In Books and Beyond: Love vs. Lust

by Jami Gold on September 12, 2013

in For Readers, Random Musings

Two hearts with text: #LoveIsAVerb

The idea of love at first sight has a long history in the romance genre. Thousands of heroes and heroines have experienced the pitter-pat of their heart when first laying eyes on their love-to-be.

While we might laugh at the trope, as we discussed a few weeks ago, many story tropes are actually quite common in real life. In Angela James’s Twitter poll of her followers’ real-life relationship tropes, insta-love or love at first sight was the third most common real-life trope.

But what does “love at first sight” really mean? Do we believe people fall in love instantly? Or do we recognize that people are more likely to fall in like or lust instantly—and love comes later?

More importantly to me as a romance author, I wondered why the “love at first sight” trope sometimes works for me and why it sometimes makes me roll my eyes. *smile*

A Real Life Example: Selfishness vs. Selflessness

I started thinking about these questions after I read a sweet and insightful post with the seemingly controversial title “I Didn’t Love My Wife When We Got Married.” Yet despite that title, the author not only told his wife that he loved her on their second date, but he also really wanted to tell her on their first date. She, of course, was merely amused and didn’t proclaim her love in return.

It was only years later that he realized that the emotions he felt upon meeting her—no matter how strong the sparks and connection—weren’t what makes for real, lasting love. Practicality and day-to-day struggles make keeping up those emotions difficult at best.

Real love involves selflessness, of giving of ourselves for the benefit of the other person. Lust, on the other hand, is—by its very nature—selfish. It’s being in love with the adrenaline rush of a new relationship and wanting that excitement and feel-good emotion for our benefit.

Love Is a Verb

The author goes on to explain:

“I’ve finally come to realize something. Something I haven’t wanted to admit for a long time, but is undeniable. I didn’t love my wife on that second date. I didn’t love her when we got engaged. I didn’t even love her when we got married.

Because love isn’t an emotion.  That fire I felt, it was simply that: emotional fire.  From the excitement of dating a woman I felt like I could marry.  But it wasn’t love.

No, love isn’t an emotion or even a noun.  It’s a verb.  Better defined as giving.  As putting someone else’s needs above your own.”

That’s a great way to put what makes for real, lasting love. The concept that “love is a verb” means that the value comes from action, from doing. Words alone aren’t enough.

The Trouble with “Love at First Sight” in Romance Stories

This distinction makes the difference for me in whether use of the “love at first sight” trope in a story elicits an “aww” or induces a gag reflex. If a romance explores only the superficial emotions of those initial stages of a relationship, the story is likely to feel superficial as well.

Anyone can fall in lust. Lust requires only attraction or sparks or a connection. There’s no work involved.

What’s another phrase for stories where the plot unfolds without requiring effort by the protagonist? Lacking in conflict.

That’s not how we want our stories to be. So how do we avoid it?

What Makes “Love at First Sight” Stories Believable?

Readers won’t believe in a “happily ever after” (and might not even respect a “happily for now”) ending unless they’ve seen evidence in the story that this couple has more going on than superficial attraction. And just like in real life, characters saying “I love you” won’t cut it by itself.

Words alone aren’t enough. The characters must show their love with selfless action. Love is a verb.

I can fully believe when characters experience that spark immediately. I can believe they feel a connection immediately. But I can’t believe anything real or lasting will come out of their relationship if I haven’t seen them willing to sacrifice for each other.

Not being willing to sacrifice for the relationship. For each other.

Sacrificing for the relationship is still too close to a selfish act. The character likes this other person, and they want the relationship to continue. Sacrificing for the relationship is still serving what they want. So the sacrifice must be only for the benefit of the other person to be a true, giving action.

Even in a “happily for now” story, we still need to believe the characters have seen the reality of the other person. We probably know from our own life that there’s a limit to how long we can act on our best behavior. Couples who haven’t been through enough together to see each other in good times and bad can’t know the real person on the other end of the bed.

