Joseph Burgo, PhD discusses how to survive the eruptions of hatred in your relationship.
Over the years, I’ve heard many people tell me in session about arguments they had the night before with a spouse or significant other. Sometimes they’ll report having made truly hateful remarks such as, “Fuck you!” or even “Fuck off and die!” I’m not necessarily referring to unhappy couples who went on to divorce. Many of these clients had primarily loving relationships and are still married.
In my experience as a therapist, hatred occasionally erupts in most relationships. When it persists, it usually leads to a breakup; but when the couple can tolerate, forgive and regain a more loving attitude after a hateful fight, they can survive the experience. They learn that occasional hatred is simply a part of intimacy, a common human reaction when we feel hurt, overlooked or disrespected by someone who matters deeply to us. Helping the men and women in my practice to accept this reality and to bear with the pain of hatred — either experiencing it within themselves or on the receiving end — is often a major focus of our work.
At first, they may regard hatred as a “bad” emotion, one to be gotten rid of. If I draw attention to their hatred, they might demur: “I don’t think I feel hatred. Anger, maybe. Hatred is kind of strong.” A generation ago, anger was the emotion we weren’t supposed to feel; but as evidenced by movies like The Upside of Anger and books such as The Gift of Anger, our culture now gives us more room to admit and express it when we feel angry. Hatred still has a bad rap. As my friend Marla Estes says, “Hatred is the new anger.”
Hollywood depictions of love make it all the harder for men and women to accept the reality of occasional hatred in their relationships. Romantic comedies in particular give us a sanitized view of relationships: they routinely portray attractive characters who may have their quirks, who may occasionally get angry in amusing ways, but never give voice to their ugliest emotions. Conflict, misunderstandings and hurtful deeds are viewed as temporary obstacles on the way to happily-ever-after, rather than as an ongoing part of all relationships. Dramatic films show us people who feel hatred toward their partners, but for the most part, they come across as dysfunctional people (think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or War of the Roses).
People able to acknowledge feeling hatred during an argument often feel the need to justify it: it’s okay to hate someone as long as you have a very good reason for it. This often means an account of the argument that places blame squarely on the partner’s shoulders, a re-characterization of events that paints one party as villain, the other as an innocent and injured party. It’s a type of psychological defense mechanism, where self-justification serves to ward off guilt: If you’re entirely to blame, if you’re very bad, then I don’t have to feel guilty for having said something hurtful to a person I care about. Recovering from the eruption of hatred in a relationship means renouncing self-righteousness or victimhood. It means feeling remorse for the pain you may have caused by expressing hatred in destructive ways.
Over time, if we can bear occasional hatred and the guilt that often follows it, we learn to inhibit the ways we express hateful feelings, mitigating the damage our impulsive remarks might cause. I’m of the view that “Fuck you!” should be an unacceptable way to address someone you care about, unless it’s made in an ironic, half-humorous way that takes away the sting. It’s okay to feel hatred but it’s destructive within a relationship to repeatedly vent it in hurtful ways. Of course, holding onto our loving feelings in the heat of the moment is quite difficult to do, almost impossible for many people. If we feel deeply hurt, ignored or rejected by our partners, we may want to retaliate and hurt them back with our words. Recovering from storms of hatred in a relationship means inhibiting the ways we express it, reducing the severity of our outbursts so that we may find it easier to apologize, receive forgiveness and offer forgiveness in our turn.
Occasional hatred toward our loved ones is inevitable, but accepting this reality and doing our best to inhibit or express hatred in non-destructive ways will help to keep our relationships healthy and, for the most part, loving.
photo: mattzn / flickr