Love or Projections?

When love is giving what you don't have to someone who doesn't want it.

Posted Oct 02, 2020

“I love you," we say, and “I feel loved by you.” Albeit heart-warming, these sentences are also quite enigmatic. Their elusiveness becomes even more apparent when one hears this same dreamy word—love—used in much humbler contexts: “Mmm ... I love that ice-cream!”; “I love exercising every day." Or, in more frustrating and paradoxical scenarios: “She told me she loved me, and yet she is leaving me”; “I love her, but I’m not in love with her.”

So, how should we take love? What does it mean when someone expresses love for us or anything else in life? How should we solve the ‘x’ in this equation? Does it represent a function, a limit, a meaning?

Love Is a Limit

Lacan would choose the notion of limit to describe love. “Love is giving what you don’t have," he says. We fall in love with the persons who complement our own shortcomings. Our partner’s life stands as a model for us to work on the unfinished parts of ourselves, overcome our flaws, and eventually become one. Declaring our love for someone makes us vulnerable because in saying “I love you,” I say what I am not yet and what I still lack in order to become so. Hence, I try to give my partner(s) what I do not have. In sensing my own limits, love becomes a pretense in which I try to impress the person from whom I want to learn by being someone who I am not. For this reason, I believe, it is quite popular in lyrics and poems to attribute a certain salvific quality to love. In trying to meet the expectations that I think my partner(s) has for me, they will save me. I will become a better person. Love is moved by this strong desire for improvement, transformation, reaching that sense of wholesomeness that often seems to escape us. In love, I give what I do not have because I illude myself that in doing so I will eventually overcome my limits and become one. Here, it stands as the big contradictions of love:

  1. In trying to become one we shatter ourselves in many pieces (as many as the persons we have feelings for)
  2. In trying to get closer to our beloved ones we miss their true nature.

When Love Means Losing the Person We Love

In the pretense of love, in fact, we often ignore ourselves and the responsibility we have for our own well-being, and turn a blind eye toward the true nature of our partner(s) and their actual needs. If anything, we grow more distant from ourselves and our partner(s). In a complex self-sacrificing dynamic, we drift away from our real desires in order to please our partner(s). Our partner(s) becomes the token of our projections. For this reason, Lacan’s famous sentence continues: “Love is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.” In my work as a philosophical counselor, I often hear clients feeling rejected by their partners. What strikes me is that they often do not realize that they are rejecting their partner(s). When I find myself in front of these cases and I perceive their level of frustration rising rapidly, I ask them: “Can you, please, tell me who your partner is? Can you, please, describe to me what kind of human being is your partner in the world?” Those who suffer the most are often those who are more at loss for an answer. They cannot see their partners because they are too busy to give them something their partners never asked for—that is, a convincing version of themselves that would make themselves feel less incomplete and vulnerable. 

In this contradiction, love becomes a cage in which the partners feel invisible to each other and incapable of being themselves. No genuine mutual appreciation can occur here. In this painful cage, as the Platonic Socrates would say, the prisoner is “the chief accomplice of his bondage.” This is the cage of our own psyche. In any of its parts, we encounter ourselves with the shame of our own limits and needs. Here we encounter the kind of paradoxical love I summarized above in the sentence: “I love her, but I’m not in love with her.”

How Can We Break the Cage of Invisibility?

How to leave this cage? Instead of spinning round in the same cage and feeling incapable of being yourself and truly connecting with your loved ones, the next step would be to understand what unfinished part of yourself is speaking and what this part is seeking. Since I, myself, am the one with whom I am going to spend most of my life, it is worthwhile to start creating a compassionate bond with me and take responsibility for the space I can make within myself for my own improvement. I call this very first bond, philia. This Greek word indicates an intimate primal compassionate bond established, first, with ourselves. That is the door to access reality and disperse the fumes of intricate projections.

The frustration in love is indeed unbearable because it speaks of our limits. Whatever irritates us in our partner(s), it does not say anything about them but speaks volumes about ourselves. To come back to my clients, when the questions I raise make the bell of their limits ring, then the essential question becomes, Why did I decide to marry her? Why am I not capable of loving this person—or, even more so, myself? Important milestones in a relationship—having children, building a home together, sharing time with each other—might turn into hell on earth if we have not found a way to cope with our sense of limits, vulnerability, and the bundle of projections that stream from it. Even expressions as seemingly innocuous as “I love that ice cream” can become the endless source of misery if we use that ice cream as a way to fill the void in us.

Love, the healthy one, starts from an intimate connection we can establish with our reality and, through it, with the reality of the people we love.

Facebook image: By NDAB Creativity/Shutterstock