I was driving home from work one day and I happened to be listening to a popular radio show. Both DJs talked about how they would react if they found out that their daughters were in an abusive relationship. Listeners called in and gave their opinions which ranged from going after the guy, confronting him, or having a frank and honest conversation with the daughter.
There was one particular caller who caught my attention when he said, “I would tell her that he doesn’t love you if he hits you.” That statement made me wince. In fact, it has always disturbed me because it simply does not take into consideration a person’s childhood or how their personal definition of love was formed through experiences within their household. Let’s say, for example, that an individual’s parent was a wonderful, loving parent when they were sober. When they drank, they were abusive. We would never try to convince a small child that their parent didn’t love them. Instead, we would address the cause of the abuse, the reason for the behavior change, and the alcoholism itself.
Studies and statistics dictate that a person in an abusive relationship either observed or experienced sexual, physical, or emotional abuse during their childhood. What occurred in their childhood homes taught them what a relationship is supposed to look like. More importantly, it created their definition of love. In their dictionary, love and abuse are intertwined in a relationship.
If a person grew up with abuse in the home and at the hands of someone they genuinely believe loved them, he doesn’t love you if he hits you simply doesn’t coincide with their personal experience. For a person to accept that statement, they would also have to believe that their abusive parents or guardians also did not love them. And for a child who normally has unconditional love for their parents or caretakers that is a very difficult leap to make.
It is much more compelling to talk to them within the context of healthy vs. unhealthy love. In this way, they won’t have to fight against the theory of whether or not the person loves them. They won’t be placed in the awkward position of having to prove or disprove whether love exists in their relationship. Instead, they can begin to evaluate whether that love is healthy or unhealthy.
At the end of the day, we all have different definitions of what love is to us. Relationships don’t always fit into the conditional statement, if _______ then _______. So it is important whenever I coach individuals that I speak from a perspective that embraces their experience. Their childhood serves as the blueprint and foundation for all of their future relationships. They will either become or attract what they experienced. If they heard yelling and screaming, yelling and screaming will be a part of their relationship. If they had a parent who was absent, they may seek emotionally or physically absent people in a relationship. If they witnessed people avoiding conflict, conflict avoidance will take center stage in their relationship. If they experienced or witnessed abuse, they will choose partners who perpetrate abuse or accept it.
Tearing down someone else’s meaning of love only gives them something to prove or fight against. It is really about encouraging them to recreate their own definition of love, making room for more self-love and a partner who encourages their success, supports who they are, and loves them exactly the way they are at this very moment.