Can You Hate the One You Love?
Consistency in romance can be murky, since emotions are sensitive to change.
Posted Dec 04, 2018
“Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate.” —Sigmund Freud
“Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are dead.” —Aldous Huxley
When we are consistent, we act in a similar way over time. Although this might seem like a good thing, the value of consistency in the romantic realm is complex, as emotions are highly sensitive to change. Hating the one you love is an example of such a seemingly inconsistent behavior.
The disputable value of consistency
“Trust is built with consistency.” —Lincoln Chafee
“Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago.” —Bernard Berenson
Consistency is a disputable value in romance. On the one hand, it enables trust and stable relations; on the other, it pushes us to repeat our behavior despite changing circumstances.
Consistency can be defined as “the quality of always behaving or performing in a similar way, or always happening in a similar way” (Cambridge Dictionary). There is a basic survival value to a consistent behavior — without it, we could not understand and engage with our environment. In personal relationships, consistency helps us to anticipate, and hence to manage, the other’s behavior. Indeed, in choosing a romantic partner, people look for stable and profound features of the individual, rather than accidental or unpredictable features.
However, reality changes, we change, and the people around us change. Doesn’t behaving in the same way mean being blind to what is going on around and within us? Indeed, Henri Bergson's criticism of intellectual reasoning is rooted in its reliance on the stable and unchangeable, whereas reality features exactly the opposite attributes: It is all about instability and change.
Consistency is basically an intellectual demand that has a questionable connection with emotional attitudes. In emotional attitudes, which are generated by change and are context-sensitive, consistency is not at the top of the totem pole of importance. Extreme people, who have a limited awareness of reality, tend to be rigid and consistent, but those who consider the changes around them must be more flexible and, accordingly, seem less consistent.
Our ability to hold multiple perspectives and evaluate various contexts can create emotional ambivalence when we perceive both positive and negative values in the same object. Such ambivalence is problematic for the intellectual system, but not for the emotional system. Unlike intellectual deliberations, which seek full understanding, emotional attitudes are partial and hence can deal with different and sometimes even opposing aspects.
Restricted romantic inconsistency
“I don’t trust words, I even question actions, but I never doubt patterns.” —Unknown
"Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” —Oscar Wilde
There is no doubt that consistency has a certain value in the romantic realm as well. We can hardly develop romantic profundity and build trust complemented by calmness without a degree of stability. The more interesting issue is whether, alongside the general consistency, some restricted, context-dependent romantic inconsistency ought to be advocated.
Context-dependent consistency and logical consistency are two different animals. Thus, we can speak about an emotional pattern that repeats itself in many circumstances as a kind of general, but not strict, consistency. The partial nature of emotions enables us to have two apparently opposing experiences in the very same emotional experience and still regard the experience as consistent — or at least not as inconsistent. Take, for instance, the phenomenon of emotional ambivalence, which is quite common and natural in our emotional behavior.
Consider the case of a widow attending the wedding of her daughter and feeling joy, but also sadness that her late husband, the father of the bride, is not present. Her mixed emotions can last throughout the wedding and even after it. And this is not an inconsistent experience. In light of the partial nature of emotions, each (partial) perspective is appropriate, while no single perspective expresses an overriding perspective. The same holds for the following description by a married woman of her new lover: “Everything in me seems to go soft, to yearn for him, to want to talk with him. It almost hurts. I seem to be sad and glad at the same time.”
Such emotional ambivalence expresses the human ability to hold multiple perspectives at one and the same time — an important survival skill in dealing with our complex reality. This ability allows us to pursue certain values and to compromise others while maintaining a belief in the worth of all of them. This capacity to hold multiple perspectives can produce ambivalence when we notice both positive and negative qualities in someone. Our intellectual system attempts to arrange all these perspectives into one comprehensive viewpoint; it cannot bear the affirmation and negation of the same claim at the same time. Our emotional system, however, can tolerate such ambiguity.
Hating the one you love
“No one can hate you more than someone who used to love you.” —Rick Riordan
Another obvious example of emotional ambivalence is hating the one you love.
When people say that they are in a love-hate relationship, they may be referring to different aspects of their attitudes toward the beloved. There are parts of the beloved that the lover admires, and parts that the lover disapproves of and sometimes even hates. Such mixed emotions make sense in a complex, loving relationship. Yet it is hard when we feel emotions that are both profound and all-encompassing, such as love and hate, toward the same person.
In a love-hate relationship, people change their focus of attention under different contexts, hence the change in the emotional attitudes. When lovers focus their attention on, say, their partner’s sense of humor, they love them dearly. When they think about the humiliation their partners cause them, they hate their guts. Thus, people can say, “I hate you, Then I love you . . . Then I hate you, Then I love you more” (Celine Dion and Luciano Pavarotti); “Sometimes I love you, sometimes I hate you. But when I hate you, it’s because I love you” (Nat King Cole). As the songwriters know well, emotional experiences are nothing if not dynamic, and different circumstances can change our emotional attitude toward the same person. This aspect is also nicely illustrated in Charlie Pride’s song “You’re So Good When You’re Bad.” The protagonist describes his woman as both an angel and a devil, bringing sunshine to his life, but when she reaches out and dims the lights, “I say mmm mmm you’re so good when you’re bad.”
“Like anything worth doing in life, happiness takes time and patience and consistency.” —Mark Manson
“Consistency is the paste jewel that only cheap men cherish.” —William Allen White
The above considerations help to explain how romantic behavior, which seems to be inconsistent in the logical sense, is consistent when taking into account various perspectives and contexts. It is not illogical to hate the one you love. But it certainly makes life less comfortable, which in turn can reduce the quality of the relationship.
This post is based upon my forthcoming book, The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change Over Time (University of Chicago Press, 2019).
Bergson, H. (1907/1911). Creative evolution. New York: Holt.
Greenspan, P. (1980/2017). A case of mixed feelings: Ambivalence and the logic of emotion. In A. Ben-Ze'ev & A. Krebs (eds.) (2017). Philosophy of emotion, Vol. I, 273-295.