Both abusers and victims claim they love and are loved by their partners. Thomas Fiffer tries his best to explain why.
One of the greatest sources of confusion about abusive relationships for people who have never been in one is how abusers can claim to love their victims while treating them so horribly, and how, in turn, victims cite loving their abusive partners as a reason for staying. If love is patient, kind, understanding, and compassionate—and surely love is not dismissive, mean, contemptuous, and violent—then where is the love in abuse?
I’m not a psychologist, nor am I an expert on abuse. But having lived through an emotionally abusive relationship and gone through therapy to understand it, I come to the question from more than a distanced, intellectual or clinical perspective. And in exploring my feelings, as well as my thoughts, about intimate partner abuse, I have reached some conclusions I believe are worth sharing.
Let’s start with a truth that can be universally acknowledged. Both partners come to any intimate relationship seeking love, or more accurately, what to them feels like love. Understanding that something can feel like love but not be love is a crucial distinction. For the abusive partner, what feels like love is complete, unconditional acceptance. For the abused partner, what feels like love is special treatment—being the sole and intense focus of another’s attention, warmth, and desire. The reasons for the abusive partner’s need for acceptance and the abused partner’s need for special treatment (which interestingly are more similar than different) are critical, but they belong in a different discussion of causality. For now, keep in mind that each partner brings to the relationship a behavior that makes the other one feel loved, and each partner has a history of trading that behavior to gain the love feeling—acceptance to gain special attention, or special attention to gain acceptance.
In the beginning, things are happy, often deliriously so. Critical mutual needs are—finally—met. This one seems to be the one. The abusive partner turns on the charm to gain acceptance, lavishing attention, warmth, and desire on the other during the courtship period, which the soon-to-be-abused partner soaks up as (feeling like) love. In return, the other partner ignores (accepts) serious red flags that indicate problems are likely down the road. The soon-to-be-abused partner is effectively blind to these signals, because the need for special treatment in the now overwhelms uncertainty about the future. But after a while, two major shifts occur. First, the special treatment diminishes, partly because it is unsustainable but also because doubt tortures the abuser’s mind. The abuser needs to know that the love isn’t contingent on the special treatment. But as the special treatment fades, so does the other partner’s acceptance. And so the abuse begins, as the abuser starts demanding proofs of acceptance which are presented as proofs of love.
Will you still love me if I ignore you?
Will you still love me if I insult you?
Will you still love me if I accuse you?
Will you still love me if I betray you?
Will you still love me if I make you feel worthless?
Will you still love me if I threaten you?
Will you still love me if I hit you?
Will you still love me if I use your vulnerability against you?
Will you still love me if I hurt you in ways you never imagined?
You’d think the abused partner would say no to all of these questions, but here’s the kicker: the special treatment the abused partner craves—the apologies, the love notes, the flowers, the dinners, the gifts, the promises, the make-up sex—follows and becomes intimately linked to each instance of hurt. The abused partner begins trading acceptance of abuse (instead of acceptance of his or her partner) for special treatment, and asks only one question: “Will the special treatment return if I tolerate and forgive this?” Thus begins the cycle.
At first, the abused partner doesn’t perceive the onset of a cycle but a need for more effort to make the relationship work. Craving the special treatment that, for him or her, feels like love, the abused partner decides that a little suffering is worth it to be with a person, perhaps the only person they’ve ever found, who gives them the love feeling. But the stakes in the cycle get higher and higher. As the abuser’s need for acceptance escalates, so does the intensity of the abuse, and the special treatment that follows the abuse also ratchets up to make up for greater and greater emotional and/or physical harm, making the “payoff” greater for the abused partner. The couple quickly becomes trapped in a toxic cycle, in which an incident of abuse is the necessary catalyst to trigger the flow of unsustainable special treatment. This may result in the abused partner subconsciously triggering the abuser, even though the abused partner is consciously walking on eggshells and trying to avoid those triggers. No, the abused partner is never asking for—and never deserves—abuse, but he or she may very well be engaging in behavior (even if it is just tolerating abuse) that sustains the cycle. To understand this twisted dynamic, an outside observer has to look at both parts of the cycle and see it as a whole—hurtful act followed by loving act—rather than just looking at the hurtful acts and asking, “Why on earth would anyone put up with that?” and “Why on earth would anyone call that love?”
The abusive partner’s need for complete, unconditional acceptance also explains his or her focus on details and demands for perfection. He flies off the handle if his shirt wasn’t ironed properly or dinner isn’t ready exactly on time, or she loses it when her partner comes home late or forgets the milk, because getting these things exactly right constitutes proof of acceptance and love and getting them wrong makes them feel unloved. But no matter how hard the abused partner tries, the abuser always manages to find fault.
In turn, instead of simply drawing a line and saying, “What I’m doing for you will have to be good enough,” the abused partner tries harder and harder to satisfy the abuser, both to avoid the hurt that follows failure and, as significantly, in the hopes of receiving more of the special treatment that feels like love. The irony is that the special treatment rarely follows the perfect execution of the abuser’s impossible demands but always follows an incident of abuse. Bam! This pattern dooms to failure the abused partner’s efforts to obtain special treatment by meeting the abuser’s expressed need for perfection, because it is the very failure to achieve that perfection that triggers the cycle that brings on the abuse and the subsequent special treatment by the abuser. The truth is, no amount of acceptance—or special treatment—can fill either partner’s needs.Both partners suffer repeated pain and disappointment as they remain trapped in a sickening cycle of hurt and futility that, due to their misconceptions, both readily characterize as love. Each says to him or herself, “I’ve found the one who makes me feel loved … as long as I can handle the awful hurt that comes with it.”
This theory (and I emphasize it is a theory that does not apply to every case) defines the cycle of abuse as the constant, repeated seeking of love—or more accurately, what feels like love—by both partners in a co-dependent manner. The abusive partner makes an impossible demand for unconditional acceptance, which the abused partner inevitably fails to meet. The abused partner also makes a less overt demand for special treatment, which the abuser is only capable of providing after an incident of abuse. Abuse occurs, followed by special treatment as a corrective. The cycle continues. It seems then, that the way to break the cycle is either for the relationship to end or for both partners to shift their definitions and practice of love. For the relationship to become healthy, both partners must understand that love is neither complete acceptance nor special treatment and not a continuous cycle of suffering followed by recompense but rather a complex combination of mutual respect, honesty, empathy and compassion, and commitment to communicate about and resolve problems in a loving and constructive way. This definition doesn’t sound as romantic as unconditional acceptance or special treatment, and it involves a lot less drama, but it is the stuff of which successful, long-term relationships are made. Love without boundaries is not love at all; it is obsession where the end of getting one’s unhealthy needs met justifies the means of destroying another person.