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Why Love Can Turn Into Rage

... and how to adopt a mindset that will avoid blowups.

From Glenn Close’s notorious rabbit stew in Fatal Attraction, we all know how frightening it can get when a rejected lover takes aim at a target. If you’ve ever been through such a pathological breakup, whether you’re the person left behind or the one doing the leaving, you know what this emotional suffering is like. But short of such extreme situations, what happens to ordinary people during the rise and fall of passionate love?

According to University of Delhi psychoanalyst Rakesh Shukla (2014), there’s a connection between the intensity of love at first sight and the rage people feel when they ultimately become dropped by a love object. Shukla used the shocking attack on a fellow university student in India due to a case of "one-sided love" to analyze what can go wrong when narcissists are wounded.

Coming at the issue from a psychoanalytic framework, Shukla proposes that the instantaneous love that people feel for each other occurs when they see each other as being the same as they are, but in another person. In other words, love at first sight is a form of narcissism: In loving this person, you love yourself.

When love at first sight reaches its pathological form, people may become obsessively in love, described as limerence by the late Dorothy Tennov (e.g. Tennov, 1998). In the state of limerence, you place the limerent object (LO) in the forefront of your life, eventually neglecting all other aspects. Despite the distress and actual impairment (in job performance or home duties) this preoccupation can cause, it continues to grow. To resolve the cognitive dissonance of remaining in a relationship that is objectively bad for you, you put even more emphasis upon it. At the same time, you make increasing demands on your LO to reciprocate and to make similar emotional and practical sacrifices as the ones you are making.

What happens if your LO decides enough is enough? Unable to reciprocate your feelings any longer and wanting to escape, the object of your passion announces that it’s over. This is when the “furious rage” sets in, according to Shukla. As she states, this intense anger can be traced to be a reaction to a deep narcissistic injury—a perceived threat to the entire sense of self-worth…Incoherent and unjust rage appears to the narcissist as rage directed towards the person who has slighted them." (p. 276)

This narcissistic injury leads to the next step in the transition from love to rage, which is the psychological state of “splitting.” This experience, Shukla notes, traces back to the way that, as children, we are unable to accept the parts of ourselves that cause distress. For example, rather than acknowledge that your rage caused you to rip apart your toy, you split that feeling off onto the “bad” toy.

Through the process of maturation, most of us learn to accept both the good and bad about ourselves, without feeling bereft or defective. This allows us, in Shukla’s words, “to tolerate distress and frustration and develop a healthy narcissism with a sturdy self-esteem” (p. 276). The healthy, balanced love we feel for ourselves allows us to love others. If we’re unable to make this developmental transition, we’ll continue to expect perfection from our LOs, the people onto whom we project our desire to be perfect. When they don’t behave as such, they’re the ones who become "bad" and deserving of our fury.

After that, anything can happen.

Although the rage epitomized by Alex in Fatal Attraction tends to be attributed to the characteristics of borderline personality the character appeared to display, narcissistic injury isn’t a concept reserved just for narcissists. We all may experience this feeling from time to time, especially if we were highly invested in another person, institution, or even idea.

Consider this scenario: It was late at night and your Wifi stopped working when you wanted to Skype with a long-distance friend. You screamed into your phone at the service provider, despite your general good nature. Something about this deprivation triggered your inner toddler tantrum. You’ve placed faith in your Internet provider; you chose it over another service, and you thought it could meet all your needs.

The more you project your expectations for perfection onto others, the more you risk coming down hard when things go wrong. To get out of this bind, Shukla maintains, you must accept yourself, flaws and all, and understand that others, and your loved ones, are flawed, too.

Shukla's psychodynamic explanation of love turned to rage may not sit well with you if you’re of the more behavioral or cognitive persuasion. However, you can see narcissistic behavior from this alternative perspective: According to Midwestern University’s Arthur Freeman and Loyola’s Suzy Fox (2014), narcissistic individuals will become more reasonable when their self-aggrandizing tendencies are no longer being reinforced.

While wrapped up in their LO, narcissistic individuals may not be very approachable or open to the idea of toning things down. However, after repeated rebuffs from potential partners, they eventually can come to recognize that the path to successful relationships involves changing their narcissistically high expectations both for themselves and their partners. It doesn’t take a personality overhaul to overcome this kind of narcissistic idealization, but with time and experience, one's self-love, and one's love toward partners, can become more realistic and accepting.

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  • Freeman, A., & Fox, S. (2013). Cognitive behavioral perspectives on the theory and treatment of the narcissistic character. In J. S. Ogrodniczuk, J. S. Ogrodniczuk (Eds.) , Understanding and treating pathological narcissism (pp. 301-320). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/14041-018
  • Shukla, R. (2014). Love and rage: Role of splitting, projection and narcissism. International Journal Of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 11(3), 274-277. doi:10.1002/aps.1394
  • Tennov, D. (1998). Love madness. In , Romantic love and sexual behavior: Perspectives from the social sciences (pp. 77-88). Westport, CT, US: Praeger Publishers/Greenwood Publishing Group.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015