There is a huge campaign out right now from OneLove.org, an organization dedicated to helping college-aged young adults understand the warning signs of abuse. The campaign is centered around identifying abusive behavior justified by love.
Using the excuse “Because I love you…”, abusive partners find a way to justify their irrational behavior to themselves and to their victims. I was asked at a speaking event recently if I thought my ex-husband knew what he was doing, or if he really felt his behavior was justified. My honest response was, “I really don’t know.” This was one of the most profound struggles I faced in my relationship, because I refused to believe that he knew what he was doing. How could someone who loved me not let me sleep? How could someone who loved me scream so close to me that I could feel his spit on my face? How could someone who loved me keep me from family or friends, or look at me in such disgust and disappointment?
Whether it was learned behavior from other male figures in his life, or derived from deeply rooted insecurity and a deformed view of what love meant, I do believe that he struggled to grasp what love was and how to show it. Over a year outside of the relationship, I cannot say in good faith that he loved the person I am. In a way, I do not even know if he ever really knew me. It is very possible, I think, that he saw a version of me that was clouded and deformed by his own insecurity.
Understanding how love can be used against you is one important step in keeping yourself safe and free from abuse. It is one reason why I believe I stayed as long as I did. I thought I would make a list of a few ways abusive partners use love to manipulate. As always, I think it is important to mention that the purpose of this is to keep you safe. I am not entirely convinced that people who do this know what they are doing, but they do know somewhere in their psyche that it is effective. Regardless, you should be aware of these warning signs, and remove yourself if you see these trends. If a partner cannot see that these are wrong, there is absolutely nothing you can do to change their mind.
The Awkward Pedestal
This is a narrative that I have found very common in stories of abuse, and was a prevalent theme in not only my relationship, but the relationship my ex-husband had with past partners.
The irony in this narrative is that abusers tend to put their victims on a pedestal – showering them with “love” and making them feel special or unique. In my case, my ex-husband was set on making me feel like I was the only one he ever truly loved. He told me about some prominent past relationships, but illustrated the women as crazy or psychotic, or just flings, and that he never really cared about anyone. I was the one he changed his ways for. I was the one who he instantly fell in love with. I was the one who had the propensity to be a better person – the person he knew I could be. I was better than the friends I had at the time, and more deserving than the conditional love my family gave me. All I needed was him, and in the end, it would only be us. We had a special pet name, becuase he didn’t want to call me anything anyone else had ever called me (no sweetheart, baby, love, etc..) I later found out that the wedding bands he gave me actually belonged to his ex-fiance, and the engagement ring he gave her belonged to the girlfriend before her. I remember coming across love notes and letters of apology I thought I had written years ago, only to see them signed by his ex-fiance. The point is, I was not so special. Don’t be so foolish to think you are, either. This is a testament to the fact that your worth comes from within yourself, and should never be declared by someone else. The alarm factor here is putting you on a pedestal, and putting everyone else down…way down.
When we would fight, he would reference other people, and say things like, “I guess you want to be just like your mom…” or “Maybe your not the person I thought you were…Maybe I was wrong” or “You want to be this independent person – that’s not who I fell in love with.” Even worse was, “I should treat you the way I treat everyone else and every other dumb slut in my life.” or “The person I love isn’t a piece of shit. You want to be a piece of shit, I’ll treat you like one.” The guilt associated with somehow falling out of grace by taking care of myself, or entertaining the possibility that my family loved me, was enough to keep me working toward his version of who I was. Interestingly enough, I often felt that the more he built me up, the more vulnerable I felt about his ability to knock me back down again, and the more I wanted to satisfy and make him happy.
Of course, this could have all been avoided if he loved me for who I was. This is why it is so important to make sure you have clear boundaries. You should never, ever feel like you need to “prove” your love to anyone
“You don’t know what love is.”
