason or other it was never convenient to go to someone’s apartment to consummate the relationship. Jim didn’t feel frustrated, though; he assumed they were falling in love and just letting the passion slowly build to a climax as a prelude to a great long-term relationship.

Then Cindy ghosted Jim. She stopped returning his texts and calls. About a month later, she did send him a text apologizing for seeming to ghost him but saying her life had been crazy and she wasn’t really ready for a serious relationship at this point in her life. Jim thought, "What a bitch!” and realized that his first impression of her may have been correct.

In retrospect, Jim realized he had been “in lust” but not really “in love.” He was intoxicated by the idea of having hot sex with a beautiful woman who had somehow become attainable. He realized, though, that they hadn’t had a “real” relationship: He barely knew the “real” Cindy. He was infatuated with his own fantasy about her but evidently the “real” Cindy was capable of suddenly blowing hot and cold.

Jim knew he wanted a more reliable life partner.

The Evolution of Love and Lust

Jim didn’t quite grasp the distinction between being in love and being in lust. Evolutionary psychologists have clarified that love and lust have different evolutionary histories and different neural circuitries in the brain. Lust evolves to help us reproduce with people who are healthy and fertile. Youthful beauty tends to activate lust, as the young and beautiful tend to be fertile and healthy. Love evolves to facilitate adult pair-bonding for biparental life. It builds on the neural circuitry that originally evolved to bond mammalian offspring to their mothers. Adult attachment is activated by warmth, affection, empathy, sensitivity, devotion, and loyalty. Love motivates us to seek out a life partner who would be a nurturing caretaker—a good mommy or daddy.

Ideally, we hope to integrate love and lust in one relationship. We want a life partner with whom we can have great sex and to whom we can be securely attached. So, it is only natural when we are in lust (i.e. mesmerized by someone’s physical beauty and sexy demeanor) that we begin to wish and fantasize that this person would be a great mommy or daddy as well in a long-term relationship. We imagine we have found the ideal partner who has it all. It seems like love but in reality, it is more like infatuation based on wishful thinking. Infatuation, like a crush, is a short-lived but intense passion. Infatuation is short-lived because confronting reality exposes the fact that although this person is “really sexy” they are not “really lovable” now that we’ve gotten to know them. They aren’t who we imagined they were.

The Pros and Cons of Being in Lust

The positive side of being in lust is the opportunity to have great sex with a partner who feels the same about you. You probably wouldn’t fall completely in lust unless your partner led you to believe that the feelings were mutual. We might be extremely attracted to a sexy unavailable person but being in lust is activated by the perception that this person is just as excited about us as we are about them. It flatters our ego by suggesting that our sex appeal is irresistible. Consummating being in lust is therefore a huge ego boost. We feel quite the stud or the femme fatale if we can make such a conquest.

The problem arises when being in lust leads to infatuation—the fantasy that this irresistibly sexy person might also be the love of our life. Then we are set up for disappointment if it turns out they’re not. Or we disappoint our lovers if they are infatuated with us, but we are ready to move on once the sexual affair has run its course. Then they hate us for seeming to lead them on and breaking their hearts.

What to Do

It’s certainly one of life’s most intensely pleasurable experiences to be in lust and to consummate that passion before you know with whom you are really dealing. Why let reality spoil the fun? We don’t want to miss out, so we let ourselves get swept away by our passions. Yet, there will be a price to pay when someone’s heart gets broken. That’s life: Our hearts get broken and we break hearts. We feel badly about being a heartbreaker if we have a heart because we know what it’s like to get rejected in the midst of an intense infatuation.

Yet, if this becomes a repetitive pattern in your life you might want to break it. You might want to hold back on having sex with someone to whom you’re super attracted until you see with whom you are really dealing. You might also stop being such a heartbreaker. Stop leading people on who seem smitten with you just because it flatters your ego. You’ll feel better about yourself. If you learn to practice such self-restraint you just might find that your prospects of integrating love and lust in one relationship significantly increase and you won’t have buyer’s remorse.


Josephs, L. (2018) The Dynamics of Infidelity: Applying Relationship Science to Psychotherapy Practice. American Psychological Association. Washington, D.C.