Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Jonathan Foiles LCSW


Love Is Giving What You Don't Have

Lacan's Seminar VIII tackles the age-old question, "What is love?"

What do we talk about when we talk about love? Is it the burning fires of passion, the warm contentment of a long-term partnership, a fleeting feeling of connection? Do we love out of our strength or out of our weakness? I took a class on the philosophy of love while working on my philosophy degree, and what struck me most was how varied the answers to the question of what love is where and how little most thinkers seemed able to describe it. Lacan takes up this question among others in his Seminar VIII, issued in paperback last year by Polity.

Transference is the central issue with which Lacan is concerned, but he covers a broad array of topics throughout the seminar as befits his notoriously elliptical and knotty thought. His Seminar VIII contains, among other things, his against-the-grain reading of Plato’s Symposium, his thoughts on castration and the function of the ‘phallus,’ a literary examination of a trilogy of plays by Paul Claudel, and a consideration of the role of the analyst within treatment. A full unpacking of the seminar could easily take a thousand pages, but I will highlight just a few points of interest.

“Love is giving what you don’t have.” (p. 34). When a person begins to fall in love, the thing that they have to offer their beloved is the fact that something is missing from their life, a hole that only the beloved can fill. This is what can make unrequited love so painful, for the more that we become aware of what we lack the more that we pine after the person we think can fulfill our lack. A declaration of love, then, makes us profoundly vulnerable, as anyone who has been in such a position can readily attest. To tell someone else you love them is to admit that you are incomplete and to hope that you can fill their need as well.

“I have always reminded you that we must begin with the fact that transference, in the final analysis, is repetition compulsion.” (p. 172). Lacan finds this same dynamic of lack and hope for satisfaction in the phenomenon of transference. Freud’s concept of the repetition compulsion arose from his observation that we have a tendency to repeat a traumatic situation or event despite trying to get rid of the memories of the original trauma (think of a person who always dates the same abusive type of partner). According to Lacan, this urge to repeat the past is what happens in the consulting room. The interpretation of the need to repeat the past in the presence of the analyst thus becomes the main focus of the treatment. Aside from therapy, this also explains how we carry the baggage of past relationships along with us and tend to interpret present experiences in the light of the past.

“I would even say that, up to a certain point, [the analyst’s] lack of comprehension can be preferable to an overly great confidence in his understanding.” (p. 193). In Lacan’s conception, the therapist occupies a similar position to the beloved in that the patient thinks that the therapist has that which they most need. This places the therapist in a position of great power and illuminates why boundary violations can be so damaging to the patient. The patient desires something from the therapist, and their transferential repetition compulsion can cause them to see the therapist as the object of their desire. A successful therapy thus requires the therapist to be aware of this dynamic, not exploit it for their own gain, and to use it to help cure the patient. Lacan sees this fragile dynamic as a key reason for why everyone who seeks to do therapy should first go through an exhaustive therapy themselves.

Seminar VIII covers many other areas of interest to both the practicing clinician and those interested in the big questions which Lacan tackles. While I would not recommend it as an introduction to Lacan (Bruce Fink’s A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis or Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique is a much better place to start), it’s wonderful to have it available in an accessible English translation. In my next post, I will offer some further insights into Seminar VIII and its relevance to clinical practice from Fink’s Lacan on Love.


Lacan, J. (2015). Transference: the Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book VIII (B. Fink, Trans.). Malden, MA: Polity.


About the Author

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