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Why Don’t We Avoid Abusive Love Like the Plague?

Abusive love can hijack your brain and make it unyielding to reason.

Key points

  • At first, an abusive partner may seem perfect and project an image of unbending integrity.
  • Because we naturally crave the thrills and dangers of all-consuming yet abusive love, choosing to call it quits can be hard.
  • Holding onto abusive love is like standing on splintered glass. If you stay, you keep hurting. If you walk, you hurt but eventually can heal.
Karolina Grabowska/Pexels
Source: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

Abusive love forgoes the rules of rational love, as American feminist writer Leslie Morgan Steiner’s love of Connor did. When we are madly in love, we close our eyes to the truth or edit it carefully before taking it in.

We overlook obvious faults of character and personality. We leave our children, max out our credit cards, and throw away friends, family, and career.

We put up with bad manners, rude behavior, verbal and emotional abuse, even physical violence.

Alas, knowing just how costly abusive love can be doesn’t deter it from digging its claws deeper into our flesh.

Why Do We Strive So Hard to Fall Madly in Love?

Why don’t we avoid abusive love like the plague? Why do we, in fact, strive to fall so madly in love?

The answer turns on our pesky brain chemicals: all-consuming love, even when abusive, is coupled with a brain chemistry similar to that of people addicted to cocaine or methamphetamine. Taking the drug (e.g., realizing your crush has a crush on you, or spending an intimate afternoon with your sweetheart) leads to a hyper-activation of the brain’s dopamine system.

But when your beloved is acting unpredictably, creating uncertainty about where you stand, the brain’s levels of dopamine plummet, and your stabbing pangs of longing numb your critical faculties and urge you to take desperate measures to restore "balance," even when restoring balance means abuse.

This is the mindset of an addict, a mindset that is hijacked by brain chemicals and is unyielding to reason, someone who will take pain and bruises before quitting the drug.

When Idyllic Relationships Turn Nightmarish

Not long after meeting Conor, Steiner started exhibiting the thoughts and behaviors of an addict. "It’s like jet fuel, being with him. It’s like we’re one person … I have never felt like this … I feel like the luckiest girl in the world."

And at first, Conor seemed like a dream come true. Not only was he handsome and smart, he was a real gentleman, projecting an image of unbending integrity: "He never reached over to pat my thigh or arm, as so many men did way too early."

Conor even quit alcohol altogether when he found out that Steiner didn’t drink. Whereas her friends and coworkers "bemoaned their boyfriends’ fear of commitment," Conor gave her a key to his apartment only months into their relationship. How masterfully he manipulates her. How quickly the idyllic relationship turned nightmarish.

Holding Onto Abusive Love Is Like Standing on Splintered Glass

There has been a major pushback against the idea of subjecting love to rational evaluation. The American philosopher Laurence Thomas, for example, has argued in his essay "Reasons for Loving" (1991) that: "There are no rational considerations whereby anyone can lay claim to another’s love or insist that an individual’s love for another is irrational."

This view of love as a-rational (not irrational) is encapsulated in received wisdom in the form of sayings such as "Love is blind," "Love has no reason," and "Love is temporary insanity." We cannot lay claim to another’s love because, according to Thomas: "There is no irrationality involved in ceasing to love a person whom one once loved immensely, although the person has not changed."

Is this widespread opinion correct? Is it irrational to stop loving a person "just because," and not because the person has changed? Should we stay with people we once loved but love no more?

Surely not. You shouldn’t stick around in a relationship with someone you don’t love, even if there’s no good reason not to love them.

But likewise, love alone is not always a good reason to stay in a relationship. Rationality concerns your interests, not the interests of others. If your partner abuses you, it is—all things being equal—in your best interest to end the relationship, regardless of how much you love them and hope they will change.

Do abusers ever change? Deep down, you already know the answer. No, they don't change. Their abuse is grounded in narcissism or psychopathy, and narcissists and psychopaths do not seek out help, and rarely change even if they receive help. Aging narcissists and psychopaths may occasionally change after many years of therapy, far removed from their victims.

Narcissistic and psychopathic abusers may temporarily pretend to have undergone change, if the pretense can benefit them. But in the long run, they usually will not even be able to keep up the pretense.

For these reasons, leaving an abusive relationship, leaving your narcissistic or psychopathic partner, is always the logical thing to do.

While we have rational obligations to protect ourselves, we do not necessarily have any duties to others. What duties we have to others is a question of morality, not rationality. We don’t have any default moral duties to love anyone romantically.

But promises, agreements, contracts, and laws do sometimes bring into existence duties to love, and once you have an antecedent obligation to love another person, they can rightfully lay claim to your love. For example, you have a duty to take care of the basic needs of children in your custody, and love is a basic need.

Similarly, if you marry someone, you enter into a contract that brings certain duties into existence, for instance, a duty to love, as articulated in the wedding vow that has taken root in American popular culture:

I, Gigi, take you, Lilly, to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.

So, if you enter into a marriage contract with another person, they can rightfully lay claim to your love. The marriage gives them a claims right, and if you fail to deliver, you are in breach of contract, and might end up as a defendant in a civil lawsuit. Be careful what you promise.

If your all-consuming love of your abuser compels you to put them on a pedestal, turn a deaf ear to reason, and put up with verbal and emotional abuse, and perhaps even physical violence, then you are in the grip of crazy, irrational love—love that could destroy you for good.

Yet, it can be hard to leave someone we love, even when they keep hurting us. We naturally crave the thrills and dangers of irrational, crazy, abusive love, and choose the "highs," even when that means living with fear and bruises.

But keep in mind that the longer you stay in an abusive relationship, the longer you postpone reclaiming your life and starting the healing process.

In fact, if you stay with your abuser for too long, if you just keep taking the mental and physical beatings, you may reach a point of no return—a point beyond which you can never once again become whole.

As the old saying goes, holding onto abusive love is like standing on splintered glass. If you stay, you will keep hurting. If you walk, you will hurt, but eventually you will heal.

This post was also published in Psyche.

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Brogaard, B. (2015). On Romantic Love. Oxford University Press.

Steiner, L. M. (2009). Crazy Love. New York: St. Martin’s Publishing Group.