This is one instance where “show don’t tell” definitely applies. We have to show readers the struggle, the sacrifice, and the good and the bad. If we do that, the number of sparks at their first meeting is irrelevant to the relationship’s believability. We’ll believe it because we’ve seen the #LoveIsAVerb evidence for ourselves. *smile*

Registration is currently open for my workshop on how to do just enough story development to write faster, while not giving our pantsing muse hives. Interested? Sign up for “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.” (Blog readers: Use Promo Code “savethepants” to save $15 on registration.)

Do you believe in love at first sight? Is that feeling “love” or “lust”? Do you agree with the #LoveIsAVerb idea? Do you have examples to share from real life? What makes “love at first sight” stories believable or unbelievable for you? Do you have other suggestions for how to show love in our stories?

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18 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Taurean Watkins September 12, 2013 at 7:05 am

I have limited experience here (Real or otherwise) but still I ask: How do you define sacrifice as it’s described above, Jami?

Are you then suggesting that truly being selfless means it only makes the other person happy but not you? Maybe I’m just reading it wrong, but that’s the impression I get when it’s phrased liked above-

“Sacrificing for the relationship is still too close to a selfish act. The character likes this other person, and they want the relationship to continue. Sacrificing for the relationship is still serving what they want. So the sacrifice must be only for the benefit of the other person to be a true, giving action.”

That said, as you’ve shared on your blog before, some of us have a harder time exploring and talking about sexual stuff (i.e. lust) inherent in a romantic relationship. Having those feelings (Lust) and acting on them are still two different things, especially since the latter has more inherent consequences, if you know what I mean.

After all, not all love is romantic, so how do you begin to work through this with your characters?

Yes, it’s more than just the superficial stuff, and certainly not just about sex, but this point is also why I hate the “Business” analogy when talking about marriage.

There are things marriages between people NEED (BEYOND sex…) that you would not do in a business that’s about making money. Is that so impossible to believe?!

This post talks a lot about actions mattering more than words, but sometimes words matter, too, and I personally feel torn about the push and pull between the two.

I just wonder if there are times when actions without words just comes off “cold” even if the intent behind the actions is selfless and well-meaning.

I know relationships have their ups and downs as illustrated above.
But I don’t think you should become paranoid about it either.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t throw around trite words like “I love you” like they’re hollow. I have to MEAN them to say them. I can only speak for me, but it seems there’s a lot of hollow relationships than I realize at times.

Still, I doubt you’d marry someone you hate, arranged marriage issues aside, and/or dangerous. As much as we lament high divorce rates, it’s NOT right to be married to someone if that spouse treats you like dirt, and things get deadly, especially when children are involved, divorce isn’t the end of the world when your very life’s at stake if you stay, is it?

Real death is FAR more onerous than “Social Death” in this respect. IMHO.


Jami Gold September 12, 2013 at 11:12 am

Hi Taurean,

That’s a great question! There are a couple of different levels from which I can tackle this issue.

a) Sacrifice is a big term, but as the post I linked to pointed out, it can also mean little things, the “waking up to deal with a crying baby so your spouse can go on sleeping” type of things. In other words, the essence of giving (especially in real life, but also in our stories) doesn’t necessarily mean giving up their life or their long-term happiness.

In fact, as I mentioned in my guest post at Paranormal Unbound, I don’t want to see a story where one character gives up so much and the other character doesn’t give up something in return. That’s unfair and we know it.

b) The other level we can look at giving and selflessness is from the perspective of how much the giver gains by giving. Think of the volunteer worker who is happier for giving of their time. In other words, the giving isn’t necessarily about making the character unhappy.

They might very well think they’re going to be unhappy about it (the element of sacrifice), but in the long-term, discover they’re better off for their selflessness. That does make the line about sacrifice, giving “only for the benefit of the other person,” a bit blurry, as we’ve all heard the “it’s better to give than receive” idea enough times that we know, at least on a subconscious level, that we’re likely to benefit in some way in the end. However, that’s not why we’re doing it. Does that make sense?

