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Ana Nogales, Ph.D.

Domestic Violence

What Does Love Have to Do with Domestic Abuse?

Perpetrators and victims often justify domestic violence in the name of love.

When we enter into a serious relationship with someone, none of us expects to be treated badly. We are attracted to the positive qualities in a potential partner, we feel passionately towards them, we often ignore or fail to see any negative attributes, and we fall in love. But there is something else that influences our attraction to a prospective mate: our need to love and be loved. Each of us longs for a special closeness to one other person. We may be pulled into a relationship by an intense physical attraction, but we also want to be intimately connected to someone who shares our values, who understands us, who treats us with kindness, and who will offer compassion and emotional support. And don't we also want someone with whom we can share our dreams for the future, someone we think of as our closest friend? Perhaps these are the things you wanted when you initially got together with your partner.

But is the close connection that you wanted still possible if your partner abuses you? If he or she verbally, emotionally, or physically hurts you, can you still hope to have a good relationship? For many, this question is not so easy to answer. I think it may be helpful if you can imagine yourself stirring a pot in your kitchen. Into this pot, you have put all the positive qualities your partner possesses, or once possessed. Perhaps generosity, passion, and a great sense of humor are the positive traits. Maybe it is the way your partner used to make you feel when you first got together: loved, valued, respected. Now, add into the pot the way your partner treats you when he or she gets angry: the violent threats, the disrespectful name-calling and abusive language, the slaps or punches. Stirring those things into the pot is like stirring poison into an appetizing meal. Even if the ingredients are healthy and delicious to begin with, once the poison has been added, the meal cannot be eaten. The poison-the abuse, the violence, and the hurt-has spoiled everything else in the pot. If you partake of what is now in the pot, it will harm you.

Learning to turn away from an abusive relationship is not always easy. Many survivors of domestic violence have told me that one of the most difficult obstacles to leaving an abusive relationship is confusion over what constitutes abusive behavior. They say that while it should be simple to tell when you're being abused, sometimes it's not. If someone hits you, that's interpreted by most people as abusive. But what about the love between you and your partner, which you may feel is still there? The shared history, which makes it hard to imagine a future without this person? Or the promises he or she makes to change their behavior? How do you weigh such factors that seem to modify or cancel out a partner's violent episodes?

An abusive partner may promise to change or give you reasons to justify the violent or intimidating behavior, and at times those promises and reasons may seem to make sense. Which is why you may need a strong support system, including a counselor who specializes in domestic abuse, to help you draw the line between acceptable and abusive behavior-and to help you make decisions about how to live an abuse-free life.

Domestic abuse can never be part of a good relationship. When fear, intimidation, and cruelty are present in a relationship, can you really call that love?