When Ann was a teenager, her parents went through a terrible divorce.
Her father had always been volatile, but when her mother finally told him they couldn’t stay living in the same house indefinitely after the split, he lost it. He drank a bottle of vodka, smashed every item of furniture in the house, then screamed abuse at her little brother and chased him to a friend’s house, where the poor kid hid while his father raged outside. Then he went back home and beat up Ann’s mother until the police arrived.
Ann, her mother and her brother were in shock.
They had always been a little afraid of her father, but they never thought he was capable of behaviour this violent and extreme. Ann wasn’t sure she would ever forgive him. She wondered what he could possibly say, once he had sobered up (and once the restraining order had lifted), to make amends. Obviously he couldn’t defend his actions. Could he even live with himself, after what he done?
Months passed. Eventually Ann and her brother received a letter from their father.
“I’m sorry if I hurt you or scared you. I want you to know that everything I’ve ever done was because I love you.”
Ann was speechless. Her brother didn’t speak to his father again for years. Her mother, who had tried hard to stop the kids from hating their father and was convinced he would be ashamed and repentant, was heartbroken.
“It was worse than him just trying to excuse himself or even minimise what he’d done, which would have been bad enough,” says Ann. “It felt like he was shifting the burden onto us, his kids. Like, you need to pity me or even be grateful to me for how much I love you, and I’m allowed to express my ‘love’ however I want, even if it’s by physically and emotionally harming you.
“If he’d said ‘I did this in spite of how much I love you’ that would have been easier to bear, but to say that beating up my mother was somehow an act of love to me – that was beyond the pale.”
For years after this happened, Ann found it hard to trust a partner.
The merest hint of violence or aggression from a partner would give her panic attacks and flashbacks. She was sabotaging more than one relationship because she felt unsafe, to the consternation of boyfriends who insisted they would never hurt her.
Eventually she began a long term relationship with a man she always thought of as gentle and caring and protective. Sure, he screwed up in other ways. He could be irresponsible, selfish, insensitive or oblivious to her needs. But he never, ever made her feel physically threatened.
… Until they broke up.
In the aftermath of the breakup, Ann’s ex was, to her, unrecognisable.
He drank and called her obsessively. He ignored all her requests for him to respect her boundaries and leave her alone. When, in desperation, she blocking his means of contacting her, he continually called her friends to find out where she was, urging them to get her to speak to him.
She felt helpless and hunted.
Then, one night, Ann’s ex broke into her flat, drunk out of his mind, smashed her things, grabbed hold of her and wouldn’t let go, despite her pleas for him to leave.
“You’re turning into my father!” she screamed. “I need you to get out of my house, right now.”
“How dare you compare me to your father?” he screamed back. “Don’t you understand that I’m doing this because I love you?”
Of course, I don’t need to tell you that this is wrong, and controlling, and unacceptable.
But these are also actions at the extreme end of the scale.
Someone attacks you or your loved ones because they love you? They break into your flat and terrorise you because they love you? They claim that making your life a misery is an act of love? Of course that’s absurd. Of course that’s manipulative.
But what about the insidious examples? The times when people do everyday things that hurt us and we accept the excuse that they are acting out of love?
“When I look back I realise that ‘I’m doing this because I love you’ was something my ex had been saying for years, and I didn’t even notice,” says Ann. “Every time he didn’t want to take responsibility for something he’d done or the way he was handling something that scared him, even though it was me who was hurt by it.”
For example, explains Ann, when her ex had lied to her about some serious financial problems, his excuse had been, “I love you so much and I didn’t want to worry you”.
When she was sexually threatened by a stranger, he shouted at her for “putting herself in a risky situation.”
When she came home late and was sexually threatened by a stranger, he shouted at her for ‘putting herself in a risky situation’ instead of comforting her – then said he’d reacted like that because he loved her.
When she started working on a project that meant she’d have to travel to a dangerous country, he tried to convince her she wasn’t up to the job and should quit before she failed – and again, when she called him out for his lack of support, told her it was “because he loved her”.
Every time he’d excused himself like this, she had been annoyed, but she’d accepted it.
Okay, his behaviour wasn’t ideal but – fair enough – it came from a loving place.
What’s more, friends and family would also shrug this off as reasonable.
They’d even be touched by it. There’s something about attributing your actions to love, especially as a man, that instantly wins the sympathies of others.
“Oh,” they say, “but he doesn’t know how to express himself any other way!” Or: “But it’s coming from a good place!” Or even: “You’re lucky that he loves you enough to care that much!”