So I’m in no way saying that anyone (in real life or in stories) should sacrifice to the point where they’re never happy. 🙂

As for your point about not all love being romantic, yes, that’s quite true. And I think this idea of love being “giving” applies equally well in those situations. We give in our friendships and family relationships all the time too.

I think in Western culture, we tend to think of romantic love as different and separate from platonic love. However, if we look at it from this perspective, we might see that they have, in fact, the same base of giving, and it’s just that romantic love has the added bonus of attraction. 🙂

Like you, I agree that words matter too. After all, as writers, we’re in the business of words. But just as flat prose can lie there on the page and be meaningless while great prose rises above the words and letters themselves to mean something beyond, so too can spoken words.

In other words, the words aren’t meaningless and shouldn’t be ignored or avoided. However, they’re not enough on their own because then they’re like the flat prose that has no underlying meaning.

All that said, I think most marriages start on less than real love. Similarly, virtually all romance stories end on less than real love. There’s nothing wrong with either of those truths.

The point is that in both cases, the good ones will have the beginnings of real love. They’ll have at least some elements more/deeper than just the superficial. The roots are there for real love to grow over the years.

Both sets of my grandparents had very long marriages–until death. My parents are still together as well. Like many long-married couples, they all said their love grew over time rather than faded away.

Whether in a story or at a wedding, we want to see the potential of that. We want to see solid roots or a foundation for building that real love. Superficial attraction alone isn’t enough evidence. (I can think of several celebrities I’m attracted to but would probably hate or disrespect in real life. 🙂 )

So er, sorry for the essay, but yeah, there’s a reason I write romance. I love this kind of thinking. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Taurean Watkins September 18, 2013 at 11:47 pm

I still believe you shouldn’t marry someone you hate or who doesn’t respect…You still have to know someone on a certain level. Despite what divorce rates claim, most of us want to be married ONCE to someone who is a good match for us individually, and only in death of a spouse (Or a domestic abuse situation arises, ESPECIALLY when children are involved) may we want to start again.

So I’m on the fence on your view that people should settle for “Beginnings of ‘Real’ love” as to me that implies jumping in
too blind, but that’s just me. This also stems from the fact that detest the idea of “Starter Marriages” especially as it’s often linked to the “Marriage is a business” mindset some people have.

I guess I’m hopelessly old-fashioned that way.

I know you’re not advocating or implying that that. But I just have to say that straight out for my own reasons.


Jami Gold September 19, 2013 at 12:48 am

Hi Taurean,

I don’t disagree with the dangers at all. The only reason I mentioned that marriages would usually start with the “beginnings of ‘real’ love” is because reaching the point of fully developed, real, in-depth love takes years and years. And part of what I think encourages the growth of that type of deep love is commitment through good times and bad.

In other words, if we waited to fully reach that level of real love before marrying, we a) might need to wait 5 or more years and b) might not ever get there without the unwavering commitment and security of a marriage. Is it possible to reach there in 3 years rather than 5? Or to reach that unwavering commitment and security that encourages growth without marriage? Absolutely. But I’m just sharing some reasons why it might be impractical to wait for the fully developed real love stage to marry. 🙂

All that said, I absolutely agree with you that we want to know them well enough to avoid any issues that will prevent those beginnings from fully blossoming. So I don’t mind you stating your opinion at all. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Amanda Martin September 12, 2013 at 2:53 pm

I like the concept of ‘love is a verb’ it’s a great reminder to make our lovers suffer and still remain in love!


Jami Gold September 12, 2013 at 3:51 pm

Hi Amanda,

LOL! Yes, we have to make our characters suffer. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Serena Yung September 12, 2013 at 3:27 pm

Hey Jami!

Yay a post about romantic love! ^^

Yeah, I personally don’t understand love at first sight, but maybe it’s just me and that I myself have never experienced it. XD Plus, if it’s being attracted to someone’s looks, why, that never happens to me either, because for me to find someone pretty, I must know how they’re like first, and actually like them. In general, the more I like someone, the prettier I find them. (And vice versa. XD) My perception of beauty doesn’t seem as influenced by social standards as other people’s perceptions. I disagree with people on “who’s hot and who’s not” more often than I agree, lol.

