From the box office to catchy songs on the radio, our culture is saturated with perspectives about romantic relationships. When the skeletal frame of these narratives are analyzed, we find that they tend to fall into one of two impulses: retaining love, or obtaining love. In the former, a pre-existing love is framed as endangered and in need of reform. An example of this tendency is the song Free Xone by Janet Jackson, where she says “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets cute girl back”. The speaker typically begins with unity, introduces separation, and then ends with unity again.
In the latter, love does not exist … yet, and the goal is to convince the desired partner of what will be once it comes to fruition. An instance is the song Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes) by Mint Condition, where Stokley sings “you know I see you, it’s a disguise the way you treat me, you keep holding on to your thoughts of rejection, if you’re with me you’re secure”. The speaker typically begins with separation and ends with a dream of unity. As a culture, we typically think inside these two frames.
I would like to expand our understanding of love a bit further.
Relationships Are Jars for Fireflies
While these impulses are different, they both make the same assumption about love: that it can be and needs to be captured. From these perspectives, love is either a firefly to be retained in its glass jar or obtained in a new one. The problem is: these impulses are woefully out of step with a constantly changing reality. There is no stability in the universe: the oceans ebb and flow, our hearts beat, and the trees grow. The world is constantly in motion – a fact that is both beautiful and frightening. On the one hand, we are amazed and puzzled by its freedom; and on the other, we are afraid because we do not control it. Human beings crave stability, so we invent categories to create predictability in an otherwise unpredictable world. This is the case with love. What we call ‘romantic relationships’ or ‘marriages’ are simply ways of reducing the unpredictability of the universe. Relationships are glass jars that attempt to trap the firefly of love. In applying too many rules, we often fail to realize that we were drawn to the firefly because it was not in a glass jar – but because it roamed freely. Inside the jar, everything that made the firefly interesting and beautiful may begin to die away. The attempt to preserve love can destroy it. The elusive nature of love is not a problem to solve, but a reality to embrace.
The Hole That Makes the World Whole
When we speak of structures, we tend to think in positive terms: the presence of this, the presence of that. However, it is important to realize that every structure is based upon a lack, loss, or void. Just think of the architecture of a house. Many people think that the foundation supports the entire structure – but they miss the fact that a hole had to be dug in the ground to build that. The presence of the house is made possible by a foundational absence. Without the hole, the whole is impossible.
The same goes for love. Love is structured and animated by loss. Love is not an answer, it is a question – a quest to return to the peaceful place of childhood where we found and lost our first love. We say we are “in love” – as if love is a place that insulates us from harm. The template for love is the womb – the place where we were safe and spared from the responsibilities of a harsh life (Brown, 1965;1968). The mother-infant dyad is the original model for loving relationships, which may explain why many people call their significant other “baby”.
Let’s take a step back to the beginning. According to Jacques Lacan, infants are attached to their mother/caregiver. Infants are unable to use language – they communicate to their mother/caregiver in the original, unadulterated tongue: crying. As they grow older, they are weaned off the affection of the mother/caregiver, typically by a domineering paternal figure who screams “No!” For the first time, infants desire their mother/caregiver – meaning they perceive a lack between the goal and its actualization. Child-like cries must be upgraded to a socially-approved form of communication: language. However, language alienates the child because it imposes a world of meaning from without; whereby needs and desires must be framed through the words of an Other, forcing the child to compromise/repress themselves. Thus, “language is a substitute for the body of the mother/caregiver” (Pound, 2008:9) that the child uses in a desperate attempt to restore unity. But the mother/caregiver is forever lost – as the movement of language is set in motion by loss.
Once we begin to use language, there is a hole in our being that can never be made whole. I reject all those movies and novels that end with ‘happily ever afters’. At this point, I introduce a much more sensible perspective on relationships. Recently, two thought provoking questions/statements were posed by Dr. K E Garland regarding biological sex and degrees of commitment to relationships: “What does this mean? Men seem much quicker to say, ‘I don’t think I can deal with this woman.’ Whereas, women are much quicker to say, ‘I can work with this man.’”
At one level, we might account for this in terms of sexism: the fact that men reduce women to accessible and dispensable commodities, whereas women are socialized to ready themselves for a marriageable man (i.e. young girls are being indoctrinated into a ‘Say Yes to the Dress’ culture – where they demand their day in the spotlight in an expensive gown, as opposed to demanding equal pay, health insurance, etc.).
There is another, likely related, explanation here: relationships require a lack to function. While the two statements posed by Dr. Garland appear contradictory, they also share the common denominator of unhappiness. When a man says ‘I don’t think I can handle this woman’, his statement expresses a disenchantment that he is unwilling to work through. When a woman says ‘I can work with this man’, her statement expresses a disenchantment that she is willing to work through. These are opposing responses to the same structural manifestation of loss. Both statements demonstrate that a lack is what constitutes loving relationships.
“There Is No Such Thing As a Sexual Relationship”
The relationship between men and women requires a never-ending chase. Men run away from women, and women run toward men. We cannot call this a “relationship” because the parties in question never “meet” at the Symbolic level. To demonstrate this point, by way of the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, watch this short beer commercial:
In this advertisement, a woman finds a frog and kisses it – transforming it into what she deems a handsome man. When the handsome man appears, the woman prompts him to kiss her. He hesitates, and then kisses her – transforming her into a can of beer. After enjoying a few sips, he asks the beer “you haven’t got a sister, have you?”
There are at least two critical implications here. First, there is an asymmetry between a woman’s fantasy and a man’s fantasy. The woman raised a lowly frog to a perfect man; the man raised a lowly woman to a perfect can of beer. Second, there is a structural difference between the positions of men and women. We can point out that the woman raised the man from a frog – symbolizing a masochistic tendency. But we must remember that women have fantasies without power; while men have fantasies and power. The woman fancied a relationship among humans; the man fancied a relationship to a commodity. The man addressed the woman only when she turned into a can of beer, at which point she was unable to talk back. The fact that the woman disappeared altogether from the commercial demonstrates that, like the house described above, femininity is the hole that makes masculinity whole. A woman can only be recognized to the extent that she beckons to the language of men. Bearing this in mind, we can now state that “love” is what we call the gap between the structural positions of men and women. For this reason, Jacques Lacan argues “there is no such thing as a sexual relationship” because women are positioned as an absence in a world dominated by men. Stating this is not to deny that genitals intermingle. Rather, this is to argue that in the eyes of men – the only eyes that count – women do not exist as women.
Brown, Norman. 1965. Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History
Brown, Norman. 1968. Love’s Body.
Pound, Marcus. 2008. Zizek: A (Very) Critical Introduction
See generally the works of Jacques Lacan (specifically, Seminars X and XI)