This one is pretty effective if you are someone who may in fact not have a solid sense of what love looks like. If you do not have examples of healthy relationships in your life, you may find yourself susceptible to this line. In my case, my ex-husband would constantly bash the relationships my parents had with my step-parents, as well as the relationships his friends and family members had with their significant others. The idea was to highlight how flawed the relationships were, and identify reasons why that centered around one or both partners being too independent. Common themes in my case were, “She’s always going off doing her own thing…he doesn’t even care when she’s not around” or, “They never do anything together; I guess you want to be like them…” Often, the issues my ex-husband brought up had to do with role in the family. He often called my father a “pussy”, and harped on my mom wanting to be too independent. This was typically followed up by a statement about how I wanted to be like her, and I wanted to “wear the pants”.
His version of love was one where there were defined, traditional gender roles, and many of our fights and his justifications revolved around me being a better partner by being more subservient, respecting him as a man, and giving him what he wanted as a man. Ironically, I was not against having a traditionally female role – I enjoy being a caretaker, and I like keeping house and whatnot. I just prefer to not be emotionally, verbally, and physically abused in the process. This is one common interpretation of what love looks like to abusers, but it could materialize in any form. The important take-away is to have your own clear definition of what love means, and sticking to it. If you are not sure, it may not be a good idea to get settled in a serious relationship until you feel more confident in your personal interpretation.
“If you love me you will…” or “If you loved me, you would…”
“…give me a baby.”
“…let me do whatever I want with you.”
“…fix this now.”
“…stop talking to these other people.”
The list goes on and on. Using love as a coercion tactic is dangerous and should NEVER be tolerated. It is often the case that the reverse will never be true, by the way. If you are concerned, try telling your partner. “If you love me, you will come with me/let me seek counseling for our relationship.” Or, “If you love me, you will give me the latitude to make my own decisions about who I see and talk to.” If you are in an abusive relationship, these will result in a fight. It’s a good test, but also a dangerous truth.
The reason this is so effective is that victims love their abusers. I was always weak for this argument, because I did love him. My loyalty was extremely strong, such that I would do anything to prove to him I was his and that my love was as strong as his was. Because I played right into this, it gave him a powerful weapon to use against me.
“…because I love you…”
This is the crux of the One Love hashtag #thatsnotlove, and is a common one-liner also used to justify behavior.
“It’s because I love you, I don’t want you going to your grandmother’s funeral…after all, you might get upset and you haven’t seen your family in a while.”
“It’s because I love you I don’t want you wearing those clothes, or that makeup, or high heels…you don’t want guys looking at your *expletive* all day, do you?”
“It’s because I love you that I fight so passionately.”
This excuse also materializes as “Because I care”, or “I worry because I love you”.
In Conclusion – Staying Safe
These have been a few examples of how love is used to coerce and manipulate loving people into maintaining abusive relationships. I will leave you with a few pointers on how to avoid falling into these traps:
- Do not fall victim to believing you are the only one. This is, in many ways, what kept me from believing that my relationship was abusive. I was so convinced that my relationship was different, that I never considered that it was unhealthy. Understanding that no relationship is impervious to abusive behavior, and learning to identify it, is an important step to emotional and physical health.
- Never let love be an excuse to violate your own boundaries. If you are not comfortable with something, someone who loves you will not coerce you or make you feel guilty by using love as a reason.
- Similarly, someone who loves you will never use that love as an excuse for bad behavior. If they are excusing the behavior, they know it is wrong. If there is insecurity present, or you have an overly anxious/worrisome partner, this is a problem they need to overcome. Again, love is not an excuse for bad behavior.
- You can test the situation by reversing the statement. What would happen if you said to your partner, “If you love me, you will respect my boundaries.”? This is a valid, healthy assumption. If your partner has a problem with respecting this statement, you may want to reconsider your priorities and be careful for your health and safety. Any response other than, “I respect your boundaries”, after clearly defining what those are, is an indication he or she will feel justified in disrespecting them and hurting you.
I hope this has been helpful. You can read more about the One Love Foundation here. As always, I welcome your comments and contributions!