Apart from that–hey that’s really cool, this distinction between loving as an emotion, merely desiring this exciting, ecstatic feeling and wanting that feeling to last forever, versus love as a verb, where you are willing to take actions to sacrifice yourself for the other.

That makes me think of a “gradation system” of love that I recently thought of. Definitions of love:
1) A feeling of great happiness when in the proximity of the loved object
2) A desire to possess (and keep and sometimes guard) this loved object because one wants to keep experiencing this great happiness
3) A genuine and active caring about the loved one’s happiness and wellbeing.

So I can put your love as a verb and as self-sacrifice and selflessness in 3). 😀

3) is indeed a higher and nobler level of love than 1) and 2). Of course a 3) person can feel great joy in being around their beloved, and may also feel possessive towards him or her too, but this sincere concern for their beloved’s health and happiness is still there, and it touches me. 🙂

And not just in romance, but in platonic friendships too. When you feel that you not only enjoy being with your friend, but that you’re starting to really care about their welfare as well and that you actively strive to help them as much as you can or to make them happy as often as you can, then you feel that your love for them has deepened. 😀 It feels more solid and real too. More fulfilling, even. This level 3) is also what I would call “real/ genuine” love. So yes, I agree that I would only feel moved by a romance if the hero (or heroine) actually cares about the heroine’s (or hero’s) happiness, and actively strives to make him or her happy. (The strivings don’t always have to be self-sacrificial though. But of course, the more sacrificial the actions are, the more touching it would be.)

As for what makes romances believeable and satisfying to me, apart from this selflessness and concern for each other’s welfare, I also like to see:

1)–compatibility–either personality compatibility or interests/passions compatibility (i.e. enough similar interests, or one common passion), though preferably both. By personality compatibility, this could mean similar personalities, or personalities that work well together so that the two people have satisfying interactions, and can deal with the challenges of life effectively. Compatibility can also mean common goals, values, religion, philosophy, etc.

2) Cute interactions between them (or interactions that make me feel they look awesome together)

3) This is not necessary, but it’s a bonus if the heroine and hero conquer a challenge/ survive a danger together. So a common experience (or experiences) is good. (I’m thinking of the Hunger Games here, haha.) This “common experience(s)” criterion seems to be quite important, because if you think about personality, goals, values, and interests compatibility, LOADS of people on this planet are compatible with you. But what makes you select this person in particular, could be because of this specific big experience that you two shared.

About common experienceS, I usually find it more romantic if the girl and boy have known each other for a long time. It’s also very touching if the girl talks about the boy’s specific quirk and laughs about it with him (or vice versa.)

4) A very good one—if the two lovers UNDERSTAND each other. This understanding can be anything, but some examples are: he knows exactly how she feels because he’s that kind of person/ personality too. She knows exactly what he’d do because she knows him really well. He knows exactly what to say to make her feel better. She says the right kind of thing to make him laugh, whereas everybody else has been making him sad instead.

In fact, a kind of mutual EMPATHY is very romantic to me. When he sees her in pain, he feels a lot of pain as well. I love it when the heroine cries and the hero sees and cries with her. XD I’m also a sucker for the moments when she sees how happy he is, and that makes her very happy as well. (The kind of “feeling happy just because they are happy”.)

I’m pretty sure I have more, but at this moment I can’t think of any more, lol.


Jami Gold September 12, 2013 at 4:08 pm

Hi Serena,

Oh very true! I often disagree on who people think are “hot.” 🙂

I like your gradation levels and agree with you about level #3. They’ll still be happy and can still feel possessive, but the concern for the other keeps them from acting in ways that will bring harm to the other.

I like your view of what makes a couple “work” for you too. I’m a total sucker for that #2 of cute interactions. I think that’s why writing dialogue is one of my favorite things. I love the teasing, funny, seductive dance between couples.

