Can Our Love Live Beside Our Frustration?


Joan Marsh and Wallace Ford in Three Cornered Moon, 1933

by Masha Tupitsyn

Neither Freud nor Wilfred Bion doubt that there are frustrations to be had; what they do doubt, paradoxically, is our capacity, perhaps our desire, to know what they might be and to try to find them. We should remember Cawdrey’s 1604 dictionary definition of ‘frustrate’, to ‘make voyde, deceive’. We frustrate ourselves by what we do with our frustration; we use our frustrations to deceive ourselves. We are, at least for Freud and Bion, frustrated of frustration; we empty it out, we evade it. We even avoid it by turning it into a pleasure, or fob ourselves off with pleasures that are knowingly unsatisfying; there is, Freud tells us, a wish to frustrate ourselves that is as strong as any wish we have. But if frustration becomes our pleasure, we are further than ever from satisfaction and love…if it is our first nature to need, it is our second nature to obscure our frustration; that we don’t want to really think or speak because we don’t want to know the nature of, know the experience of, our fundamental frustrations. But if it frustration we hate, it must be satisfaction that we hate even more, because it is only from our sense of frustration that we get a clue about the possibilities of satisfaction…We need to bear with, to know about, our frustrations not simply to secure our satisfactions but to sustain our sense of reality. In the psychoanalytic story, if we don’t feel frustration, we don’t need reality; if we don’t feel frustration we don’t discover whether we have the werewithal to deal with reality. People become real to us by frustrating us; if they don’t frustrate us they are merely figures of fantasy.

-Adam Phillips on Frustration, Missing Out

New light is shed on some of my favorite quotes.

When it comes to love, one cinematic thread that recurs, treats frustration as the true origin (testing ground) of love. Susan Bordo describes the important role of frustration in the old screwball film comedy this way:

The hero and heroine of the [1930s] screwball comedy may decide to attempt a life with a more conventional person (e.g., ‘the rube’). It can’t work, and learning that—learning who one really is and whom one really needs to be with in order to fully realize that—is the arc of the comedy.

Avital Ronell formulates frustration-as-relation, and our relation to frustration, this way: “If you are not rattled by someone, it is not a real relation.”

Given that life has become more and more frustrating and precarious, why has frustration with another become such a deal breaker for people? Why do we see escape from reality rather than engagement with reality as the solution to frustration? “Reality” in Phillips’ consideration of frustration is also the reality principle of love, of loving; of another person and their frustrations; of the frustration of another person’s frustrations; of our frustrations combining with another person’s frustrations, which is one way of thinking about commitment. It also brings to mind Sarah Schulman’s new work on conflict and the way conflict is now being increasingly equated with abuse, which hijacks any real work around conflict. How the mis-recognition and disavowal of frustration, discomfort (Adam Kotsko has pursued a similar thread in his book Awkwardness), and conflict as abuse prevents us from even being able to engage (not to mention, resolve) openly, honestly, and responsibly with our own frustrations and with other people’s frustrations. If you won’t/can’t give voice to or accept the frustrations you have as well as the frustrations that other people have; if you cannot allow them to mix and match; if you bail the moment someone does or says something you don’t like or can’t handle, how can we ever construct a love that is durable, real, supportive, complete, sustainable, and not easily collapsed by the necessary presence of frustration and conflict?

How can you really know another person if you cannot handle them as real—frustrated and frustrating? If you cannot bear to respond to the ways you frustrate them and they frustrate you? If you cannot see frustration as something you can and must incorporate into the love relation? That is, live with.

What kind of relationships can we have if there is no space for conflict and frustration in our lives over all the political, social, economic, intellectual, and emotional challenges we face? If we shy away (cannot bond over) from voicing frustration, displeasure, and critique, not only are we not engaging with another person in a real way, we are not engaging with the world in a real way. Enjoyment of life must include our (productive and enduring) frustration with life.

Phillips: “…a wish to frustrate ourselves off with pleasures that are knowingly unsatisfying…a wish to frustrate ourselves that is as strong as any wish we have” is what I have been calling lack fetishization the past few years. I would go even further and describe the structure as the wish to be unsatisfied above all else.

At a New School talk with the transgendered actress Laverne Cox last month (October, 2014), bell hooks talked about love and what happens when identity politics is the sole bonding mechanism:

I take my community where I can find it. When I think about my search for love, yeah, I might have an ideal in my mind of who it is I could partner with, and life might bring me something completely different; someone that does not meet that ideal but that is loving. And then that’s the challenge: will I choose to love or will I stay attached to my ideal in some way that keeps that love from me? And that to me is so much harder to think about. The way we use labels and the way labels isolate people and what does it mean to imagine a world where we’re not bound by labels?…Identity politics has its place but the more important place in our lives is who we connect with. Who we find we can love. And we don’t always connect with the people that are just like us.

To this I would add: when we meet someone we think is our ideal, that we label as our ideal, and then they frustrate us, can we still love them; can we love them even more than when we thought of them as purely satisfying? That is, can we love the way they frustrate and the way they satisfy us? Can our love (satisfaction) live beside our frustration instead of canceling each other out? If we think of satisfaction/frustration as another conception of the Two, we can see this positive/negative alchemy as the holistic recipe for love. If we can be satisfied with the fact that love is always about being both satisfied and frustrated, about the constant working (out) of the Two, we can understand that the “perfect” person for us really only means that someone out there is just the right amount of satisfying and frustrating. And, above all, that we know how to be just the right amount of frustrated and satisfied with the ones(s) we love.

Piece crossposted with Love Dog