One of the greatest questions in abusive relationships is how one can love an abuser.
I can’t tell you how many times people have told me to simply cut off my abuser, or never speak to them again. As though it is so easy to walk away from a partner, a parent, a sibling, a dear friend. So often people who don’t understand say ‘that isn’t love’. Except it is. It’s not healthy or straightforward or advisable, but it is love.
I struggled to answer the pull of abusive love for others, and for myself. At least until I learned what an abusive relationship really looks like- and how often it is portrayed and even glorified.
The truth is, there are a thousand examples around us in the media and the arts. In this setting, we fall for it again and again. We call it a great love story when it is on the page or the screen, we call it abuse when it happens in real life.
Recently I have been fighting with how to approach the topic of loving an abuser, because it is so profoundly complicated and controversial. Two nights ago I watched Star Wars the Last Jedi- and I had my answer- using the pull of a story and character non-survivors can attach to and understand.
If you want to understand the pull of abusive love, observe the connection between Rey and Kylo Ren. His character is a perfect summation of what it is to love a broken person. He is beautiful and gifted, and in so much pain. You can see his fragility beneath all the strength and anger. You feel certain if you love this person enough, they will no longer suffer so deeply. No matter how grotesque his actions, or how many times he hurts or betrays others, we see that underneath all the ugliness, there is something worth loving.
The truth is, there is. It is okay to love that part of the person, the part that so desperately wants to be better, the part that loves you too. But you cannot believe in that part so greatly that you fail to face the reality that this person is also cruel, abusive and broken- and that they on some level, choose to be so.
For this is the trap of abuse. This is the lie of codependency- that we can save another human being simply by the force of our love. That if we love them enough, the bad will simply go away.
I don’t deny the power of love, or the ability of broken humans to heal. However, one alone does not cause the other. The person must do the work of healing. They must be responsible for themselves, their pain, their darkness, their wounds. You cannot do it for them.
This kind of love is not simple or even logical. But I hope that through this example, non-survivors can understand what an abusive relationship looks like, and why it is so hard to walk away from.
I recently read a piece on how Kylo Ren is an abuse victim, and how that part of the story is often ignored. That is exactly what makes Ren have so much draw. He is both victim and abuser. That is precisely my point. We love the victim, we endure the abuse. The fact is, in my experience abuse victims often make for abusers. This is what I mean when I speak of the echo of trauma. We try to categorize people -victim, abuser, but so often we are both.
The parent who was a soldier in WW2 beats his child, who grows up to be an alcoholic and emotionally abuse his children, who grow up to emotionally abuse their children. This is exactly the point. We are victims, but we cannot allow that to justify continuing the trauma. Kylo Ren being a victim does not excuse him from the responsibility of his own actions. At some point we must seek help, we must choose to manage the pain ourselves rather than creating more in our own agony.