Love and Lust in Relationships
by Shmuley Boteach
Several times a week I counsel couples in crisis. Underlying all their problems is the loss of desire. They love each other, but they no longer lust after each other. Their marriages are now built on the softer, more comfortable emotion of love rather than passionate, more explosive and nuclear bond of lust.
Why is lust disappearing? There are many reasons. First, we are such a physical and material generation that we don’t understand lust. So we denigrate it as something sleazy. Lust, we think, is something men feel when they look at porn. Lust is what a man feels for his secretary while love is what he feels for his wife. Lust is what a wife experiences for the male colleague at work with whom she flirts while love is what she feels when she spoons with her husband at night in bed, even when they don’t have sex.
Lust has been lost from our lives because we think it something of the body rather than of the soul, something generated by hormones rather than a spiritual energy. A visceral emotion demonstrating more our kinship with animals than anything uniquely human. And because we don’t respect lust we have never focused on understanding its rules and the conditions through which it is maintained.
Then there is this: we believe love to be eternal while lust is so utterly ephemeral. We deemphasize lust in relationships because we believe it’s bound to disappoint us and let us down. We don’t believe that lust can be sustained. It is a flimsy foundation upon which to build a relationship and should be made secondary to the solid firmament of love.
But who said that love and lust can’t be maintained simultaneously? Are we really so monolithic as to be incapable of sustaining two emotions at once? Can husbands and wives really not be both lovers (lust) and best friends (love) at the same time? And isn’t that, the confluence of both, that men and women most aspire to in their relationships?
You would be hard pressed to find a single relationships expert or marital counselor anywhere who would argue that marriages should be based on lust rather than love. Indeed, they would probably say that my words in so advocating are deeply irresponsible. I’ve delivered hundreds of lectures on this subject so I know it to be true. The marriage counselors tell me I’m wrong and I’m raising people’s expectations unfairly. But the wives sit in their seats and nod approvingly as I present my material. They give their husbands knowing looks as I speak of a woman’s need to always be not just loved by deeply desired.
But if the relationships experts are right and I’m wrong, why is marriage dying? Forget the 50% divorce rate that has prevailed for a half century or more. I’m talking about people no longer believing in marriage but rather in serial monogamy. More and more we are hearing arguments to the effect that people used to die at forty. Therefore, marriages were not expected to last longer than about twenty years. Now that people live till 90, there is no way marriages should be expected to last half a century or more. So people are shacking up more and marrying less. Married couples are today in the United States, for the first time ever, a minority. Forty percent of all women are single. Whole regions, like Scandinavia, have a marriage rate of just a quarter of the population. Hollywood is famous for men and women who have children together but who never even think of marrying. Why should they? Their commitment to one another is enough. Once the commitment wears off, they’ll separate amicably and move on to the next person. Why remain tied in an institution that is loveless? Take what you can get, for as long as you can get it, and move on.
What certainly cannot be said is that marriage is dying due to a lack of information. There are more self-help books on marriage and relationships being published every year than in all human history combined. More relationship advice is being dispensed in one day of TV than most of our grandparents received up until the day they tied the knot.
So why are relationships on the decline? Because the advice being given is flawed. It’s based on love and not lust. It glorifies closeness without emphasizing distance. It focuses on the legality of marriage rather than the sinfulness of forbidden desire. It highlights the warm embers of friendship over the burning coals of lust.
In short, it emphasizes the cozy, warm, fuzzy emotion of love over the super-charged, deeply erotic, electrifying feeling of lust.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” this week publishes his newest book, “The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” He is currently writing “Kosher Lust,” a book examining the rules that sustain covetousness and desire in long-term relationships. Readers with stories or insights to share should please write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow RabbiShmuley on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
This column is dedicated to the memory of Machla Debakarov, the mother of a close friend of Rabbi Shmuley’s.