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  • Writer's pictureRobin Koerner

Having & Happiness; Desire & Difference: Reasons of the Heart (3 of 3)

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

We tend to think of our love for a person like anything else – as something we either have or don’t have. But I think the emotional reality – and the depth of reaction to the loss of love – can only be understood by considering more “states of having”.

I posit at least four of them.

A) having,

B) not having had or having now,

C) having had but not having now,

D) having had but never being able to have again.

B, C and D – the latter three states – have in common that they are all states of “not having”, but C and D differ from B fundamentally because they involve loss, which means not having something that you have had and so know what it means to have. C and D also differ fundamentally from each other: there is all the difference in the world between not having a thing but having the possibility of acquiring it and not having a thing and never being able to have it (while knowing how wonderful it is to have it).

The loss of love is D), the toughest of these, because each relationship provides so much that when lost can never be replaced exactly. It is brutal, often debilitating – and it happens only a few times in most people’s lives.

In principle, anything in the world can be acquired by anyone determined to acquire it - with one exception, which is when the thing to be acquired has a say in whether it will be acquired. The only such thing is a person and the only such acquisition is a relationship with a person.

Of course, there are plenty of things we could have in principle but never will be able to acquire in practice. For example, I will never own a 100’ yacht. If I made getting one my life’s work, perhaps I could do it. But I just don’t care enough to do what that takes. Since my inability to get it is not imposed on me, I cannot have it but I may have it, or if you prefer could have it.

Sometimes, however, the reason we cannot have something is that it is denied to us. It’s not just that we cannot have it: it’s that we may not have it.

The loss of love is both not ever having because it is denied to us. The end of a relationship is simultaneously not to have, not to be able to have, and to be denied having, something one has had a positive experience of having. Emotionally, that’s so much more than just “not having”.

Here’s a fanciful stab at the emotional states associated with these different states of having.

States of (Not) Having

Have not experienced Have experienced and enjoyed

Have Excitement, Expansion Enjoyment Do not have Possibility Motivation Cannot have Indifference Grief May not have Resentment Rejection

The end of a love relationship is both of those states in red at once.

What else in life even comes close?

This post and the last two on the same topic form a single stream of consciousness, which has brought me to yet more questions of love and loss…

For example, why do we want something more when we can’t have it any more – even when we can remember very well the reasons for not choosing it in the first place or for letting it go?

How much of the pain of loss of love is pure ego? How much of grieving for a lost love is actually just the devastation of personal rejection? Is it more that for men than for women – or the other way around?

Why is it so hard to recall all the good reasons for splitting from a loved one in the throes of rejection or loss? In loss, is the thing we “miss” the thing we actually lost – or a re-created idealization or fantasy version of that thing. If the latter, where does that fantasy version come from and why? And why would we generate a fantasy version of what is lost rather than simply of something completely new?

Can evolution answer these questions?

Are all the difficulties of letting go evolved to keep us reproducing? Wouldn’t evolution have been much more evident and effective if it had given us a greater ability to move on quickly from one romantic attachment to the next potential partner?

Men and Women Love Differently

Now that last one is a question that stops me in my tracks as a man… because as I type it, I think it only looms so large for me because I am a man.

Many of my male friends and I have remarked on how much we men struggle to move on from relationships and how easy it seems to be for women to do the same thing. Many men see an emotional ruthlessness in many women that we find it hard to understand. We marvel at how fast women can go from one man to the next – especially (of course) when we are the one left behind.

Is this claim just male prejudice, confirmation bias, or a natural reaction to the pain of ended relationships… or does it really speak to a fundamental difference between the sexes?

Let me offer a huge generalization. It’s crass, for sure, but if there’s any truth in it, it’s also of huge importance.

Women seek the experience provided by a romantic bond, and the particular man they find to give them that experience is the means to that end.

Men, in contrast, seek the experience provided by a woman, and the romantic bond they form when they find her is the means to that end.

On that basis, men and women are playing very different games. Women can “move on” faster emotionally because they care less about which man is giving them what they want (the bond) than they care about getting what they want. Men, being a means to their end, are therefore more replaceable.

In contrast, men can’t move on so fast because they want the woman they are losing more than a relationship of the general kind that they have with her. Once they can no longer have her, there is no replacement because there is only one of “her”.

The truism that “women have the keys to the kingdom” refers to the keys that open the entrance to a sexual and romantic relationship. The idiom captures the fact that the woman gets to decide whether the man can “come in” – both literally and figuratively.

But it turns out that they also have the keys to the exit.

Even though she loves her man, she can exit because another man can satisfy her most basic need. A man still in love with his woman cannot exit and be happy in the knowledge he can replace what he had with her – because what he had with her primarily was her. For him, a relationship with another woman is not something similar to his current relationship. It is entirely something different, which he is not seeking. In short, if I may dangerously generalize once more:

For women, the relationship is the end and the man is the means.

For men, the woman is the end and the relationship is the means.

I bet a survey or poll would confirm this. It would find that many more women than men imagine their happiness as ultimately residing in an overall life situation, into which their man fits. In contrast, many more men than women would describe their happiness as ultimately residing in an experience of a particular woman, and they’d be satisfied with many situations with that ideal woman as long as she were that right woman.


I’ve made some huge claims in this post, which I expect to be controversial. For example, making any sweeping generalization about any difference between men and women, like the one I have made, is inviting trouble.

But do you think there’s anything in it? Are you a man who marvels at how quickly women move on. Or are you a woman who bristles at the presumptuousness of the very suggestion?

Also, I’d love to hear your thoughts about my "states of having" - or perhaps more accurately, "states of not having". I think it’s a powerful framework for understanding any experience of loss - including even the loss of an addiction.

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