It’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate
Why we hate the people we love.
Posted Mar 27, 2018
Love and hate are similar in being directed toward another person because of who he or she is. Despite this similarity, the two seem like polar opposites. Very often when we love someone, we want them to thrive. When we hate someone, we are more likely to wish they would suffer — or at least change who they are.
Yet we do not have to listen to The Persuaders' soulful vocals to know that love and hate can coexist. If you've ever loved, you know that you can hate a person you love. But how is that possible?
She Is a Bad Person for Not Loving You
The most obvious scenario in which you hate and love a person at the same time is one in which your love is not reciprocated. If you think you are basically a lovable person, it can be hard to comprehend that someone you love might not love you. If you lack confidence already, this will be a further blow to your self-esteem. If you have some self-worth, you may temporarily be fooled into thinking that the lack of reciprocation of your love reveals a fundamental flaw in the other person. If you direct your negative feelings at the person because of this “flaw” in his or her personality, you are bound to hate him or her (at least a little).
Love Takes Away Your Personal Freedom
It is easy enough to see how love and hate can coexist in cases of unreciprocated love. But you can hate a person you love even when your love is reciprocated, and even when you have an overall thriving relationship with them. This is one of the things that is paradoxical about love and love relationships — whether romantic or not.
Having an actual "we-spend-time-together" relationship with another person on the basis of love (romantic love, friendship love, parental love) requires giving up a little of your autonomy and personal freedom. Sometimes you need to spend time with the other person. This leaves less time to do things that you would rather do at that very moment. Certainly, when my alarm goes off at 5:30 in the morning so I can get ready to drive my daughter to school, I would much rather turn off the alarm and roll over for some more shut-eye — all else being equal. But not all else is equal.
When you have a relationship with another person, there will inevitably be times when you need to set aside your own preferences and heed the wishes or needs of the other.
Sometimes you need to find a middle ground. If my daughter wants to watch three movies, and I want to watch one, we might end up watching two. Meeting the other person halfway also entails giving up some of your personal freedom.
In Western cultures, at least, where the importance of autonomy and personal freedom is repeatedly emphasized, having to let go of your freedom to some extent may not always feel right, especially not if you are used to being on your own and doing whatever you want (Brogaard, 2017). You may perceive the giving and the dealmaking as a sacrifice or punishment. If you see your significant other as the reason for your loss of personal freedom, you may hate them a little — or a lot.
Love Makes You Vulnerable
In order to have a meaningful relationship with another person, you need to be able to be yourself. That is not always a good thing. We cannot always show our true colors to the people at work, in the grocery store, or on the subway. But you need to be able to do some of that at home. You need to let the other person see, and hear about, your weaknesses. But this means that you become vulnerable.
We can hurt a person who is vulnerable considerably more than a person who has her guard up all the time. That is part of what it means to be vulnerable. Because vulnerability increases the chance that you might get hurt, being vulnerable can be scary. It’s risky business. Having to take that risk and live with that risk can be overwhelming to the point that our love becomes mixed with the occasional bout of hate.
The Other Person Has Flaws
But you are not the only person who must show your true colors. The other person in the relationship must open up as well and be able to act like themselves. When this happens, you see sides of them that are not always pleasing — all the bad traits that most others wouldn’t even dream of attributing to them. You have to live with all the bad habits and annoying behaviors that you might once upon a time have found endearing. Fortunately, the sporadic bouts of hate you may experience when your beloved's habits and behaviors get on your nerves can coexist with your love for him or her.
When love blends with hate, this is a case of ambivalence. In functional relationships, the ambivalence tends to be short-lived. The love trumps the hate. But ambivalence lasts longer whenever two emotions or desires genuinely compete. This is a common scenario: You are sad because your sick puppy died, but happy that he didn’t have to suffer anymore. You are surprised when your sister is late (yet again), but you had kind of expected it. You are attracted to and feeling repulsed by the person you just started seeing. You are in love with two people, but now it’s time to choose who to be in a relationship with. Or you hate your spouse as much as you love him and have some difficult decisions to make.
That Thin Line
The Persuaders were not, in fact, singing about hating and loving a person at the same time, but about love turning to hate. When lead singer Douglas “Smokey” Scott laid those vocals down, it was because his woman had sliced him up like cold cuts after he had stepped all over her night after night. Suddenly, her love turned to hate.
This doesn’t just happen in hit songs and Hollywood movies. Love can turn to hate in a matter of minutes. This makes a lot of sense when we look at how the brain processes love and hate. Zeki & Romaya (2008) looked at people's brains while viewing images of the faces of people they either loved or hated. The results revealed that some of the same brain areas were activated in the two conditions. One of those areas is the insular — a brain region that determines the intensity of an emotion and how strongly we take it to be associated with what we perceive (in this case, the person). The insular does not determine whether the emotion is positive or negative.
Hate and love thus both seem to be involved in the neural processing of what is sometimes referred to as the arousal effect of emotion (this is a technical term, so arousal can be negative). It seems that an emotion with a high arousal effect can quickly turn from positive (love) to negative (hate).
That thin line will send us downhill again and again. We hardly ever see it coming. Intense love can seem so lasting and forever that it’s almost surrealistic when we realize how quickly it can turn into hate.
Brogaard, B. (2017). "The Rise and Fall of the Romantic Ideal," In R. Grossi & D. West (eds.), The Radicalism of Romantic Love: Critical Perspectives (pp. 47-63). Taylor and Francis.
Zeki S, Romaya JP (2008). “Neural Correlates of Hate”, PLoS ONE 3: e3556