Loving someone who hurts you may leave you feeling confused and unsure of what to do. While everyone is different, there are a few reasons why you may still love an abusive partner.
Maybe the abusive behaviors you endure are evident, leaving physical marks that are hard to ignore. Perhaps they occur at a psychological level and tend to be subtle, which leaves you feeling unsure of whether they really count as abuse.
Other people may ask, “Why don’t you just leave?” But this option may not seem as straightforward to you. There are strong feelings and other factors involved.
In the meantime, you may have other concerns and could be pondering questions such as, What if they change? What if it’s your fault? What if this is what love is about?
It’s natural and not uncommon to feel this way.
Every year more than 10 million adults in the United States experience abuse by their intimate or romantic partner. It can happen to anyone, and it’s not your fault if it’s happening to you.
It is possible to love someone who hurt you, and it’s also possible to step away from this relationship despite these feelings.
This may include behaviors such as:
- being physically and sexually violent
- using verbal violence
- exerting financial control
- performing other controlling behaviors
It can occur in all types of sexually or emotionally intimate relationships, and it affects people of all genders, ages, and backgrounds.
Feeling love for someone who is abusive toward you is not uncommon. There are many reasons why this can happen, especially if the love came before the abuse.
You may have chemistry with them, or they may have qualities that you’re still attracted to. Maybe they make you feel a certain way or treat you kindly from time to time.
Once you realize some of their behaviors are abusive, these other feelings don’t necessarily vanish. This may lead you to wonder how you can be in love with someone who harms you.
Loving is not the same as wanting to stay in the relationship, though.
Still, you may have reasons for not leaving the situation. For example:
- You’re afraid of being alone or experiencing revenge from the abusive partner.
- You lack the financial resources to leave.
- You have children with this person.
- There are religious, cultural, or moral beliefs and expectations preventing you from walking away.
Besides these needs, it’s possible to love an abusive partner and have a difficult time thinking about leaving them.
Some reasons you may still love your romantic partner despite their abusive behaviors might include:
- experiencing denial as a defense mechanism
- being caught in the abuse cycle
- having a personality disorder or attachment style that leads you to feel dependent on your partner
- being confused by your partner’s manipulation tactics
- seeing temporary changes in your partner that give you hope for long-term change
- experiencing cognitive dissonance
- feeling like you can heal your partner with your love
- experiencing trauma bonding, known as the Stockholm syndrome
These are some common reasons why you may continue to love someone who hurts you. This doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. That’s how you feel, and it’s valid.
However, because abusive behaviors may jeopardize your personal integrity, it’s important to look closely at these factors. Seeing your situation clearly could help you make a decision that takes you out of harm’s way.
Seeking the help of a healthcare professional may also help you develop tools to take the next steps.
Denial as a defense mechanism
When you’re in denial about something, your mind could be trying to protect you from uncomfortable and distressing feelings. It’s a survival response to pain. If you don’t see it, it may not affect you. But it does.
Denial can manifest in many ways. For example, you may believe “abuse” could never happen to you. As a result, you come up with other names or explanations for some of your partner’s behaviors.
In other words, you may continue to love and stay with a partner who engages in abuse because you can’t believe it’s happening.
Men in abusive relationships may be particularly prone to disbelief and denial. This could be due to cultural pressure and stigma about female abusive partners.
But males can experience abuse too. In fact, some studies suggest that males tend to stay in abusive relationships more often than females do. However, when disclosing this to family, friends, or authorities, research shows they often face ridicule, indifference, or shock.
These social factors, as well as your feelings, may lead you to develop a state of denial where you inadvertently overlook that you are in an abusive relationship.
The abuse cycle
Abuse in a romantic relationship can sometimes occur in four distinct phases, referred to as the cycle of abuse.
These phases are:
- Tensions build, and the abusive partner may begin to show signs of anger and frustration.
- The incident of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse occurs.
- Reconciliation starts after the abusive incident, and the abusive partner apologizes or tries to justify their behavior.
- A state of calm begins in the fourth phase, and the abusive person may say things like, “It will never happen again.”
Although this cycle may not fit all situations, it’s the last two parts that may lead you to continue experiencing feelings for your partner.
You may often be reminded of the things you love about them and how different the relationship can be at times. This could also temporarily discourage your potential plans for leaving.
Personality disorders and attachment styles
Being on the receiving end in an abusive situation is never your fault. There’s absolutely no reason for someone to deserve being harmed in any way.
