The True Standard for Love Relationships

"Cherish” means much more than not abusing.

Posted Jan 08, 2020

I’m one of the hundreds of authors who have written about emotional abuse, but I fear we’ve established a false standard for love relationships. We’ve inadvertently spawned fruitless and painful disputes between intimate partners about whether a given behavior is abusive. These arguments center on what the behavior feels like to one partner as opposed to what the other partner intended. In many cases both can find validation in self-help books and websites for their belief that the other is abusive.

Such arguments emerge in part because emotional abuse is not so clear-cut as physical abuse. Yet the harmful effects of less-visible abuse can be longer-lasting, due to greater frequency and more personal nature. Physical abuse is usually cyclical, with weeks or months between violent incidents, and if someone hits you, it’s clear to see that the offender has a problem — at minimum, one of impulse-control — and that you need to seek help and support. Emotional abuse tends to be daily, and when a loved one attacks your character or tries to make you feel bad about yourself, you’re more likely to think it’s your problem.

There are numerous descriptions of abusive behavior in print and on the Internet. The intention behind them is noble: Authors want to empower readers to make themselves safe, by showing that they’re being victimized. But the proliferation of Internet sites and books on abuse has caused the terms “abuse” and “abuser” to become forms of negative labeling. Instead of illuminating behaviors that must change (because they violate humane values), they become accusations in arguments, and accusations automatically stimulate defensiveness and counter-accusations, which often hurt more than the initial abusive behavior.

Consider the abrupt ending of a phone conversation. Amid intense disagreement, one partner suddenly hangs up on the other, who understandably feels hurt and rejected. The hurt partner later confronts the partner who hung up, identifying the behavior as stonewalling, which is abusive and disrespectful.

Feeling accused, disrespected, overwhelmed, and, dare I say, abused, the partner who hung up responds defensively. Counter-accusations fly, with references to Internet and self-help checklists that identify criticism, name-calling, and accusations as instances of emotional abuse. They accuse each other of denial, minimization, and gaslighting, based on self-help descriptions.  

Lost in the debate about use of this “A-word” is the hurt of both partners.

What’s important about behavior is not the label we put on it. All that matters is the effect it has on the people we love. When loved ones are hurt, we must respond with compassion, not with arguments about the definition of labels.

Some authors try to avoid the less clear-cut forms of abuse by only considering extreme behaviors — devaluing, demeaning, threatening, frightening. Even when behaviors are clearly abusive in all contexts, use of the term “abuse” to describe them shifts attention to the label and away from the hurt. Describing only extreme behaviors has the unintended effect of tacitly excusing more common kinds of hurtful behavior that often devolve into walking on eggshells and continual relationship pain.

The only true standard for behavior in love relationships is compassion. The promise of compassion is implicit (usually explicit) in the formation of emotional bonds; we’re unlikely to form a bond with someone who doesn’t care when we’re hurt. Failure of compassion – betrayal of the implicit promise in the formation of emotional bonds – feels like abuse.

There is little confusion over whether behaviors are compassionate or kind. We don’t need self-help checklists to classify or describe them. Insofar as partners uphold the standard of compassion and kindness, abuse in any form is impossible.

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