Love, lust, and obsession: what's the difference?

There is a fine line between the edges of love, lust and obsession, allowing the image of love to be blurred in artistic portrayal. Joanna Boon discusses our idealisation of love, and through that, our conceptualisation of love as simultaneously torturous and pleasurable.

Love is such a simple little word, that attempts to convey a plethora of different emotions. Most of us draw an easy distinction between romantic and platonic love, but the differences begin to fragment and get murkier after this point. The idea of loving two people is the subject of much literature, and is often looked down upon or viewed as a torturous experience. We still view the ideal love as being romantic, heteronormative, and exclusive. This is dangerous in more ways than one.

By idealising a particular kind of love, and by having such limited language to express our feelings, we often get drawn into the trap of thinking other feelings and relationships are inferior. Romantic love is often prised above familial affection, or friendship; and so, we end up craving a partner more than friends, thinking that this is what will complete us. Heteronormativity is problematic for obvious reasons, and these cultural assumptions are deeply imbedded, even in those committed to being LGBTQ+ allies. Exclusivity in romantic attachments is certainly a very valid option, but those who choose to be in open relationships or are polyamorous are by no means inferior. Most of us also love our friends but don’t demand exclusivity within the relationship. 

We often talk about all these issues as if they are separate problems that should be tackled independently. I’m not sure this is helpful; the central problem is with our conceptualisation of an ideal love and it is this that needs to change, before we can become more accepting of different relationships and attachments. Love is a word used frequently, but it cannot be defined because it takes different forms depending on the person and context. This is just as it should be, I certainly wouldn’t advocate slapping a simple, reductionist, definition onto such a complex idea, but it does make distinctions rather tricky.

Love is often obsessive; we most readily think of romantic attachments here, but it can be just as true of friendships and other relationships. Whilst, love has a very positive connotation, obsession does not. There is a tension here between idealisation and many people’s reality of the experience. Equally, love is looked up to, whilst we look down on lust. The subject of ‘purity’ is for another article, but these examples highlight our unrealistic expectations and the inherent contradictions in how we conceptualise this experience. Whilst, these experiences are often interconnected, they can also be pulled apart and realised distinctly. Love may be obsessive and lustful in some cases, but lust and obsession can also be experienced without any love at all, and often are.

What then, is the difference? As children, we are given extremely mixed messages about what love means, and what acting as if we are in love should look like. Grand romantic gestures are often incredibly creepy, desperation in the pages of a book becomes stalking in real life, and fairy tale endings seem somewhat limiting if you have to live them out. I always loved the scene in 10 Things I Hate About You, when a young Heath Ledger bribes the school band into appearing on the hockey pitch to serenade his girl into forgiveness, and cheekily scampers away from security before finally being pulled away with a bad boy smile of his face. It’s a great moment, I still love the film, but it would be a truly bizarre thing to happen in real life and would be way too over the top.

The differences between love, lust and obsession are as blurred in this film, as they are in real life. The solution then, as in so many other cases, is to come up with new labels or to do away with them altogether. Either, we come up with different words for love to describe different relationships so that we can more accurately communicate what we mean, or we stop summing up with a word and start describing. Rather than simply saying, ‘I love you’, or ‘I am in love’, we could describe how we feel, why, and what we want. Would this make life more complicated? Possibly, but perhaps it’s the complexities of love that we should be trying to express, rather than reducing the emotion to a single idea that has little to do with most of our lives.