It’s true, he hurts me. He’s controlling, and it’s starting to really get me down. I should just leave.
But, I love him.
If you’ve ever had that conversation with yourself, you’ve probably wondered how it’s possible to love someone who hurts you. Is it even real love?
“Absolutely, it’s possible, and yes, it’s real love,” says Holly Richmond, Ph.D., a somatic psychologist and adjunct professor at John F. Kennedy University. “Love and abuse are not at all mutually exclusive.”
Richmond explains how love for your partner likely developed well before abuse was present or recognized: “In most cases, abuse doesn’t start right away. There were probably some red flags, sure, but it’s very common for those to get glossed over in all that new love, new passion energy,” she says.
And because the abuse wasn’t always there, you might have hope your relationship can outlast it and return to how it used to be. You may still love the person your abuser is when things aren’t violent, or even, odd as it may sound, when they are.
You’ve also built a shared history together and may feel you owe it to your partner or the relationship to stick it out. After all, that’s what we’re expected to do for love.
“I hear from patients all the time that when the relationship is good, it is so good,” Richmond says. “What they hang onto is those good times. The bad times are usually a smaller percentage of the relationship than the good.” So it can be easy to rationalize staying, waiting for the good times and hoping the bad times won’t happen again.
Can Love Conquer All?
Our society holds love in the highest regard. The saying, “love conquers all,” has been around since ancient Rome. And from a very young age we’re taught—girls, especially—love is the end-all, be-all. From fairy tales to romantic comedies, the ultimate prize is reinforced time and time again to be true love.
But it’s not ancient Rome or a romcom and love doesn’t always conquer all. Advocates wholeheartedly agree: Abuse is not something you can “love out of” your partner. Nor is it something you have to endure simply because you love them or are married to them. No one deserves to be abused, even if there is also love. Remember, abuse is the sole fault and decision of the abuser.
But I Can’t Just Stop Loving Someone
While it may seem as though falling out of love is something you can’t just choose to spontaneously do, it’s important to remember that love is an emotion, a feeling. And even though it can seem all encompassing, being in love is something you can turn off.
“Making yourself fall out of love—that is possible,” Richmond says. “Whether it just gets too bad or the relationship is toxic or hurtful, with time, you can fall out of love with someone for sure.”
Start by asking how much you love yourself. “Having greater awareness is important,” Richmond says. “Acknowledge it is very hard to leave. But ask yourself, ‘Am I more important than this? Are my children more important?’ Hopefully those answers come back as yes.”
Another technique Richmond recommends is writing a list of either pros and cons, or simply the cons about your partner. It can help you make an unclouded decision to leave and can also assist you in remembering why you left after you go.
“In your head, when you’re just thinking about it, you don’t think linearly,” she says. “Putting pen to paper and seeing that list can help. I can almost guarantee you the cons would outweigh the pros.”
Also consider talking to an advocate or therapist. Confiding in a friend might be helpful, but they may make you feel judged and aren’t equipped to deal with dangerous situations.
“Talk to someone who’s completely objective and can give feedback,” Richmond says. “It should be someone who can work with you on a safety plan. Even if you don’t think you need it, I tell my patients I don’t feel comfortable moving forward until we have a safety plan in place, just in case.”
If you do decide to leave, distance may be the best remedy for love. Sure, absence makes the heart grow fonder in certain situations. But absence can also offer clarity and help you see there is life for you beyond your abuser.