Love and Desire: why we want what we can’t have, and have what we can’t want

“What is it about transgression that makes desire so potent?”

Esther Perel

What is the experience of desire? Longing, wanting and fantasizing all seem to revolve around a necessary absence of the object of our desire; there must be something lacking in order for us to really feel the desire for whatever ‘it’ is. When we’ve been stuck in the house for days with flu we find ourselves fantasizing about the health that we fail to notice in our daily lives; when we’re feeling healthy, our desire cannot be for health itself, which we already possess, but the continuation of health into our future, which remains uncertain. We never really desire what we already have, because desire can only truly be felt in the presence of absence.

Plato was one of the first philosophers to identify the fundamental difference between love and desire in his exploration of the nature of love in ‘Symposium’. Whilst desire is ‘of something that is non-existent’ to us, he suggests that love is of eternal goodness and beauty, which manifests itself in our ability to see beauty and goodness as qualities in those around us. Whilst the nature of desire is a focus on possession of something we do not have, love is an acknowledgement and appreciation of the fundamental characteristics of those we love, or of the world around us. Desire is something we do, whilst love simply is of what is.

In ‘The Ethics of Ambiguity’, existential philosopher Simone de Beauvior characterizes desire as a driving force of human nature. Desire bestows human existence with value as we strive to achieve our goals and to attain that which we lack. However, it is not the satisfaction of our desire that gives life value; instead, the pleasure of desire lies in the perpetual pursuit of those ends. As soon as we get what we want we must, by necessity, want something else. This is the fundamental essence of our nature, as well as a source of constant tension in our lives. Contrary to Buddhist principles, existential philosophy suggests that to be entirely satisfied with what we have would be to deny the very thing that makes us human.

How, then, do we reconcile the relationship between love and desire in our lives? Many of us live with the illusion that what we want is attainable, but somehow always just beyond our grasp: my job would be perfect if only I had a different manager; my relationship would be perfect if only my partner were a little more understanding; my life would be perfect if only I had a little more money; I’d feel better about myself if only my body were a little different. When we get what we want we may love it, but satisfaction signifies the death of desire, and it becomes impossible to really appreciate what is there when there is no space between I and It. Indeed, desire often acts as a projection of the things we think we want, which will necessarily change depending upon what we have.

If de Beauvior is correct in identifying desire as the driving force of our existence, then one possible solution to this paradox may lie in the attempt to maintain distance between an element of ourselves and the object of our love, in order to create renewed desire for it. We can feel safe in the familiarity of a job we love, whilst identifying new ways to change and grow within our roles that enable us to both love and find elements of desire in what we are doing. We can feel connected and known in the intimacy of our romantic relationships, whilst maintaining an appreciation of the separate life of the mind of our partners; the mystery of their experiences and thoughts that exist outside of our love for one another. Rather than desiring anything as a solution to everything, we can experience the love for what we already have, whilst cultivating desire for that which we have yet to attain. If we can accept the fundamental truth that we can never fully possess anything we desire, then perhaps there is hope still in the attempt to desire what we already love.


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