Most of us have experienced the intense emotional and sexual attraction notorious for sweeping away our common sense when we fall in love. While this experience is very common, the real challenge is that many confuse “falling in love” with “being infatuated with lust”. Simply said, what is it about lust that awakens our instincts —often beyond our ability to control them— and, eventually, jarring us to the painful disillusionment of a fairytale gone awry; leaving our broken heart as its wreckage?
When lust takes over, we are convinced that “The Love Object” completes us. He/she makes us whole, carries within him/her the medicine, which will alleviate our anxieties, fears, sense of loneliness, of inadequacies and of isolation. Life is so much easier when we are in lust, at least initially! Many studies demonstrate that a brain on lust is much like a brain on drugs. MRI scans show that the parts of the brain that lights up when an addict gets a fix of cocaine are the same as when a person is experiencing physical attraction and lust. This explains what happens in our brain on a physiological and neurological level. Lust fuels this cocktail of endogenous neurotransmitters (dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, and a few more), which has us loose control of our normal sense of self and feel so “high” on someone else.
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Psychologically speaking, lust is fueled by idealization and projections. While projections can be positive or negative, in the case of lust, our projections are ravishingly positive. Our positive projections onto “The Special Other” are as yummy to our brain as cocaine is to an addict’s brain. By definition, projection means that we see in the other person aspects of ourselves we are not in touch with. This is what Dr. Hal Stone, in the video above, describes as disowned selves; the parts of our personality that are unconscious and/or not integrated because those parts were never nurtured or allowed in our family and culture of origin. The opposite of our disowned selves are what Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone refer to as our primary selves. They are the parts of our personality we are identified with, believe ourselves to be; the aspects of us we present to the world. All of which are commonly referred to as our ego.
When we are in a positive projection mode with another person (aka a positive bonding pattern), we are basically in a psycho-emotional trance which translates as “I love the projection I make of you, and because you return me the favor of lusting after me, we both finally feel seen and united. Our sense of wellbeing and self esteem increases exponentially and in tandem. We are in love. We are one!”
This positive trance allows both partners to get a respite from any negative feelings of low self esteem, sense of isolation and of overwhelmed they may experience in their daily lives. For example, if we have a strong inner-critic that constantly negatively comments on everything we do and say, and puts us down for not being good enough, then the other person’s interest, admiration and care towards us allows us to relax and feel worthy “of love”. The other person finally allows us to swing on the “feel good/ecstatic” side of the pendulum, which our inner-critic prevents us from doing. Because of this pendulum swing, more pleasant aspects of our personality come back online! Among many, the parts of us that are carefree, playful, spontaneous, passionate, romantic and sexually vibrant can finally see the light of day! We believe we are “in love” while in fact we are “in lust”, flooded by neurotransmitters that hijack our brains, like a hit of cocaine does to the brains of users.
Positive bonding patterns distort reality into a rose-colored world. While rose is a great color, it is far from being the primary color of the world we all live in. Have you seen the news recently? Like addicts coming off their highs, negative projections —aka negative bonding patterns— end the fairy tale of the “Lust Object”. His/her flaws and limitations often return with sharp edges bursting our bubbles of enraptured positivity. When this happens, our feel-good positive bonding patterns are nowhere to be found. Our Prince or Princess, our new soul mate turns into an ugly frog we don’t want anything to do with, an object of profound disappointment and hurt. In worse case scenarios, he/she may turn into a liar, a master manipulator, a total jerk. It serves us well to know that the lower one’s self esteem is, the more likely one is to become the perfect prey to those who make it an art form to use their charm and seductive skills to get their needs met without regards to the price tag their victims will pay – aka love bombing. Whatever our personal situation may be, negative bonding patterns always feel like a deep betrayal, a fall from Eden. “I had built you up to be this perfect person and you are now letting me down and blasting my illusion… I’m crashing from my endogenous neurotransmitters high, I’m hurting and I hold you responsible for it!” Again, this is akin to the crash from a cocaine high. The price tag of being hijacked by lust while thinking it was love.
The sooner we accept that most of us are prone to confuse lust with love, the sooner we can begin the process of disengaging with its illusionary promises which can never be fulfilled. These positive and negative bonding patterns are an integral part of our human experience. Welcome to being human! The delicious experience of deluging self-worth and feeling connected to the mythical other (the product of unconscious merging) is what keeps “lust addicts” repeating the same pattern of delusory connection. In essence, “lust addicts” do all they can to escape the price of sobriety. They are convinced that their next “mythical other” will be the one that will last and fix everything.
Here is the silver lining. It serves couples who ‘fall in lust’ to know that lust has a shelf life which seldom extends beyond nine months, rarely after eighteen months. As the masks of perfection crack for both partners, each person can begin to embrace the new chapter of their relationship: a relationship made of two real human beings who may, in time, rise in love with each other. Over time, partners will remind each other of the negative aspects of members of their own family of origin, “You are just like mom, dad, my brother… and that is not a good thing!” This forces them to accept that the “Idealized Other” comes with both gifts and limitations; partners who are not always worth lusting over. A realty check of these less than idyllic aspects of the partner is required at this stage. As importantly, are they negotiable or not? Couples who bypass this phase set themselves up for long lasting arguments which may last for the entirety of the relationship; whether it be 6 more months, 6 years or 60 years!
As significant others move from idealized lust to love, their ability to respect, honor and cherish each other doesn’t have to exclude their feelings of mindful lust. It doesn’t have to be an either lust or love equation. Both can co-exist as they pendulate between each. The main difference is that the center of gravity moves from idealized and blind lust towards mindful lust and genuine love.
To add one more layer of challenges to the mix, it serves us well to keep in mind that substances that alter our state of mind and experience of the here and now —choose your substance/drug of choice— are very likely to increase the merging of infatuation and unconscious material. Bottom line, if you are prone to “falling in lust”, it might be wise to pay attention to your intake of mind altering substances. This will help you be more anchored in reality, and not as vulnerable to the play of your unconscious material merging with another’s.
If you continuously search for “Objects of Lust” while claiming that you want true love, it might be wise to take a cold shower, then look at the list below Dr. Judith Orloff invites us to consider when trying to differentiate between lust and love.
SIGNS OF LUST:
- We’re primarily focused on the other person’s looks and body.
- We’re interested in having sex, but not in having deep of conversations.
- We’d rather keep the relationship on a fantasy level, not discussing real feelings and personal life experiences and hopes.
- We want to leave soon after sex rather than cuddling or sharing breakfast the next morning.
- We’re “lovers” or friends with benefits, but not friends who do things together and share our humanity with each other.
SIGNS OF THE BEGINNING OF A RELATIONSHIP THAT COULD LEAD TO LOVE:
- We want to spend quality time together other than sex.
- We get lost in conversations and forget about the hours passing and really enjoy the other person’s mind and emotional intelligence.
- We want to honestly listen to each other’s feelings, make each other feel secure and happy.
- We motivate and support each other to achieve our goals and face our challenges, to be better people.
- We want to include the person in our social and family life.
I add three more:
- Early on, we can see aspects of the other person’s personality that will bother or annoy us overtime, but know, in our cool headed state of mind, that they are not deal breaker.
- Our values and vision of life are aligned.
- We manage conflicts well and are not left wounded after our arguments.
May you enjoy the delicious gifts of getting to know someone you are attracted to, falling for and in love with him/her, all the while being grounded in reality and not letting your unconscious and/or unprocessed material take the lead at full force!
Nathan Bergeron, LMFT, L.Ac. ©