The perfect imperfections of love

Inspired by St. Valentine’s day, a date which seems to provide more reasons for couples to break up than to stay together, I wanted to post a little reflection about perfect love.

Today millions of people throughout the world will do their best to provide a perfect celebration of romantic love, showing affection and appreciation for their loved ones by sending flowers, taking them out for dinner, buying them a present and who knows what else. Valentine’s day, however, seems to promote an ideal version of what romance should be like, whilst at the same time highlighting the very disappointments and imperfections of real love that it so much tries to obliterate.

The disparity between one’s wishful ideals and the imperfect reality of relationships can bring about painful issues, the kind that populate many psychotherapy sessions. But when is it that we bought into the illusion that somewhere there is a perfect someone who will fill every gap of my soul, who will understand me, endure me, listen to me, give me undivided attention and attend to my every need? You may say that’s an exaggeration, that no one really wishes for that. Well, maybe not consciously, but this narcissistic fantasy is often expressed in the disappointments and frustrations that I deal with in my psychotherapy practice, day in and day out.

imperfections of love

Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, once wrote: “Love is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it”. Complicated and controversial, just like Lacan! But I believe there’s real truth in this. Let’s think about it.

The first part of the sentence – “Love is giving something you don’t have” – points to what real relationships are about, the exchange and interaction between fallible, lacking and incomplete people, giving one another exactly their imperfect self. There is no greater love than to allow oneself to become vulnerable, inviting the other to participate in what we try to give but we don’t have. The complications of love begin when we start layering this raw reality, defending against mistrust and disappointment to the point of believing we actually have something to give to the other. This is when relationships become funded by what is given and received in exchange, misrepresenting the reality that love is, in fact, perfect in its imperfection.

The second bit of the quote – “to someone who doesn’t want it” – points to the asymmetry of love. It means that even if I let go of the narcissistic fantasy that I possess what the other desires in order to be complete, the other may still not want my imperfection, and in fact carry on projecting and demanding a fulfilment for what they lack. Complicated, I know. But my understanding of Lacan’s quote is that, inasmuch as I can reach an acceptance that I do not have what the other may want or wish for to become whole, the other may still project their neediness and not actually want my imperfect self. In this sense, there will always be demands and disappointments in love. But this imperfect equation is what makes it beautiful.

Freud once said that love is the great educator. And indeed, love teaches us about the facts of life. It is perfect in its imperfections, springing from the conflict between our narcissistic self and the imperfection of the other – and vice-versa. So the illusion of perfect love, nurtured in films and TV shows, celebrated today in the fantasy of completing one another, instead of drawing couples closer together serves as a defence against real love, and perhaps constitutes itself as an obstacle towards real relationships.

I end this messy post with another quote, this time by C.S Lewis, a paragraph which, I believe, doesn’t require further extrapolations. Lewis brilliantly said:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Happy Valentine’s day!


Allan Gois – Psychotherapist in LondonPsicologo em Londres