In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

The Influence of Romantic Ideology on Men Who Loved, Yet Murdered Their Wives

Because of love I killed her

"She stood there laughing, I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more." (Tom Jones)

"Because of love I killed her... If I didn't love her, if I didn't love her, I don't think I would feel so much pain... It's like she took an arrow and stabbed me in the heart." (A murderer)

It is estimated that over 30% of all female murder victims in the United States die at the hands of a former or present spouse or boyfriend. How can murdering a beloved be associated with love? Can the desire to hurt a loved one emerge out of love itself? Love is generally considered a moral, altruistic, and well-intentioned emotion; however, this idealized notion of love is far from realistic. Not only is love intrinsically ambivalent, but it can also give rise to dangerous consequences.

Killing the one you love is not an example of "loving too much," but of how love can go wrong when totalitarianism and extremism, rather than compromise and accommodation, are the guiding principles.

The explanations given for wife-killing are the subject of intense dispute and in our book, In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and Its Victims (Oxford, 2008), we (Aaron Ben-Ze'ev and Ruhama Goussinsky) suggest a novel approach, which runs counter to many prevailing claims. At the center of our approach is the assertion that the murder does indeed-as the perpetrators themselves claim-stem from love and not from hate or jealousy. Ruhama Goussinsky conducted the in-depth interviews with the murderers. The eighteen men interviewed were Israeli prisoners convicted of murder (15) or attempted murder (3) of their female partner. Twelve men were sentenced to life imprisonment, and six to prison terms ranging from 9 to 14 years.

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Although there are differences among the motives of the love of men for the wives they killed, almost all of them hold Romantic Ideology in its extreme version. They describe their love using terms such as profound, unique, eternal, irreplaceable, and characterized by purity of action. The woman who will never return is also the one and only true love that will never return. As one murderer says, "She was everything for me. ... I loved her. She was the first one that I said, 'I love you,' to." And another man says, "I only had love for a single woman, even though I had so many girls... That's first love. I had a lot of girls before her, sure, no less beautiful than her, but she's the one I loved. I remember all the girls. I had a lot of girls. But I loved her more than all of them. That means that for me, she was the one, the only one. To this day I say that only her, and there will never be another one, even if I get out of prison, no, in my life, never."

The profound love the murderers had toward their wives is also expressed in the following testimony: "From the moment I met her, I changed 180 degrees. I stopped screwing other women. I changed completely. Imagine that. I go to Club Med with some friends, and all of them are screwing, and I just sit around. They say "Danny can't get it on. What's the matter with him?" I'm not interested. I go with her brother to Vegas a lot of times, and he screws, and I don't want to screw. I don't want to screw. He says, "What? What did she do to you? Tell me, what's so special about my sister?" Do you understand? I changed. And I was with seven thousand women. Not with one woman. What you could call a professional. Like they say, I fell in, hook, line and sinker!"

The profoundness of love and its uncompromising nature is expressed by yet another murder: "She's my wife. I love her. What happened, happened, but I love her. That remains in place. I love my wife. I loved her till the end. I can't do anything about it. Love is something else. Even when there are problems, they don't interfere with love. Why? It's not in the head. It's in the heart."

In light of such insensitivity to reality, which is so typical of Romantic Ideology, love is of eternal and invulnerable nature. Love is presented as an overshadowing, infinite force that cannot be impaired. Love is invulnerable because it is "in the heart and not in the head"; it is not based on any logic. Rather, it is based on the other's being part of you. Because such an experience cannot change, nothing can impair love. It is an irreversible emotion: "it enters the heart and doesn't leave." From the moment it comes, it is destined to remain forever. The argument that "love is something else" seeks to distinguish between love and other emotions. Unlike other emotions, which come and go, love never disappears: "it remains in place."

The conception of love as something enormous, which is borne beyond the dimension of time and events, is also reflected in the words of the following interviewee: "It's hard to explain love. What can I tell you? It's connected to lots and lots of things, like the food that she makes for you, everything that you touch of hers-that's part of love. She pours a cup of coffee-you love that cup of coffee. It's hard for me to explain what love is. It's something gigantic!"

Another aspect of Romantic Ideology, which is clearly expressed in the murderers' testimonies of their love, is the purity of love. As one murderer says, "I started to ask myself: What should I accuse myself for? Am I guilty for going and loving her? That I loved the girl?" In his eyes, any sacrifice done for love is a worthy one. For yet another murderer, love is an ideal of constant excitement and an uncompromising emotion. Love knows no varying degrees and never has to compromise; love is everything, love in its entirety is pure ("white"): "For me, love has no end. Love is every day, to feel it anew every day...I let her feel that, and I wanted her to let me feel that...Love, it's like a flower. I see flowers, and I see love ...it is not only sex. Okay, I love you, fine, let's go to bed. This is not love for me. No, love has no end... I don't want love to be out of my life...Love, for me it's either black or white. That's love for me. I just want love in my life all the time."

It is obvious that the murderers perceive their attitude toward the women they killed as one of profound love, which they describe in terms that fit with Romantic Ideology. Whether their attitude is one of love is yet to be proved; in our book, In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims, we argue that it is indeed love.

Romantic Ideology implies extreme behavior: After all, "all is fair in love and war" and "love will always prevail" are expressions often used to identify "true love." Furthermore, this ideology, which promotes problematic notions like eternal love ("true love can never die") and dangerous notions like self-sacrifice and unlimited justification ("love can do no evil"), is also used to legitimize whatever is done "in the name of love." Since we are so deeply influenced by prevailing cultural precepts about love, these beliefs have become rooted and are treated as self-evident truths. The content of the assumptions underlying Romantic Ideology, like the content of many religious ideologies, is highly moral and compassionate. However, when such content is placed within a rigid and uncompromising framework and when it lacks a proper regard for reality, it can give rise to extreme and appalling behavior. People have committed the most horrific crimes in the name of the altruistic ideals of religion and love.

We believe that in an important sense, wife-murders are committed out of love. In the next posts, I shall discuss why these men killed the women that they loved so much.

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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