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Jonathan Foiles LCSW

Falling in Love With Love

Bruce Fink's Lacan on Love examines why love can be so frustrating.

Source: Wiley

In an earlier post I shared some thoughts on Lacan’s Seminar VIII: Transference, focusing in particular upon the idea that “love is giving what you don’t have.” Bruce Fink offers some further thoughts on psychoanalysis and love in his Lacan on Love, which examines the work of both Freud and Lacan for their thoughts on love.

Fink begins by dispelling any illusions that he is about to offer ‘the’ Freudian or Lacanian perspective on love: “There is, in my view, no singular theory of love to be found in Freud’s work or in Lacan’s work: there are only multiple attempts to grapple with it at different points in their theoretical development.” (p. xi). Indeed, what we talk about when we talk about love is already conditioned by language and culture; Fink dedicates the largest chapter in the book to interrogating different thinkers and writers on the nature of love and the different forms it takes including attachment, friendship, attraction, desire, and romantic love. He structures the book around Lacan’s three three registers of the symbolic (language and structure), the imaginary (sensory, especially the visual), and the real (the body and its satisfactions). The most intriguing discussion I found concerns the symbolic realm and that well-worn trope of romantic narratives, the love triangle.

There are some men who can only love a woman if she is already involved with another man. If the woman suddenly frees herself of that man, his desire for her usually wanes. In these cases, Fink theorizes, the man is in love not with the woman but with “the structural situation itself” (p. 9, emphasis original). The real focal point in this sort of relationship is the Other man, not the woman, for if the man is gone the interest usually dissolves. Similarly, there are women who are attuned to the slightest hint that their partner is interested in another woman, even if this ‘interest’ is merely a compliment paid to a co-worker or a brief glance at a passing woman on the street. The woman’s fear is that there is another woman out there, whether real or imagined, that could somehow satisfy her partner in ways that she cannot. For women in this position, they will go to great lengths to emulate the ‘other’ woman, even if she is just a figure on a magazine cover or an alluring celebrity. Chances are we’ve all known people like this; perhaps we’ve dated them or have occupied this position ourselves. But why?

Fink traces such triangles back to one of Freud’s central concepts: the Oedipal dynamic. In the young boy’s rivalry with his father for his mother’s affections, he wonders what the Other man has that he does not and strives to emulate him. The girl tries to grasp what the father has that she doesn’t and then tries to emulate the mother so as to gain her father’s attention.

I must admit that I rarely make use of the Oedipal complex in my work; there seems to me to be little reason to privilege the work of Sophocles as a unique metaphor that captures the various ways humans relate to one another. Fink hasn’t fully convinced me either, but I do think he makes an important point well worth remembering. The ways in which we observe our parents interacting with and (hopefully) loving one another plays a profound role in the way that we come to form our own romantic relationships. While we typically think of this influence as shaping our interest in a type (e.g., my father was aloof therefore I tend to date aloof men), Fink takes a back a step and shows how such dynamics shape our desire. This distinction may seem insignificant, yet I believe it plays an important role in treating those unsatisfied with their romantic lives. It’s not just a matter of helping a person find more suitable partners but also addressing why they desire such unfulfilling relationships in the first place.

Like the work of Freud and Lacan, Fink is prone to essentializing gender. While I have followed Fink in talking about men behaving in one way and women in another, things are often not so clear-cut in the real world. One could make the argument that, until recently, gender roles were for the most part traditional and structured men and women in fairly well-defined ways, but most can agree that this is no longer the case (if it ever really was, but that’s a matter for another article). The increasing visibility of the trans community is an important reminder that not every male has a penis and not everyone who has a penis was born that way (and thus socialized into masculinity from the very beginning), and thus we need to revisit the ways we talk about gender and identity formation.

Clinicians and all of those with an interest in Lacan should be thankful for Fink and his ability to distill Lacan’s often complex formulations into easy-to-understand terms. Lacan on Love is a welcome addition to his continuing project to help Lacan take his rightful place in the English-speaking world as a major figure in psychoanalysis.


Fink, B. (2016). Lacan on love: an exploration of Lacan's Seminar VIII, Transference. Cambridge, MA: Polity.

About the Author

Jonathan Foiles, LCSW, is a therapist who works at a community mental health clinic in Chicago.

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