I love my abuser!

“How do you help a client who expresses positive feelings toward the abuser in spite of severe abuse? Is this part of the traumatic bond and, if so, would that mean that her longing, nostalgia, and desire to reconnect are to be considered defenses? Or is this a genuine feeling and part of the complex mixed emotions? Can it be both? The client did enter the relationship voluntarily, supposedly out of love. Is “love” really love in this case? Or does it just feel like it is?” Thanks to one of our community members for this important question.

Most likely she does love her abuser. And most likely her relationship began with her loving him. As you said, she entered the relationship voluntarily.

However, he also abuses her. In response, we would also expect her to feel rage toward him for this abuse. And we would expect her to feel grief over the loss of the relationship they had (assuming it was beautiful). But rather than report mixed feelings over a mixed relationship, she reports only love. Why?

Splitting and denial. If we split off what we don’t like in someone, we can feel “pure” love for a “purified” partner. Otherwise, we would feel mixed feelings in a mixed relationship (love, rage, guilt, grief). If we face our mixed feelings, we have to face our rage and channel it into adaptive self-protection and limit setting. If we face our rage and love together toward a loved one, we have to face our guilt. And if we face the abuse and the resulting feelings, we have to face the loss of the relationship we had. This is what we call “facing mixed feelings” in ISTDP.

This is not to say her love is not real. Most likely it is. But when we use love to cover up rage, guilt, grief, and loss, love serves a defensive function. We deny our mixed feelings and split them off, claiming to feel only “purified” love toward a “purified” partner.

But this so-called “love” is really a form of self-abuse, because it is the way we collaborate with the splitting and denial of the abuser.

Abuser: “I am good. You are bad. I beat you for your own good. It is how I love you. This is my lie that I want you to swallow.”

Abuse victim: “I am bad. You are good. I know you beat me for my own good. This is how I know you love me. I will swallow your lie to prove my love for you. Will you love me now?”

Truth: “You beat in me what you hate in yourself. It is how you hate yourself through me.”

She believes she loves him. In fact, she loves her “purified” memory of him. She does not long for him. She longs for the relationship which no longer exists. Her nostalgia is also a form of splitting and denial. She longs for a purified past and partner who never existed to avoid facing the inevitable mixed feelings she has.

Some may argue, however, that perhaps her early relationship with him was ideal. But ideals are ideas; people are real. We fart, burp, and even worse! We are messy and imperfect but still loveable. Real love exists towards real people. Idealized love exists towards images of people which have been stripped of the mess. Then we can claim to feel only love and great longing. After all, who among us has not longed for a perfect loving relationship without conflict and mess at the end of a hard day? Good luck!

The client loves her abuser’s lies to maintain a bond with him but, more importantly, to maintain a bond with her idealized image of him. Otherwise, she would have to face her rage, guilt, and grief over the loss of the good relationship. And she would have to face the hard choices before her.

But when she loves his lie, she invites him to lie to her. When she says she feels only love for her abuser, she teaches him that abuse is not a problem for their relationship. In fact, her lies about him helps him lie about himself!

Often, friends and therapists ask, “How can you love him?” The problem is not her love, but her refusal to face that she feels both love and rage toward the same person: her abuser. Unable to face her rage toward him, she either turns the rage upon herself or she provokes him to abuse and punish her for her rage.

Take home points: When love takes the form of self-hatred, it is no longer love. When love covers other feelings, it serves a defensive function–to lie about her other feelings. And when love has become a lie, it is no longer love. The client is not made ill by her abuser but by the lies she asks herself to swallow, e.g., “I love my abuser.”

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