I spent almost four years in a toxic semi-relationship, a relationship where the more he didn’t want me, the more I wanted him, and the minute I gave up, he would reel me back in. I was endlessly fascinated by this – I am an attractive, hilariously funny, and occasionally intelligent woman – He was handsome… and that’s about it. What was I doing?
It’s not uncommon, this idea of desiring the unachievable, of transferring a perceived value onto another. Why do we want someone who doesn’t want us? What makes them so special? How can we allow ourselves to fall so deeply for someone that makes us work tirelessly for their affections, only to give us none of it? Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the time old story of the empath and the narcissist, the masochist and the sadist, the chaser and the chased – I can’t tell you why they don’t want you, but I can certainly give you a theory as to why you like it.
Some time ago I picked up Rene Girard’s book called Deceit, Desire, & The Novel. In this book, I developed an understanding of humanity that I otherwise would never have thought about, and ultimately this lead to the discovery of a theoretical answer as to why we want people who don’t want us. This is a five part answer that consists of:
1. The Human As The Imitator
3. Mimetic Desire
4. Conflict And Rivalry
5. The Modal And The Pseudo Masochist
Let us establish that as a species, not only do we learn through imitation, but we incorporate it intrinsically into our desires, and then begin to mimic the desires of others. This is all well and good until there is only one desired item available, and hundreds of people who desire it – here spawns conflict and rivalry, leading to the concept of a perceived value and ultimately, a modal and a pseudo masochist.
In 1977 Andrew Meltzof published the ground-breaking paper “Imitation of Facial and Manual Gestures by Human Neonates” in this he discovered that almost immediately after birth we imitate. Meltzof discovered that:
1. Infants between 12 and 21 days of age can imitate both facial and manual gestures; this behaviour cannot be explained in terms of either the conditioning or innate releasing mechanisms. Such imitation implies that human neonates can equate their own unseen behaviours with gestures they see others perform.
2. Six infants were each shown three facial gestures and one manual gesture, sequentially. Their responses were videotaped and scored by observers who did not know which gesture the infants had seen. The statistically significant results showed that infants of this young age were able to imitate all four gestures.
3. The experiment was ground-breaking because it showed infant imitation of adults at a much earlier age than was thought possible. The study also showed early facial imitation, something previously thought to be impossible at this young age because of its necessarily cross-modal nature. (Infants can see others’ faces but not their own; they can feel their own facial movements, but not those of others.) The findings had implications not only for theoretical psychology, but also for the study of memory, learning, language acquisition, and socialisation.
What does this tell us? It tells us that imitation is engrained into our genetic coding for purposes of survival. This focus on survival is a funny thing, and probably the reason that we are still here. Desire is another concept ingrained into the mechanism of our survival.
Humans are inherently structured to have desire, desire for food, water, rest, and sex. These desires are needed to alert us of either, the necessities needed to survive, or the purpose of our existence – procreation. To further this, as advertising companies have proven, desire can become metaphysical and mimetic.
Girard acknowledges that, while humans have evolved biological appetites that operate at the level of instinct, it is the further evolved capacity for mimesis that most fully accounts for the dynamics of human desiring, whether or not any particular desire builds on or directs a biological appetite.
The most fundamental concept in answering our question is that of ‘mimetic desire’. Ever since Plato, students of human nature have highlighted the great mimetic capacity of human beings; that is, we are the species most apt at imitation. Indeed, imitation is the basic mechanism of learning (we learn inasmuch as we imitate what our teachers do), and neuroscientists are increasingly reporting that our neural structure promotes imitation very proficiently (for example, ‘mirror neurons’). However, according to Girard, most thinking devoted to imitation pays little attention to the fact that we also imitate other people’s desires, and depending on how this happens, it may lead to conflicts and rivalries.
If people imitate each other’s desires, they may wind up desiring the very same things; and if they desire the same things, they may easily become rivals, as they reach for the same objects. Girard usually distinguishes ‘imitation’ from ‘mimesis’. The former is usually understood as the positive aspect of reproducing someone else’s behaviour, whereas the latter usually implies the negative aspect of rivalry. It should also be mentioned that because the former usually is understood to refer to mimicry, Girard proposes the latter term to refer to the deeper, instinctive response that humans have to each other.
Let’s talk conflict. So everyone wants the latest iPhone, and that’s great because Apple made millions of them, but what happens when two friends desire the same person? Generally, a conflict arises and the friends turn into rivals. What happens when two countries fight over a piece of land? War. The land could be infertile, ugly, and irrelevant, but both countries will fight to the death over it because they are rivals – it is one of the many ugly sides of human nature.
Now that we understand all of that, lets get to the point of this article. Why do we want those that don’t want us? There are two concepts at play here, perceived value, and the modal and the masochist.
I’m going to use an example about consumerism, you may argue that people are no things, but in this argument they are. Let’s say that an iPhone costs 3 cents, let’s say that they were as available as an elastic band, how would that change your excitement about getting one? How would that change the value you place on the iPhone? You would probably lose all desire.
In the same way there is a perceived value of a person, if the other person doesn’t want us, their perceived value goes up. They become so expensive that we cannot afford them. So why does that make us want them even more? Because of evolution. It would have been an advantage to procreate with the most valuable mate. Some of us need the obstacle to confirm the value. Those that pursue this logic, come to see their failures as the signs of the proximity to the ideal which they aspire. This can manifest as a heightened experience of the universal pseudo-masochism inherent in seeking the unattainable.
From one perspective, pseudo-masochism can be seen as a kind of metaphysical desire in extremis. In mimetic desire, the prestige of the model is sometimes boosted by his or her seeming indifference toward others. The pseudo-masochist concludes that their rejection by the modal confirms the modal’s supremacy and the absolute desirability of what the modal desires. The pseudo-masochist looks for objects whose value is conferred and confirmed by the resistance encountered in attempts to attain them. Where a model serves initially as an obstacle to the consummation of a desire, the pseudo-masochist eventually will seek the obstacle itself—the model is valued because of the obstruction that he or she can provide. If the model no longer possesses an obstacle, the pseudo masochist loses their desire for the modal because they no longer hold value.
After those horrible four years of damage, constant insecurity, and emotional turmoil I realised that I didn’t actually want him, I wanted the obstacle that he posed, I wanted the challenge.
Love shouldn’t hurt like that.