But here’s the thing.
By constantly accepting “It’s because I love you” as an excuse for behaviours that upset her, Ann had given her ex free rein to romanticise his own bad behaviour.
Instead of forcing him to take on board why behaviour like lying or victim-blaming or trying to make her think she was too stupid to take professional risks was emotionally damaging, she allowed him to shift responsibility to her.
It had stopped being a conversation about the kind of support she needed from him.
She’d stopped asking him to try and control his intuitive reactions and empathise with her needs instead. Instead, he had been allowed to put his emotions on a pedestal, above any scrutiny. So long as it was because he loved her, his actions were above criticism.
But here’s the thing.
Ann’s ex did love her. Just as her father loved her.
But he didn’t lie to her because he loved her.
He lied to her because he was scared of how she would react when she found out what he’d done.
He didn’t shout at her for her brush with sexual assault because he loved her.
He shouted at her because he was angry he hadn’t been there to protect her.
He didn’t try to make her feel too inadequate for her job because he loved her.
He tried to make her feel inadequate to stop her from going on a trip that made him nervous.
Yes, love might have been a driver in these actions. But in each case, Ann’s ex was thinking about what he wanted right then. What his fears were. What his needs were.
He could equally have said “I wanted to be honest with you because I love you” or “I’m going to comfort you because I love you” or “I’m going to support you in your plans, even though it’s hard for me to see you go somewhere dangerous, because I love you”.
Because we choose how we handle our emotions. Even an overwhelming emotion, like love.
And you are never, ever responsible for how someone else translates their feelings into action. You are not responsible for the love they say they feel, or for what they choose to do as a result of those feelings.
Equally you are responsible for how you choose to express your own love and emotions.
So please – take “I’m doing this because I love you” out of your vocabulary.
Even with your kids. Especially with your kids.
If you want to help your children steel themselves against emotional blackmail and manipulation, they need to be able to distinguish between emotion and action. They need to understand that your impulses do not overrule your responsibilities to those you love.
So if you panic and smack your child because they’re about to run across the road, don’t convince yourself and them that you did it because you love them. Admit that you smacked them because you lost self-control.
If your teenager comes to you in tears because your partner is putting too much pressure on them to do well at school, don’t say “well, she’s doing it because she loves you!” You can tell them you’re trying to make sure they do their best, or to teach them discipline, or stop them getting complacent – whatever. You might reassure them that you love them and are proud of them despite the pressure you’re putting on them to succeed.
But don’t teach them that behaviours that hurt them are automatically above criticism because they are driven by love.
As a culture, we’re obsessed with the notion of all-consuming love.
Every other song or film or book is about the crazy things that love “makes us do”. The narrative, again and again, is that actions inspired by love are somehow beyond our control.
But when we accept this notion that love strips away responsibility, we start to forgive – even romanticise – the most heinous things.
Take Italy, for example. Did you know that, until 1981, Italian law stated:
He who causes the death of a spouse, daughter, or sister upon discovering her in illegitimate carnal relations and in the heat of passion caused by the offence to his honour or that of his family will be sentenced to three to seven years. The same sentence shall apply to whom, in the above circumstances, causes the death of the person involved in illegitimate carnal relations with his spouse, daughter, or sister.
That’s right. Just three to seven years for murdering your wife, your daughter or your sister (and/or their lover) because it was a “crime of passion”!
… Oh, you were worked up. You couldn’t help it. You did it because you loved her. And that makes it okay.
And even though the law has changed, attitudes have barely shifted.
The idea that a man cannot be expected to control his actions when they are motivated by passion persists.
The result? An ongoing “femicide pandemic” and a domestic violence culture that is so entrenched – and so much worse than the rest of Europe – that the government has had to take urgent measures to crack down on the issue.
So why are these “crimes of passion” more common in Italy than the rest of Europe? Are Italian men biologically less capable of controlling their tempers?
Of course they’re not. They simply live in a society that gave them free rein to use “I did it because I loved her” as an excuse for far too long.
I’m not saying that someone who dismisses their behaviour as “driven by love” will necessarily become violent. But it stands to reason that, if you’re allowed to push the boundaries so long as you use the “L” word to excuse this, you’ll soon stop taking responsibility for your actions. And that can only be bad news.
So I’ll leave you with this:
You are the arbiter of your emotions. Your ex is the arbiter of his or her emotions.
Yes, love is a force to reckon with. But ultimately, we decide how it makes us behave.
Never forget that.