2017-02-20 by Object of Contempt
What is love? Of all questions, that seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? It’s something we learn about though our culture, and it seems obvious what love is. We are vulnerable by default because we don’t usually meditate explicitly about what love is — until someone brings crazy-making behavior into our lives.
In this previous post, I described how emotional abuse often causes a victim to feel compelled to repeatedly explain love (or other relationship basics) to the abuser time and time again. The victim assumes the abuser is sincere and good in wanting the best for the relationship, so naturally the victim tries to improve communication. He or she thinks, “if my wife/mom/friend/son just understood how they hurt me, they would stop, right?” Still, despite all those many efforts, communication and understanding don’t help because they aren’t the real problem.
The truth is, the abuser doesn’t care what you think love is. The abuser may be happy to let you explain it, however, because it indicates that the victim still thinks the abuser might listen and change. The victim is left wearied from the effort, and vulnerable to being manipulated. The abuser still feels in control.
So, outside of actually explaining love, are victims just “spinning their wheels” when they spend effort and time trying to define and understand love? I don’t think so, for several reasons. First, it helps a victim build a better foundation for other relationships. A victim may never have experienced healthy love, or seen it modeled. Considering what love is, and what the boundaries and loving actions look like, allows us to compensate for that lack. I would say it helps us build wisdom.
Second, it makes us better at distinguishing actual abuse from other difficult situations. Any victim could benefit from improving their perception this way, but especially those dealing with PTSD symptoms like hypervigilance and hyperarousal.
Third, it helps us in holding our own behavior to the same standard, rather than reacting in ways that give the abuser “ammunition” and make us feel guilty or ashamed. Victims are often accused falsely to begin with. When victims stumble and do something wrong, however, it is always worse. There is no equity in how an abuser compares their own sins to their victim’s sins.
The abuser has little to no conscience, and does not strive to grow in self-awareness, integrity, or honesty. Abusers do not understand “being transformed by the renewing of the mind. (Romans 12:2)” A victim can understand it, though. This isn’t victim blaming. This is recognizing that everyone has a responsibility to be as good a human as they can. It just so happens that victims often care quite a lot about being good people. When we as victims make the effort to be better people, especially at love, we confirm in our own spirits that we are not abusers ourselves.
Fourth, having a solid, concise description of love brings overall peace to a confused, embattled spirit. Victims spend a lot of time explaining what love is, only to have a contemptuous abuser toy with us and invalidate us. Confirming that our perception of love is founded in reality provides a kernel of validation, hope, and confidence.
Here, finally, is my description of love. It is simply a group of three characteristics that are never violated by any act of love:
Value is the real core of love. It stands in stark contrast to contempt (devaluation/disregard), which is the core of hatred. The value we give each person differs depending on the relationship, but it is always present in love. It is the heart of loving your neighbor as yourself. You may never have met Mr. Doe before, but loving him means recognizing that he is every bit as valuable as you are yourself. Valuing yourself more highly is arrogance. Valuing your neighbor lowly is contempt. The two almost always go together.
Abusive relationships go through cycles often referred to as idealize, devalue, discard. The second phase has the main goal of tearing down a person’s value, and is as awful as it sounds. However, the devaluation technically starts at the very beginning of the relationship.
An abuser desires their victim as an object or supply in some sense. The victim is valued because he or she provides something. In the “good times” of the idealization phase it is difficult to see, but the cycle is already in motion. This kind of “value” more resembles what a person gives a pet, or a favorite posession, rather than a full-fledged person made in the image of God. This is called objectification and is a huge part of any abuse. If a person is being objectified, then there isn’t love in that relationship.
Loyalty is the faithful determination to stick by someone through thick and thin, and is the foundation for trust. When a person violates reasonable trust by acting in bad faith, that is called treachery.
Loyalty comes into the picture more when you know the other person and have responsibilities. It may be a friendship, a familial relationship, or a marriage, but there are reasonable expectations for each type of relationship that require a certain amount of loyalty. It isn’t the same amount of loyalty for each one, of course. Being a parent or spouse entails a very high amount of loyalty. It shows up by way of sacrifice and devotion in the face of devisive people and situations. It shows up when protection is needed from spiteful words all the way to catastrophic disasters.
Loyalty is the most important way that people convey that there really is tremendous value in the person that is loved. Conflicts in loyalty are what cause many relationships to fall apart. Sometimes we are put in a position that requires us to actually choose one person over another. Marital relationships provide the obvious example. The wedding vow was not just a promise of sexual faithfulness, but of faithfulness to love through all of life’s difficulties. Withholding loyalty from a spouse is not just defrauding, it is treacherous.
Goodwill is the soul’s desire to see love, blessing, happiness, and general goodness, come to another person. The opposite of goodwill is called malice, but just the absence of goodwill is enough to harm a trusting victim. Goodwill can exist even for people we don’t know, but it increases as loyalty increases. It is the motivator that makes us want to actually be the cause of goodness and blessing in another person’s life.
Goodwill tends to be the most visible part of a loving relationship. When an abuser shows no empathy for the victim, they are displaying a lack of goodwill. Empathy requires the ability to see someone’s emotional state. And beyond that, to make an effort to console, comfort, or lift up that someone.
Goodwill is not always pleasant, though. Sometimes it requires a rebuke to be given. A parent who does not rebuke a young child for doing something dangerous lacks goodwill, and shows contempt for the child. Still, even in the unpleasant times, goodwill creates a sincere effort to bring goodness and blessing.
There are other examples of this kind of situation that are important to examine. Anyone who has been abused knows that the abuser will claim to have goodwill when there is none. Abusers do this by calling cruelty, “tough love”. Or they may call their niceness love (I call it sweet contempt). There is a lot more that could be said.
I stated above that understanding love helps us sort out and distinguish difficult situations from actual abuse. And…that will be the topic of an upcoming post!