Impossibility of Erotic Love

Yet, I had devoted so much to you!

The western tales told to us while we are growing up present the union of the prince and princess (man and woman) as a “conflict-free” and harmonious experience. In infantile imagination, the union of male and female principles –man and woman- is experienced as an integration free from any kind of internal conflict, and the spiritual “unity” of man and woman as well as the physical one, which is veiled with a fairy-tale mystery, is depicted as the dance of two different entities who are separate, but somehow completed through each other. This is most probably the fantasy of the infantile imagination and of the “infantile” aspect of humanity. However, eastern tales portray our reality so finely. Love illustrates the impossibility of the union of man and woman, of the male and female principles. Love is depicted as a search and a process of destruction. In eastern tales, love is an internal experience, which emerges in the imagination of the hero(ine), “secludes” him/her from the paths of real life, accelerates destruction of the “self”, disintegrates the ego, takes away the sense of reality, cuts off all connections with the “object” of love, and gives shape to a spiritual transformation. Love as told in eastern tales is actually “mature” love because it is never naïve.

As we move from the fairy tale/fantasy towards reality, the scenery becomes quite similar to the themes of the eastern tales. The naked truth of adult life, purified from the “fairy tale”, takes us to the “tragic” conflict between man and woman who experience their own fantasies in their solipsistic universes. When we look at all tokens of modern life, it is not so hard to see that man and woman have two different fantasy worlds. Life is built on a tension arising out of the irreconcilability of these fantasies. Love is perhaps the moment when we experience this tension most deeply. Perhaps the reason why love causes so much disappointment, leading to such deep narcissistic injuries, is this irreconcilable distance between the fictional and the “real”. It is because the “fantasy” is so real for the person who experiences it, and is nourished from a much deeper source than the tokens of real life, i.e. the unconscious.

All themes that motivate us in love originate from an unconscious source. This is what explains the uncontrollable nature of the experience in love. Love is not a deliberate choice, nor a controllable, stoppable, deferrable experience. Love is not a choice, and thus is not associated with conscious space in this sense. Love is an unconscious process, which we fall into, attracts us to its core, and dominates the self. This is the underlying reason why love is described as an illness. Love, just like an illness, comes at an unexpected time, severity and form, dominates the body and the soul, exhausts us, and takes away the ego strength and our defense mechanisms – thousands of little games that we adopt to survive in daily life. We regress with love. Our adult identity is unstitched, its integrity is harmed, our rational side staggers, and we are no longer the smart, integrated, adult person as we once were. We are irrational, childish, and shattered. Here lies the paradox of love; we reach out for love with a desire to (be) complete(d), in the process of which we lose our integrity and continuity because it is not possible to be completed in or through love. When we look at the relationship between love and self from this perspective, it is possible to observe how well it overlaps with what is depicted in eastern tales. Eastern tales, unlike western tales, describe “the experience in love” as a disintegration of the self. Compared with the presentation of male-female unity as an ending in western tales, eastern tales portray a painful process involving dissociation of the self.

There is No Happy Love


What makes unification impossible in love? The power of psychoanalytic theory comes from the fact that it can transcribe and makes the phenomenon of love (the fire/illness/irreconcilable experience/destruction process/that shaking experience depicted in poems, literature and tales) understandable with all its complexity, irrationality and with its surreal language. Yes, love is an illness; an illness that tears down the daily life, perception, experiences and routine, causes the land to slip underneath our feet and our rational part to be “eclipsed”, makes us stagger, opens the doors of our perception, catalyzes our imagination, spontaneous, crazy and anti-social side, and dominates our dreams and the paths of the unconscious… Yes, a kind of fascination, eclipse… and the power of psychoanalysis lies in the power and ability to go deep into that “burning” and “deathly” experience that cannot even cross the doorstep of perception of the rational paradigm of the science.

A Psychoanalytic View of the Impossibility of Erotic Love

What kind of clues does psychoanalysis give us about the impossibility of a love experience that would enable the “unity” of man and woman? Psychoanalysis does this, fundamentally, by tracing the very different developmental paths of man and woman.

