Impossible love is desire for someone that has little likelihood of fulfillment. Typically, the object of impossible love is thought of as someone who can appease your desires, but for various reasons is beyond your reach. Since humans are motivated to savor and maximize positive emotions and minimize negative ones, experiencing impossible love is stressful.
The obstacles in impossible love may vary. The object of your affection may be attached to someone else, unmanageable geographically, disinterested in your gender, deceased, or incapable of returning your affection. These obstacles can lead you to experience distress, anguish, grief, or anger. However, since an everyday relationship is not possible, the participants in a situation of impossible love may be safe to experience intensity that otherwise would be threatening.
Impossible love is shaming. Shame experienced in impossible love is not ordinarily how you would expect shame to feel. As I’ve noted in other posts that have to do with intimate relationships, in such situations shame is felt as disengagement, as a letdown, a disappointment, or as a frustration (Catherall, 2012). Beginning in early childhood, shame is activated whenever an anticipated outcome—the expectation of excitement or enjoyment—is impeded and leaves one crestfallen (Tomkins, 1963).
When you are in a situation of impossible love, fantasies of the love being realized may activate moments of enjoyment and excitement. However, when your attention turns to reality, such fantasies are negated. Humans have a need to experience and express what they feel, and thus such suppression of emotion is punishing or unpleasant (Tomkins, 1963). The inability to express emotion in situations of impossible love turns a positively directed emotion into a distressing negative one.
Why would we stay with love that is impossible? Emotionally laden scenes in one’s life later become personality features, a process which Silvan Tomkins (1963) referred to as psychological magnification. Through socialization experiences, the emotional life of some individuals becomes monopolistic; that is, dominated by a single emotion, such as distress, anguish, or shame.
Children who experience trauma related to broken interpersonal connections may, as adults, enact conditions that perpetuate the sense of an undeserving self. Consider a child who hungers for a parent’s love or acceptance, for example, and instead continuously experiences shaming disinterest that is interspersed with occasional exciting and hoped-for moments of engagement. As an adult, an impossible love becomes a proxy that revives shame-laden emotional memories and evokes childhood longing.
One hundred years ago, Freud (1914) described how unconscious memories become repetitions; the repetition compulsion was the means by which memories are avoided through action in the present that serves to keep them unrecognizable. However, given that the experience of intense emotion in the present will activate emotional memories, perhaps we repeat so that we can remember.
What’s possible in impossible love is the potential to remember the past, and, in doing so, recognize what may need to be reflected upon in order to learn.
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Catherall, D. (2012). Emotional Safety: Viewing Couples through the Lens of Affect. New York: Routledge.
Freud, S. (1914). Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth Press.
Tomkins, S.S. (1963). Affect, Imagery Consciousness. New York: Springer.