When hate takes the place of love, it can get ugly. It probably doesn’t get much uglier than in the 2008 romantic tragedy Revolutionary Road, adapted from Richard Yates’ 1961 novel of the same name. When Frank confesses his affair to April in the hope of reconciling with her, she responds with contemptuous laughter “But I don’t [love you]. I hate you. You were just some boy who made me laugh at a party once and now I loathe the sight of you.”
Toxic relationships like the one exemplified in Revolutionary Road is the theme of The Persuaders’ famous line “It’s a thin line between love and hate.” When lead singer Douglas “Smokey” Scott laid those vocals down, it was because his girl had sliced him up like cold cuts after he had stepped all over her night after night, until her love had transformed into hate.
When love turns to hate, this has a lot to do with the nature of the relationships we build with people we love. In a meaningful relationship we need to let our guards down. This means, among other things, that we allow the other person to see, and hear about, our weaknesses. This makes us vulnerable. Our vulnerability becomes even more pronounced when we trust the other person. Trusting another makes us dependent on him or her because it shapes our expectations for the future. Because we arrange our lives around these expectations, trusting another person is risky business.
When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in a relationship, we put ourselves at a significant risk of being betrayed, intimidated and humiliated. As psychologist Jerrold Lee Shapiro points out, the greater our vulnerability, the more likely we are to hate the person we fear could hurt us or people we care about (“We Hate What We Fear,” p. 156). Psychologists Katherine Aumer and Anne Cathrine Krebs Bahn note that while hate is a recognition of the other’s capability of hurting us, reacting with hate can be self-protective by making us less vulnerable to potential harm (“Hate in Intimate Relationships,” p. 137).
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice gives us a glimpse into how hate can reduce vulnerability to a person who is feared to be capable of great harm. Although Elizabeth Bennet first responds to Darcy’s humiliation of her with resentment and to his arrogance with contempt, her negative sentiments turn to hate when George Wickham relates to her that Darcy deprived him of a living promised to him by Darcy’s late father. She conveys her hatred to Charlotte at a ball at Netherfield after reluctantly accepting Darcy’s invitation to dance with him. When Charlotte consolingly suggests that she may find Darcy agreeable, she replies: “Heaven forbid! That would be the greatest misfortune of all! To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate! Do not wish me such an evil.”
Because Elizabeth considers Darcy’s arrogance despicable but of little consequence, she is initially able to respond to him with contempt. Contempt here serves as the emotional equivalent of intimidation. But Darcy’s power to determine the fate of others makes him an entirely different creature. Now that she sees him as having the power to ruin the people she cares for, she is “determined to hate” him. As a response to what she fears Darcy may be capable of, her determination to hate him is a self-protective reaction, serving to make her less vulnerable to his apparent viciousness.
Hating someone you used to love or loving someone you used to hate is quite different from hating and loving a person at the same time. But if you ever loved, you know that hate need not replace the love. In the Spielberg movie War Horse, Rose Narracott says to her husband Ted, who fears losing her love: "I may hate you more, but I’ll never love you less." But how is that possible? Although love and hate are directed at a person because of who she is, the two seem like polar opposites. When we love someone, we often wish that she will thrive. When we hate someone, we are more likely to wish that she will suffer.
Love comes in two flavors: passionate and compassionate love. Compassionate love comprises familial love, friendship love and love of strangers, also known as “altruism,” whereas passionate love comprises infatuation and romantic love. What we actually call romantic love, however, tends to be a mix of both kinds.
Whatever its kind, love is emotion. Although it can come along with desires, desires do not lie at its conceptual core. You can love someone yet not desire to be with them, because love on its own isn’t enough to make a relationship work.
It is tempting to think that to love someone compassionately is to try to do what is best for them. But this temptation should be avoided. It is unrealistic to think that we always try to do what is best for those we love. I bet few parents can honestly say that they have never yelled at their children. Afterwards we might say that we didn’t mean to yell. But clearly we meant to do it at the time. We didn’t really try to do what was best for the children. But this is compatible with loving them, because love is a human emotion and therefore does not demand perfection.
To love a person compassionately is to see her as worthy of your compassion, or kindness. Truly seeing someone as valuable requires actually valuing them. So seeing someone as worthy of your compassion requires trying to do what’s in her interest most of the time but it doesn’t require you to be perfect.
But is it rational to hate and love someone at the same time? The fleeting hate you might feel when your children are driving you insane is itself irrational, because the children’s bad behavior probably isn’t intended to wrong you. Even if they are doing it to annoy you, it isn’t based on vicious character traits. But what should we say if your beloved is viciously hurting you? Is it rational to hate a person who is acting viciously toward you and also see him as worthy of your compassion, or kindness?
Seeing someone as worthy of your compassion requires being committed to do what’s in the person’s interest most of the time. This doesn’t just mean that you treat the person with the respect all people are owed, it also means you go out of your way to do what’s best for them. For example, even when you are exhausted and could use a quiet night at home, you still go to your child’s winter concert, because it’s in their interest.
But if a person is viciously hurting you, freely choosing to go out of your way for him instead of running away is irrational. It’s not about his interests anymore. So, it is irrational to hate and love someone at the same time, when love is of the compassionate type. This of course is not to say that we don’t do this. Survivors of domestic violence sadly often continue to love their abusers. This is a kind of cognitive dissonance, or internal inconsistency.
Cognitive dissonance is psychologically uncomfortable and confusing. So, people tend to deal with it by making up explanations that can mask the inconsistency, like "She didn’t really mean to humiliate me in front of my friends" or "He only hit me because he’s really stressed out about losing his job." But this strategy doesn’t mask the emotional ambivalence. It may help with the discomfort of your inconsistent beliefs. But what you feel remains unchanged.
Although we rarely love without compassion, compassion is not essential to passionate love. Passionate love involves a desire on some level for romantic or sexual intimacy. The desire need not be an “all out” desire for such intimacy, the kind of desire we act on. This is because stronger desires can override it; for example, you may have a desire not to be intimate with the other person because the past has taught you that the two of you together equals disaster. So, loving someone romantically and hate them too is internally inconsistent, provided your desire for intimacy isn’t what drives your decisions and actions.
Aumer, K. & Bahn A. C. K. (2016). “Hate in Intimate Relationships as a Self-Protective Emption,” in K. Aumer (ed), The Psychology of Love and Hate in Intimate Relationships, Springer.
Shapiro, J.L. (2016). “We Hate What We Fear: Interpersonal Hate from a Clinical Perspective,” in K. Aumer (ed), The Psychology of Love and Hate in Intimate Relationships, Springer.