September 12, 2013

In Books and Beyond: Love vs. Lust

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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Comments — What do you think?

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Taurean Watkins

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…  — Read More »

Amanda Martin
Amanda Martin

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

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

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…  — Read More »


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 ?


“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.


[…] Whether a story ends with a marriage proposal or not, the theoretical HEA ending needs a sense of commitment from both parties. It’s hard for people to adapt from the often-self-centered single life to the need to compromise all the time. We need to believe that this couple is willing and able to do the work and make the sacrifices required. […]


[…] these characters are perfect for each other and how they overcome real obstacles to be together, selflessly sacrificing for each other. There are a couple of tricks we can use in our story to make this balancing act come […]


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 🙂


[…] The gap between lust and love has been well-documented recently, but there are still some who expect love to feel like that initial fluttery feelings of a new relationship. And when that fades, they think their “love” has faded (when really it was never love at all). […]

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