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4 reasons we were able to love an abusive partner ( to not feel regret)

Answering the commonly asked question, "why did I love them despite what they did to me?"

Loving an abusive partner can be a confusing and painful experience, often leaving those outside the relationship wondering why we stay in such a toxic environment - and us with deep shame and regret.

The experiences of abusive relationships are complex, involving psychological manipulation and emotional entanglement that create a powerful bond.

Understanding these experiences is essential for those of us grappling with our own recovery story.

Here, we explore four key ideas that shed light on why we feel love towards an abusive partner: addiction to the drama cycle, grooming, love bombing, and gaslighting.

1. Addiction to the Drama Cycle

One of the most challenging, and often unknown, aspects of our abusive relationships is the addiction to the drama cycle. This cycle typically consists of 4 phases: tension building, an abusive incident, reconciliation (perhaps experienced as being given worth, love etc) and calm.

During the tension-building phase, minor conflicts and irritations begin to escalate - and safety behaviours increase (e.g. we try to please our abuser, to guess their distress... of course, this fails).

The incident phase involves the actual abusive behaviour, which can be emotional, physical, or psychological.

The reconciliation phase (love) is marked by apologies, promises to change, and often, leading to a period of relative calm.

This cycle creates a rollercoaster of emotions that can be highly addictive for us. The highs and lows stimulate the release of chemicals like adrenaline and dopamine in our brains, similar to the effects of addictive substances. The reconciliation (love) phase, in particular, can provide a rush of relief and happiness, reinforcing our belief that the abuser can change and that the relationship has potential.

Over time, we may become dependent on these emotional peaks and valleys, mistaking them for love and passion.

Understanding this addiction to the drama cycle is crucial. It's not just about the abusive incidents but the entire spectrum of emotions involved, which can create a powerful attachment to our abuser. It's also common to most abuse victims - millions of people - and so you are not alone, or odd, strange or broken! It's just what happens, in this situation.

One confusing outcome, relevant to this article - we learn to ride out the abuse to get to love. When we are most distressed, we learn to please and submit to an abuser - to achieve love and calm. A learned behaviour that can feel very powerful when we leave an abuser, and our bodies have learned that to get relief from the stress - we need to please them... which we can mistake for missing them or loving them.

2. Grooming: The Need to Serve and Experience Worth

Grooming is a subtle and gradual process by which our abusers manipulate us into a state of dependency and compliance. This manipulation often starts with the abuser identifying our vulnerabilities and then exploiting them to create a sense of obligation and need. This arrives very early in abusive relationships and becomes more difficult to spot over time, as an abuser learns how to manipulate.

In the context of our abusive relationships, grooming can manifest as us feeling a deep-seated need to serve the abuser’s needs. This dynamic stems from the abuser's efforts to make us feel valued only when we are fulfilling the abuser’s desires. We begin to equate our worth with our ability to meet the abuser's needs, fearing rejection and isolation if we fail to do so.

This need to serve is often reinforced by intermittent positive reinforcement, where the abuser rewards us with affection, attention, or approval sporadically. These rewards can create a powerful association between service and self-worth, making it difficult for us to break free from the relationship.

Ultimately, our self-worth is controlled by our abuser. When they deem us worthy, they reinforce this feeling - and when not, they abuse. We learn that we are the blame of our own lack of worth, and that they (the abuser) are the source of love... which, unfortunately, we want and need from them. Experiencing this as a type of love for them.

3. Love Bombing: Feeding the Cycle of Drama and Need

Love bombing is a tactic used by our abusers to overwhelm us with affection, flattery, and grand gestures, especially in the early stages of the relationship or after an abusive incident. This intense display of love and attention serves multiple purposes: it strengthens our emotional dependence on the abuser, reinforces the abuser's control, and resets the cycle of drama and need.

During the love-bombing phase, we are showered with declarations of love, extravagant gifts, and constant communication. This overwhelming attention can be intoxicating, making us feel special and deeply connected to the abuser. However, this phase is typically short-lived and strategically timed to coincide with moments when we might be contemplating leaving or questioning the relationship.

The periodic nature of love bombing ensures that we remain hopeful and invested in the relationship, believing that the abuser truly cares for us despite the abusive behaviour. This intermittent reinforcement strengthens the emotional bond, making it even harder for us to recognise the abuse and consider leaving. Abusers often resort to love-bombing when we escape or try to escape, to confuse our perception of reality and to suggest that things will improve.

It might interest you to know that love-bombing is illegal in the UK, as a component of coercive behaviour. For you, it is important to know, that it is very difficult to spot and resist, and we can definitely feel like we miss it and need it when we try to break away... as being loved, is the primary driver we have for enduring the person - hoping they will change and love will endure.

4. Gaslighting: Confusing Reality and Self-Blame

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation where our abuser attempts to make us doubt our perception of reality, memory, and sanity.

This tactic is incredibly effective in an abusive relationship, as it undermines our confidence in our own thoughts and feelings, leading us to rely more heavily on the abuser for validation and reality checks.

Gaslighting can take many forms, including outright denial of events, distortion of facts, and trivializing our emotions. The abuser might insist that certain events never happened, accuse us of being overly sensitive or paranoid, or reinterpret situations in a way that blames us for the abuse.

Over time, gaslighting erodes our ability to trust our own judgment, creating a sense of confusion and self-doubt. We may begin to question our own experiences and memories, making it difficult to recognize the abuse or seek help. This self-doubt often leads to self-blame, with us internalising the abuser's accusations and believing we are responsible for the dysfunction in the relationship.

Not really a source of love, but a behaviour that reduces our ability to judge what is love and what isn't.

Breaking the Cycle

Understanding these dynamics—addiction to the drama cycle, grooming, love bombing, and gaslighting—is essential for us as we try to make sense of our experiences. Recognising these patterns can empower us to see the abuse for what it is and take steps towards healing and independence.

If we are in an abusive relationship, it's important to reach out for help. Resources such as domestic violence hotlines, counselling services, and support groups can provide the necessary assistance and guidance. You can also consider reading on the topic of recovery and/or entering a digital recovery programme.

Remember, abuse is never our fault, and there is always hope for a safer, healthier future. You were not "stupid" for loving someone who treated you badly, you were in a situation that changes us neurologically and shapes us to feel confused about blame, love and our own power.

It’s crucial to remind ourselves that we deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. We must acknowledge our own worth and build a support network that empowers us to break free from the cycle of abuse. By understanding these psychological manipulations, we can begin to dismantle the emotional bonds that tie us to our abuser and take the first steps towards reclaiming our lives.

We are not alone in this struggle. Many of us have faced similar situations and have found the strength to leave. Sharing our experiences and supporting one another can be a powerful tool in our journey towards healing. Together, we can overcome the trauma and build a future where love is healthy, respectful, and genuine.


Written by Dr Craig Newman, Clinical Psychologist and International Domestic Abuse Author.


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