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The Paradoxes of Love (or Why Frustration is the Origin of Satisfaction in Love


On balance, between satisfaction and a lack thereof, between the familiar and the strange, is an intrinsic feeling of love...

Love, in its romantic dimension, is a fine game of opposites. The process involved in falling in love is often as violent as it is pleasant, as delicious as it is terrifying, and it is precisely this falling in love, or rather, sharing this kind of love with another, which implies the opening of our interiors to someone else, with all of our shadows and demons and everything we carry inside ourselves. It implies an honesty that’s not always comfortable, nor even desirable.

With all this coming and going, and the mixed feelings – of joy and pain, desire and revulsion, of fear and courage – there shines a not quite obvious truth. When we fall in love with someone else, not only do we love someone completely external to ourselves, but we fall in love with our own projection of that person, born of our own deepest emotional shortcomings. So the person we fall in love with, despite the possibility that they’re all but unknown, is also deeply familiar.

English psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has spoken with notable clarity on the paradoxical nature of love in Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, an essay on the parallel lives we’ve longed for, somehow missed, and could never have lived.

All love stories are frustration stories… To fall in love is to be reminded of a frustration that you didn’t know you had (of one’s formative frustrations, and of one’s attempted self-cures for them); you wanted someone, you felt deprived of something, and then it seems to be there. And what is renewed in that experience is an intensity of frustration, and an intensity of satisfaction. It is as if, oddly, you were waiting for someone but you didn’t know who they were until they arrived. Whether or not you were aware that there was something missing in your life, you will be when you meet the person you want. What psychoanalysis will add to this love story is that the person you fall in love with really is the man or woman of your dreams; that you have dreamed them up before you met them; not out of nothing — nothing comes of nothing — but out of prior experience, both real and wished for. You recognize them with such certainty because you already, in a certain sense, know them; and because you have quite literally been expecting them, you feel as though you have known them for ever, and yet, at the same time, they are quite foreign to you. They are familiar foreign bodies.

The duality between the unknown and the familiar echoes (physically and mentally) in the game of absence and presence, a sensation known to anyone who’s fallen intensely in love. Phillips writes:

However much you have been wanting and hoping and dreaming of meeting the person of your dreams, it is only when you meet them that you will start missing them. It seems that the presence of an object is required to make its absence felt (or to make the absence of something felt). A kind of longing may have preceded their arrival, but you have to meet in order to feel the full force of your frustration in their absence. […] Falling in love, finding your passion, are attempts to locate, to picture, to represent what you unconsciously feel frustrated about, and by.

It’s possible to glimpse, in Phillips’ writing, the intimacy of the relationship existing between the most unconscious and the deepest frustrations and the processes of falling in love. It reminds us that the most apparent and the most visible part of our emotional universe carries with it an adjacent, subtler part which, like an underground river, floods our most profound depths.


Image: Venus at her Mirror, Diego Velázquez

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