Each of us has a mixture of feelings toward those people we’re intimate with, and learning how to tolerate ambivalence is a part of growing up. Small children sometimes scream “I hate you!” when frustrated by their parents though they may be loving and affectionate an hour later. Such hostility can be so powerful that for the moment, it obliterates awareness of every other feeling. Very small children believe that what they are feeling right now is the only reality and they can’t remember they had other, loving feelings not long before. “I wish you were dead!” they may cry, and in the moment, they may actually believe that’s what they want. The adults around them hopefully understand that this hostility is a transient state, not the absolute and unchanging truth, and that young children usually can’t help themselves.
As we mature, our experience ideally teaches us the same thing — that however angry and hostile we may feel right now, we won’t always feel that way, and it might be better for us to keep “I hate you!” to ourselves until the feelings passes. In my psychotherapy practice, I’ve often been struck by how unable many of my patients are to do just that. Saying “Fuck you!” in the heat of an argument seems to be very common. One of my favorite quotes (from the old Laurence Olivier/Greer Garson film of Pride and Prejudice) is: “Honesty is a highly over-rated virtue.” I hold to this in general in social relations, and in particular, I feel that hurling abuse and saying cruel words during an argument, even if you honestly feel that way at the moment, is destructive to long-term emotional trust . Some truths are better left unspoken.
Tolerating hatred toward those people we love is no easy task. Anyone who has struggled to restrain destructive feelings during a fight – including the wish to lash out physically – knows just how difficult this can be. One of my clients used to complain that during arguments, his wife would invariably tell him some hurtful comment a friend had made about him, usually exaggerated and distorted to inflict maximum pain. That marriage ended in divorce for complex reasons, but a general erosion of emotional trust (on both sides) was at the heart of it. Another way of describing what happened was that ambivalence couldn’t be tolerated and hatred won out. In some profound way, they destroyed each other.
Rather than emotionally destroying our loved ones, we may resort to splitting, one of the basic defense mechanisms: instead of feeling ambivalence toward one person, we preserve our love for that one and re-direct our hostility toward someone or something else. This is an unconscious process, of course. Having an outlet for hostility comes as a relief and doesn’t tax us as much as coping with real ambivalence toward our nearest and dearest. One other way to cope is to keep an emotional distance. I’m sure you’ve known relationships where the couple didn’t seem terribly intimate, neither hostile nor loving but polite or disengaged. If you’re not too close then you’re less likely to be troubled by complex and sometimes destructive emotions. One of the many reasons some people never develop relationships of depth and duration is because they can’t bear the inevitable conflict of emotions.
Unacknowledged hostility sometimes lies behind symptoms of depression . “Aggression turned inward” was one of the earliest theories about the origins of depressive states; while our understanding has expanded to include other explanations for the varieties of depression, this one still holds true in many cases. With some of my depressed patients, getting into contact with anger and hostility coincided with significant relief from their depression.
A primary function of different religions, societies and political systems is to provide us with sanctioned outlets for our hostility. For Arabs, it’s socially acceptable to hate and vilify Jews, and vice versa. In our own country, some fundamentalist churches encourage their members to hate Muslims (e.g, the recent controversy over burning the Koran). Another example is virulent hatred (as opposed to a nuanced opinion) towards illegal immigrants, gays, Republicans, Democrats, blacks, whites, etc. I’ve known church-going people of different creeds – devoted mothers, excellent fathers, generous friends – with extreme feelings of hostility towards people they’d never met. It’s easy to hate the faceless “other” and hard to manage passing feelings of hostility for our loved ones.
Society may also teach us that we simply shouldn’t feel hatred and hostility; it may try to inculcate the “right” set of feelings through education, and some religious or political movements … but that’s a post for another day.
Finding Your Own Way:
The best place to start your personal journey into this area is to take a look at the arguments you’ve had with your partners. Can you remember how it felt when anger erupted and you wanted to strike out? How did you cope with it? If you gave into the destructive urge, you might want to look at the resulting damage (and try not to take refuge in self-justifications like “He deserved it” or “She started it!”).
Another fruitful area is to look at your feelings toward your children, if you have them. I have three children and I love each of them profoundly, but there have been moments when I’ve hated them, especially when they were extremely taxing emotionally. I feel a bit anxious now as I publicly acknowledge this because it’s a socially unacceptable feeling. If you can put your finger on a moment when you felt the same way – and then see how you feel about that, how you judge yourself – it will give you some insight into your attitude toward hostility in general and your ability to accept it as a part of you.
In my practice, some of my clients have felt a deep sense of relief when I helped them acknowledge their intermittent hostility toward their children. Facing the reality of your hostile feelings towards loved ones, accepting that it’s okay to feel hatred may come as a relief to you, too.