The oedipal stage underlying the sexuality of adult man and woman is the first awakening phase of sexuality. However, girls and boys experience the oedipal process in such “different” ways that marks the entire adult sexuality. Sexual awakening goes in parallel with the shaping of gender identity. The fears experienced and the developmental phases that each gender has to go through in this awakening and “formation” process are quite different. The girl’s gender identity formation is based on identification with the mother, continuity with the mother, being “like” the mother. The girl learns that being female is being like the mother. Within this frame, the developmental “task” of the girl is quite easy compared with that of the boy because mother is the “other” whom she knows so closely, touches, smells, imitates, and experiences the feeling of unity most closely. The girl forms her feminine gender identity through her identification with the mother. The feminine gender identity formed through identification lays the foundation of relational self for girls. Relational self means girls’ (and later women’s) definition of their selves through relationships. In this respect, for the little girl, her self is not an “entity” disconnected from the others. The girl experiences herself within “continuity”.

Then, what are the challenges that the girl has to confront and deal with in the oedipal process, and what are the fears that emerge within this context? In this process, the girl has two basic fears emerging. Firstly, the girl chooses the father as the erotic object, and fears losing mother’s love because of competition with the mother. Especially Ethel S.Person articulates how it causes anxiety for the girl to compete with the mother/”other” who is the primary source of love and caregiving. Being involved in a competition with the mother, the object of identification, she risks losing love and care of the mother whom she is completely dependent on (this phenomenon also explains the basis of women’s fear of an overt competition with other women, as we will see later on. The relational self formed through identification with the mother shapes a more covert way of competition rather than an overt one.)

The process of choosing the father as the erotic object brings along another fear: the fear of being hurt by the father. Because of the difference of genitalia between herself and her father, the little girl fears her own genitalia being harmed. Especially Karen Horney sees this “inequality” between the girl and the father in the oedipal phase as the basis for rape-related fears of women.

On the other hand, developmental process of the boy is quite challenging compared with that of the girl. Gender identity formation involves a two-stage process for the boy: separation/detachment from the mother and “inner” femininity, “negation” of the mother who is the first identification figure, and identification with the father. Compared with the girl’s process based on continuity, the boy has to go through a dual process starting with detachment and negation, and ending in a new identification. In order to understand the difficulty of this process – I think – it would be sufficient to look around us. The difficulties of this developmental process constitute the origins of men’s universally observed fear of regression to femininity, tendency to insult/exclude what is feminine, fear of their inner femininity, and fears of engulfment by women and regression to the mother. In fact, this thorny developmental process is strong enough to explain the entire misogynistic male culture and inflated machismo culture.

In this developmental process, the internal experiences and related fears that the boy has to face are just as intense as those of the girl, but also quite different in nature. The boy experiences desiring the mother and thus the fear of being punished by the father in the competition. With his huge body, the father is strong enough to hurt the little boy. This is the fear that lays the foundations of the universal (and unconscious) fear of castration.

Recent analysts also underline the narcissistic injury that the boy experiences in this process: the boy’s feeling of insufficiency next to the father’s sexual potency. The girl’s fear of being harmed/hurt when she encounters the father’s huge body in her imagination is replaced by a deep sense of insufficiency for the boy. The boy’s “smallness and insufficiency” compared with the father’s “male sexuality” capable of sexually pleasing the mother. This lays the foundations for the universal phenomenon of penis envy.

The boy also experiences being rejected by the mother as a sexual object in this period. The mother’s erotic object is not the boy. The father stands out in the competition, and this constitutes the basis for men’s fear of losing the sexual object.

Adolescence is strong enough to reinforce the differentiation of the paths originating in childhood for both genders. In adolescence, both genders go through even more different developmental processes both because of bodily differences and also the childhood origins of their social gender identities. Boys are more easily stimulated sexually by nature. The visible and semi-involuntary nature of male sexual arousal marks the male sexuality. During adolescence, the male observes the awakening of a “visible” sexuality that is easily aroused out of his control. Again in this process, we observe that sexual performance gets ahead of “relationship” for men. The origins of the tendency to sacrifice relationship for pleasure (isolating sexuality and relationship) may be found in the challenging process that boys go through in the oedipal phase. In the process to become a man, the boy, who needs to negate the mother to separate from her, perceives the desire for sexual object as parallel to separation, which makes it difficult (even impossible) to experience a relational unity with the sexual object. Relational unity is an experience powerful enough to evoke regression to and engulfment by the mother, and return to femininity (feminine phase). And for the boy, sexuality is isolated from relationship. This may explain to us the origins of how men can perceive the opposite sex as separated from all “humane” characteristics just as a sexual object since adolescence.