I think #3 is what often makes romantic suspense stories work. Those stories are often on a compressed time frame (where they might be a couple for only a day or a week) because of the pursuit by the bad guy. But by the end of the story, the couple have been though terror together and survived.

Your #4 is basically the Michael Hauge “Essence” idea. They see beyond the mask to understand the person inside.

Very cool ideas. 🙂 Thanks for sharing and for the great comment!


Serena Yung September 13, 2013 at 9:13 pm

Oh yeah I remember a previous post of yours talking about the “essence”. ^^ I really like that concept. It’s really romantic. ^^


irazhane September 12, 2013 at 9:37 pm

Interesting post :D, especially since I’m writing love story now, a teenage’s love story to be exact. My question is when we deal with teenagers, how we can make their selflessness felt real since we know teenagers–their egos and stuff ?


Jami Gold September 12, 2013 at 9:52 pm

Hi Irazhane,

That’s a fantastic question! Er, that I don’t have a good answer for. There’s a reason I don’t write YA. 🙂

My best advice would be to read a couple of YA stories with characters you feel do a good job with this balance and analyze what elements of selflessness they exhibit (and that felt believable to you).

I also know that YA romance is a bit different from adult romance in what readers expect. Readers of adult romance expect a “happily ever after.” Erotic romance (and occasionally other genres) can get away with a “happily for now” ending. Like the latter, YA romance readers are fine with “happily for now” endings because people recognize that a teenage love might not last forever.

So I’d guess that romances with YA characters would need to show them caring about each other, but not necessarily be as selfless. In other words, as long as they care about each other enough not to hurt each other, that might be enough. It also likely depends on the type of story you want to tell, as far as tone, mood, theme, etc.

All that said, I’m definitely not an expert on those stories. 🙂 But hopefully this gives you some food for thought and some possibilities for how to approach it.

I hope that helps! 🙂 Thanks for the great comment!


Carradee September 14, 2013 at 12:56 pm

“Love is a verb” is actually a fairly common saying among the Christian circles I live in. (Full disclaimer: I’m Christian.) Much of that stems from I Corinthians 13, called “The Love Chapter”.

“Love is patient; love is kind” and “Love keeps no record of wrongs” are parts that most of us can quote.

So that’s actually why a lot of “romance” novels bother me. They conflate love and lust without ever actually having the verb part of it.

However, The Five Love Languages also brings an interesting aspect to the table, because its point is that different people communicate that they care about others differently. Some people say “I love you” through speech, some by actions, some by gifts, some by touch, and some by social time together. The book claims the list is exhaustive, but whether it is or isn’t, it still can be useful to think about, both in our characters and in understanding others.

I know it’s helped me with my mother… Pretty much, what one of us finds loving, the other finds rude and inconsiderate.


Jami Gold September 15, 2013 at 2:16 pm

Hi Carradee,

Interesting! I’m familiar with the Corinthians quote, but I’d never heard of the Five Love Languages concept before.

I love the idea of those five elements, and I think the “perfect” way to portray love in stories (and possibly in life) would be to mix several elements. As Serena pointed out in a different comment, action (including gifts, touch, and time together) might not be enough without an element of speech. Without the words backing up the action, the receiver wouldn’t know the motivations for all those actions.

I’m thinking of the kind of relationship where one person does all that stuff and the other person just assumes that it’s because they’re a nice person. 🙂 The receiver doesn’t know the giver is thinking “Hey, I’m doing this stuff special–above and beyond my normal–because of how I feel about you specifically.”

You’re absolutely right that the mis-communication (and communication is exactly what it is, as “love language” implies) of different behaviors vs. expectations can cause a lot of problems. Very interesting! Thank you so much for sharing!


Robin February 17, 2015 at 2:14 pm

I just think it is beyond awesome that you wrote up a whole post explaining one of my favorite catch phrases! 🙂

Happy Valentine’s Day, Jami, and thanks for showing me the link to this 🙂


Jami Gold February 17, 2015 at 2:57 pm

Hi Robin,

LOL! You’re welcome. 😀


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