And although nothing you do justifies this treatment, there are some mental health conditions that may lead you to unconsciously engage in this type of relationship and fall in love with an abusive partner.
These include schizoid, avoidant, borderline, and dependent personality disorders. Some of the symptoms that may manifest in these conditions include low personal self-esteem, dependency, and submissiveness.
This is not the case for everyone, though. Not every person who loves an abusive partner lives with a mental health condition.
Manipulation tactics of the abusive partner
Some abusive partners may use manipulation tactics that could lead you to feel uncertain and confused about your emotions and what steps to follow.
For example, some people with narcissistic personality disorder may engage in psychological games that could make you fall in love with them and feel attached to the relationship. They may also play the victim at times, which could awaken your empathy and compassion.
Tactics, including gaslighting or projecting, can also leave you unsure of yourself and your feelings. This can make it difficult to understand why you love someone who hurts you.
The ‘small kindness’ perception
The cycle of abuse can be unpredictable. You may find that your partner is caring and romantic one day, and indifferent or abusive the next.
In some cases, an abusive partner may show you small acts of kindness if they see you pull away. These acts can be a refreshing change if you’ve been going through a rough time. In fact, these acts can seem bigger than they really are because they occur so infrequently. Plus, they offer a glimpse of hope that change is near.
Sometimes, kindness may also lead you to confirm that your partner is capable of love and affection, and this could make you fall in love with that aspect of them.
When your beliefs and your experiences don’t match, you may experience a sense of discomfort. It’s natural to want to avoid such discomfort. This is why a natural response to abuse may be to engage in behaviors or activities that minimize this feeling.
This response can range from person to person. While some people leave the situation to avoid feeling distress, other people may ignore, justify, or rationalize it.
These actions may make it more difficult for you to distance yourself from the love you feel for your partner.
For example, rationalizing some of your partner’s abusive behaviors as “they had a rough childhood” may lead you to focus on how bad they may be feeling versus how you may feel regarding those behaviors.
Wanting to heal your partner
Circling back to how you may be focusing on your partner’s experiences, you could be leading with empathy in your relationship. This means you could assume the role of the healer or savior and want to stay around taking care of your partner.
You may also think that if you try harder or love them unconditionally, they will change.
Although empathy and compassion are extremely important in human interactions, assuming that role — particularly when you are hurting — may lead you to stay in a harmful situation.
Change is possible, but it may not be up to you. Your partner needs to want to change, and practical steps are needed to put that change in motion. This often means seeking out professional help and engaging in long-term treatment.
If you’re experiencing a form of trauma bonding known as the Stockholm syndrome, this may also explain why you feel so close to your abusive partner.
This psychological response got its name from an incident in 1973 where two robbers took control of a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. They held, threatened, and abused four hostages for over 5 days.
However, when the hostages were rescued, they showed support for the robbers. One female hostage later became engaged to one of them, and another hostage raised money for their defense case.
Since then, the term is used to describe a psychological connection and bond that may be established between “abusers” and “abuse victims.” It is more often used in incidents of kidnapping and captivity.
This response doesn’t happen in every situation or abusive relationship. Experts are still not clear on what factors contribute to the development of this bond. But it does show that in some situations, a strong bond may develop between someone who hurts and the person they hurt.
Being in a relationship with an abusive partner may leave you feeling confused and uncertain. It may lead you to wonder why you love someone who hurts you. But you’re not alone. It’s not uncommon to still experience loving feelings for someone who may act abusively toward you.
There’s nothing you’ve done or didn’t do that justifies abuse. And an abusive partner may need professional support that is way beyond your love and care if they’re going to change.
There’s nothing wrong with you if you love an abusive person. There are many factors involved in romantic feelings.
However, it may be a good idea to turn your attention to yourself and make decisions that help you feel and live better.
Even if it seems difficult because of how you feel, leaving an abusive relationship may be the next step to take if your mental and physical safety are in jeopardy.
If you need help reaching a decision and developing a plan, a mental health professional could help.
These resources could also help in taking the next step:
- American Psychiatric Association’s Find a Psychiatrist tool
- American Psychological Association’s Find a Psychologist tool
- Asian Mental Health Collective’s therapist directory
- Association of Black Psychologists’ Find a Psychologist tool
- National Alliance on Mental Illness Helplines and Support Tools
- National Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline Directory
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Inclusive Therapists