In this period, it is also possible to observe the emergence of sadistic fantasies that the boy develops in association with the disappointments experienced with the mother in the developmental process. It is possible to associate all sadistic fantasies towards the opposite sex with the narcissistic injuries the boy experienced in his relationship with the mother. Narcissistic injuries that turn to anger may bear the traces of the engulfing mother of the pre-oedipal phase, punishing mother of the anal phase, and rejecting mother of the oedipal phase.

However, the adolescent girl goes through a very different path. The adolescent manifestation of female sexuality, which may be described as the “mystery of femininity” that will find its place in the articles of various authors and even Freud, is just the opposite of that of male sexuality. In adolescence, girls encounter a sexuality that is mysterious even for themselves. The invisible nature of female sexual arousal and pleasure, and the female sexuality being awakened relatively harder than that of male sexuality hides female sexuality behind a curtain of mystery. Female social gender identity’s nature of placing relationship ahead of sexual pleasure makes girls the protectors of the relationship compared with the boys who tend to discover sexuality only as a physical pleasure. Person states that especially adolescent girls tend to sacrifice pleasure for the sake of relationship due to fear of detachment/separation/loneliness resulting from their fear of losing the mother in the oedipal phase.

Pleasure-seeking adolescent boy and relationship-seeking adolescent girl is on the threshold of adulthood. Here we see the irreconcilability of male sexuality reflected in caricaturized forms in pornographic imagination and female sexuality finding its reflection in romance novels and soap operas. Appearing in pornographic imagination and reflecting the dynamics of the collective male unconscious, the male sexuality is performance-oriented and that much isolated/free from relationship. This masculine sexuality, motivated by performance anxiety and shaped by a strong isolation against the fears of engulfment by the relationship, seems quite mechanical to the feminine eye. However, the psychoanalytical point of view shows us the “boy” behind this mechanical, performance-oriented, and isolated sexuality. The boy who is afraid of regressing to the mother/feminine/femininity, experiences insufficiency in front of the father’s “potency”, and fears punishment by the father.

Person also associates the origins of men’s concurrent polygamous relationships (with partners who are not aware of one another) with the fear (and real experience) of losing the erotic object in the oedipal phase. This phenomenon also explains the abundance of erotic “objects” surrounding the central male figure in the pornographic imagination. The abundance of “objects” serves as a shield against the fear of loss.

It is possible to find the origins of the sadistic elements that may be observed in adult male sexuality in various phases of mother-child relationships. As mentioned before, narcissistic injuries that may be expressed in sadistic forms may bear the traces of the engulfing mother of the pre-oedipal phase, punishing mother of the anal phase, and rejecting mother of the oedipal phase.

However, adult female sexuality appears as a relationship-oriented sexuality as it was grounded in the oedipal phase. Underlying female sexuality’s tendency to put relationship ahead of sexual pleasure, to sacrifice sexual pleasure along with the fear of losing the relationship, and to perceive sexuality and relationship as a whole, there is a little girl who identifies with the mother and fears losing her as a result of the desire felt towards the father and competition with the mother. For the girl, sexuality and relationship is a whole, and sexual pleasure carries the risk of losing the beloved other (Person expresses that the girl’s fear towards the mother is later transferred to the opposite sex) and sexuality also carries the risk of being harmed/hurt by the father. It is possible to associate the sexual masochism observed in pathological forms in adult women with the feelings of extreme guilt experienced in the oedipal phase and the fears of being punished/hurt sexually by the father. (Horney considers that real violence against woman/mother in the family makes the girl encode sexuality as an aggressive phenomenon in the oedipal phase.)

In this respect, psychoanalysis tells us about the ironic contrast of the male and female developmental histories.


Love reveals a repeated fury                               

Pablo Neruda

Neruda expresses the never-ending nature of love that produces itself with an infinite cycle and power. The storm of love, shaped with anger, lust and excitement (with its never ending regenerative power), revealing itself behind the curtain of mystery… Psychoanalysis guides us in the path of exploring the unconscious processes that explain the potency/ fierceness/ uncontrollability/ wildness/ destructiveness of this storm. However and still, knowledge does not console us… cannot still the storm… Time and time again, the poet/poem reminds us… “There is No Happy Love”…

©  Mahan Doğrusöz

Translated by: Menekşe Arık


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