Why A ‘Love-Hate’ Relationship Develops Between The Abusive Parent And The Child

 If we were significantly maltreated by our parent/s when we were children, we may well, as a psychological defence against the intolerable dilemma this put us in, have unconsciously developed a ‘love-hate’ relationship with them. In such cases, feelings of love and hate for the parent are compartmentalised/separated because the state of mind required to both love and hate the parent simultaneously is an impossible, contradictory and paradoxical concept that the child does not have the emotional resources to materialise.

Therefore, to allow an emotional attachment with the parent to develop that will allow his/her (i.e. the child’s) psychological survival, the child has no choice but to hold the feelings of love and hate for the parent in ‘separate mental compartments’). This leads the child to perceive his parents in terms of ‘black and white’ rather than in ‘shades of grey’. Indeed, this was a psychological defence I unconsciously developed as a result of my own childhood experiences, vacillating between idealizing my parents and demonising them. It is only now that I understand more completely why this occurred that I am able, I hope, to hold a somewhat more balanced view (although, admittedly, I still don’t always succeed in this; however, the psychological warfare, borne of profound, emotional conflict, that rages on is, these days, restricted to the confines of my still grievously injured, but recovering mind).

Anger Turned Inwards:

Often, the anger and hatred that the child feels towards the parent may, as another psychological defence, be turned INWARDS, leading to the child experiencing self-hatred and self-loathing; this defence mechanism occurs when the child perceives (on a conscious or unconscious level) that feelings and expressions of anger and hatred towards the parent would lead to him/her (i.e. the child) being put in danger (e.g. liable to incur severe psychological and/or physical damage). And, as Freud pointed out, anger turned inwards may lead to severe depression (as well as numerous other undesirable psychological conditions).

According to this theory, in order to help the individual overcome his/her love-hate conflict, it is necessary for the therapist to help him/her integrate the two ‘separate compartments’ of his/her mind (i.e. the ‘compartment’ that holds feelings of love for the parent needs to be combined with the ‘compartment’ that holds feelings of hatred for, and resentment of, the parent) so that s/he may start to see his/her parent, more realistically, in ‘shades of grey’ rather than in terms of either ‘black’ or ‘white’ (see above).

Individuals, too, are likely to require help with understanding how and why their negative feelings towards the parent have arisen and why such feelings may have been hitherto largely repressed/dissociated. This is usually a long process and often does not occur until near the end of the course of therapy.

The idea that depression is the result of our anger towards others (such as our parents) who have hurt and betrayed us being turned inwards towards ourselves is usually thought to originate from the theories of Sigmund Freud, 1856 -1939 (who discussed the concept in his paper entitled ‘Mourning And Melancholia‘), although it is more likely to derive from the work of the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) who, a few decades earlier during the 1880s, wrote that ‘no one blames themselves without the secret wish for vengeance’.

And, more recently, Horney (1885 – 1852) proposed that depression originates from having parents who lack warmth or are hostile, inconsistent, and preoccupied with their own needs rather than with those of their children. This negative parental treatment leads to the child developing feelings of anger and resentment towards the parent.

However, because the child is dependent upon his/her parents, s/he cannot risk expressing these angry and resentful feelings and so represses them (this repression may also be driven by feelings of guilt about resenting his/her parents, by fear of the consequences of openly expressing anger towards them, or by conflicting feelings of love for them.

This process takes place on a largely unconscious level, of course. However, rather than dissipate away, these feelings of anger and resentment are REDIRECTED TOWARDS THE SELF.

This negative energy then combines with the child’s feelings of his / her own impotence, the negative attitude of his / her parents towards him/her, and a sense of his / her own feelings of hostility, to cause the young person to create a self-concept of being someone to be ‘despised’.

According to Horney, however, at the same time, the child simultaneously develops the compensatory concept of an ‘idealized’ self which is unrealistic and unobtainable, no matter how hard the child/later adult attempts to realize it.

However, in a desperate need to compensate for the ‘despised’ self, the child/later adult develops an insatiable and all-consuming, neurotic need to achieve this ideal state, even though s/he is not consciously aware of the origins of this need.

This intense, neurotic need may manifest itself in various ways including perfectionism, an overwhelming need to be loved and admired by everyone (e.g. by becoming famous), or to be omnipotent. Needless to say, living up to these standards is impossible and the inevitable failure to do so, according to Horney, generates feelings of self-hate. Indeed, the anger associated with these feelings may become so deeply entrenched and buried within the body that the result is psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches and backache, representing an unconscious, masochistic need to punish oneself.

A COGNITIVE-BEHAVIORAL PERSPECTIVE:

Aaron Beck, who is often viewed as the founder of cognitive-behavioural therapy, also drew our attention to evidence that depression does, indeed, involve inwardly directed anger in as far as he found that his depressed patients frequently displayed signs of self-hatred, self-disgust, self-blame, self-contempt, and a sense of inferiority and unworthiness which permeates all areas of life, including work-life and interpersonal relationships.

He also suggested that the early life experiences of individuals led to them developing negative schemas (see my article on how negative schemas develop and what effect this has on a person’s life) and what he famously referred to as a negative cognitive triad (negative view of the self, negative view of others, negative view of the world in general).

COMPASSION-FOCUSED THERAPY MIGHT BE AN EFFECTIVE ANTIDOTE:

Anger turned inwards against the self and self-hatred clearly suggests an utter absence of self-compassion which is why compassion-focused therapy may be helpful for some who find themselves trapped in this self-lacerating, masochistic frame of mind, whilst Horney recommended psychoanalytic psychotherapy.

 

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