Ask Lisa: Is It Love or Is It Use?

Q: I’m afraid that I’m using my boyfriend to fill a void in my life. How am I supposed to know the difference between really liking a guy and just using him so I don’t feel lonely?

Dating: A Friend You Make-Out With?

Recently I was on a flight with a college senior and we began conversing about casual dating, which she defined as “a friend who you make-out with.” As we chatted about it more she admitted, “It doesn’t feel quite right.” So I asked her straight up if it’s a situation where you basically use each other, and she sheepishly replied, “Well… I mean… yeah.”

Mutual physical and/or emotional use is often seen as part of the dating equation these days. Guys might give girls the affection and attention they long for if girls will give guys the sexual gratification they desire and vice versa. They hang out and call it fun because both parties are getting something out of it that they desire. YET, when they really think about it, they don’t actually want to be treated as a thing for another person’s gratification because, as my neighbor on the plane admitted, it doesn’t feel quite right.

With use so engrained in our culture it can be hard to pinpoint the difference between genuine care and mutual use. Our hearts have become so muddled with the idea that use is okay that we can hardly sense it when it’s the foundation of our relationship. But when that quiet voice whispers it doesn’t feel quite right, we owe it to ourselves and to others to search for something better, and I believe that something better begins with striving for what Aristotle called a “virtuous friendship.”

Virtuous Friendship: A Lens for Good Relationships

A virtuous friendship is one that is based on the pursuit of the common goal of living a good and virtuous life together.

It’s not concerned with personal gain; rather it’s concerned with mutual growth in virtue, which is learning how to do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way. In order for a friendship to be truly virtuous, each party must allow the higher goal of pursuing virtue together to lead their actions. And while they might not always hit this ideal, it is at the forefront of their mind and something for which they are continually striving.

Let’s say a relationship suddenly became a long-distance one with little communication. Would the lack of their physical presence take with it all of the good feelings? Or how about if a dating couple has been sleeping together for months, and if they stopped having sex due to an illness or injury, or because they decided to pursue chastity – would the relationship be headed towards a breakup?

If in these situations the lack of a useful or pleasurable element, mixed with the added requirement of sacrifice, dooms the relationship to its end, then it’s a sure sign that the relationship was based on use. If taking away good feelings or sexual gratification removes love, then love was never truly there to begin with.

The Test: Is it Love or Use?

To find out if your relationship is striving for love or if it’s based upon use, simply ask yourself, is our relationship based on mutual growth in virtue or not? (And please keep in mind that this commitment to pursuing the good life together must be two sided, because if it’s not, you might not be using them, but they are probably using you.)

If the relationship is concerned with wanting what’s best for each other and helping each other become the best version of themselves that God has called them to be, then you are on track. If you are in it to serve and not to be served, congratulations, your risk of mutual use is low. If your relationship is not based on conditions of “I’ll love you if, when, or so long as…” then rest assured you’re goal is not to use each other as void fillers, rather your working towards loving each other just as God has called us to love.

Be saints, it’s worth it!

Lisa Cotter
Lisa Cotter
Lisa Cotter is a Catholic speaker and author on the topics of relationships, femininity, and living life with excellence. Since 2007 she and her husband, Kevin, have served FOCUS (the Fellowship of Catholic University Students) as a family and together they are the co-authors of Dating Detox and co-hosts of the How-to Catholic Podcast. She is the founder of Made to Magnify, an apostolate that’s mission is to help people fight to be saints - because it’s worth it.

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