October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and this love letter has been brewing for a long time. About 4 years or so, actually.
Before we dive in, the focus of this article is on healing from prior relational violence rather than providing information on what to do in a currently abusive relationship. Healing work is activating and therefore best to do once safe. If you believe you are currently in an abusive relationship, I would urge you to check out the National Domestic Violence Hotline for resources to help you get safe.
Using Love as a Tactic to Prompt Steps Toward Safety
As a survivor of relational violence and a psychotherapist who helps others recover from relational violence, one of the most sticky aspects to work through is love. Love and all the questions that come along with it.
Culturally speaking, survivors are told “love is respect” or “ abuse isn’t love” or “you deserve love” when they are experiencing domestic violence. These statements are true, however, offering definitions of love to spark a survivor to seek safety isn’t always helpful.
Competing External Motivations
The first major challenge I see with this approach is that we are offering an external idea of love to a person who is trying to find their way through external messages of abuse. One major challenge in the context of domestic violence is gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a tactic for the perpetrator to consciously or unconsciously avoid accountability, and it has the impact of engendering severe self-doubt and self-distrust within the survivor. It’s a mental minefield that leaves the survivor disconnected from themselves and questioning their reality.
So when we tell survivors what love is as a way to try to help, it’s just another voice outside of themselves competing with the gaslighting telling them what to believe. It’s like throwing spaghetti at the wall. Sometimes it sticks, but it’s kind of a messy approach. How is the survivor supposed to know what to believe?
Change occurs when someone chooses it, rather than when they are simply told to. It comes from someone’s internal motivation. Given that survivors are sifting through messages of abuse and good-intentioned messages about love to find their own internal strength and conviction, I’m not surprised it can take on average 7 times for a survivor to leave.
What is love, exactly?
The second aspect I find challenging about this approach is how we define love. In undergrad, I took a class called The Social Transformation of Love and Relationships. Can you believe that a class like that actually exists? I loved that class and my biggest takeaway was that the essence of love is damn hard to define.
Throughout history, love has been defined and redefined in so many ways by people just trying to do their best to align their external lives with their internal ones. Through theories of love, we have named a multitude of romantic and non-romantic kinds of love. But theories of love are just that – theories.
Each person connects with the idea of love and defines it differently. Heck, how we view love even changes over the course of our lives. Throughout all my ponderings on love, the only thing I know about love is that it’s a personal journey to define what love is to YOU. As a therapist, I turn my attention toward discerning and working on what you believe love includes like desire, healthy interactions, equity, etc. This work also includes addressing barriers that get in the way, like trauma, defensive patterning, cultural holdovers, etc.
With all this in mind, to attempt to define love for a domestic violence survivor, to me, is a disempowering misstep that can create more confusion in a dangerous situation. Who are we to define love for someone else? Sometimes it works to prompt a person to take steps toward safety, but not always. So what does help?
Disentangling Love from Domestic Violence
In my work, I have found that we need to both honor the real love a survivor may feel for their perpetrator and tease love out of the equation a bit. I approach this in two distinct ways.
A Primer on a Parts Perspective
First, I use a parts approach to offer a perspective that honors and clarifies how we can love a person who hurts us, while also still allowing the survivor to, over time, get in touch with their own definition of love.
In modern times, Internal Family Systems is a very helpful and structured therapy technique that is centered on working with parts, however, I take a more loose and creative approach to parts work. (Just wanted to name that in case you are trying to fit theories together.) Essentially, though, a parts approach asserts that there is a Core Self and Adaptive Parts that make up our whole Selves.
Adaptive Parts are the personas that have come up with specific adaptive strategies, coping mechanisms, or defenses in response to stress, wounding or trauma in one’s life. These parts are parts that saved us when we needed it and there were no other options, but often we find ourselves challenged when they have outlived their usefulness. We often have certain parts that run our lives (for better or worse) and we believe that that is “who we are” fundamentally.
However, “who we are” is better defined by the Core Self that we might have lost touch with. The work then becomes getting some space from the Parts and getting to know and strengthening the presence of the Core Self. So what is a Core Self?
From this perspective, it’s the essence of you that makes you distinctly you. From the Core Self, you can see all the parts, help the parts be in greater harmony with one another and ultimately be the natural leader of…well, you.
Love, Core Self to Core Self
So, if we can hold that there is a Core Self and Adaptive Parts, then we can find a context for love. In my work, I have found that the love that survivors feel and cling on to is a very real kind of love. Many times, they become confused when told that the love they genuinely feel for someone isn’t real, especially in the context of having been gaslit. So, the context I offer is that perhaps the love is real (and so is the pain).
Perhaps the love that is felt and experienced is a reflection of having connected to this person, Core Self to Core Self. And what started as love became toxic and dangerous, not because the love itself is defective, but because the adaptive parts, or defenses, got in the way. It is the greatest tragedy, and so worth mourning, when the defenses win.
Love ≠ A Healthy, Enlivening Relationship
The second discernment I offer is rather short and sweet: love does not inherently equal a healthy relationship. Sometimes we have love and a violent relationship. Other times, we have love and a healthy relationship, but we feel like we are slowly dying inside because we are so unfulfilled. It is not easy to find and create a loving, healthy, enlivening relationship. It requires personal work, hope, sometimes dumb luck, and a tenacious belief that you do not have to suffer for love.
I repeat: You do not have to suffer for love. A loving, healthy, enlivening relationship for YOU is possible and you deserve it.