Mixed Emotions: Loving and Hating the Same Person

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.

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Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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23 Responses to Mixed Emotions: Loving and Hating the Same Person

  1. Marla Estes says:

    I’ve been giving workshops and classes on exploring hatred. I look at it as a huge taboo. I like to say that hatred is the new anger, i.e. anger used to be thought of as something to get rid of, not acceptable (especially I think for women) and now people are seeing that it is a natural emotion, and something potentially useful. Hatred is considered “spiritually incorrect” but I think by acknowledging and understanding our own hatred, we can really get somewhere in our inner work.
    It is truly amazing to see the relief and liberation of a roomful of people when they begin to understand that there is nothing “wrong” w/ hatred itself. The problems arise when the hatred is acted out unconsciously. So to the extent we can own this part of our shadow material, we can deal w/ it in a safe and conscious way.
    I think it’s very brave of you to talk about your own moments of hatred towards your children. I will stand w/ you and also say that I’ve had moments of hatred for mine as well, as I understand that they have had towards me. The ability to tolerate someone else’s hatred is also very liberating.

  2. Great article! It can be very challenging to handle the mixed feelings of love and hatred with out loved ones.
    I totally agree. Personally, when I face such emotion, I do the following:
    I become aware of our feeling and feel thankful.
    I acknowledge the feeling and say to myself that it is Ok and seek guidance from Infinite Intelligence.
    I take a deep breath, bring myself into present moment
    Next I write down immediately what I want-eg: unconditional love/affection
    I also write down-what I want to let go of-eg-the need to feel angry, jealous, constricted etc
    Then I do EFT -Emotional Freedom Technique-tapping on various energy points.
    This helps is resetting the disruption of my body’s energy system and makes me feel good.
    When we feel good we think positively, get into solution mode and make responsible decisions in a collaborative way. Hope this helps.

  3. Lalitha Brahma says:

    Great article! It can be very challenging to handle the mixed feelings of love and hatred with out loved ones.
    I totally agree. Personally, when I face such emotion, I do the following:
    I become aware of our feeling and feel thankful.
    I acknowledge the feeling and say to myself that it is Ok and seek guidance from Infinite Intelligence.
    I take a deep breath, bring myself into present moment
    Next I write down immediately what I want-eg: unconditional love/affection
    I also write down-what I want to let go of-eg-the need to feel angry, jealous, constrcted etc
    Then I do EFT -Emotional Freedom Technique-tapping on various energy points.
    This helps is resetting the disruption of my body’s energy system and makes me feel good.
    When we feel good we think positively, get into solution mode and make responsible decisions in a collaborative way. Hope this helps.

  4. Carl Lange says:

    I agree that as we acknowledge our feelings of hatred towards our loved ones and finally understand that others might have gone through the same we do receive some emotional freedom from quilt in turn. That is, if we have been succesful to evade more socially profound errors such as acting upon those impulses. I took a long time for me to understand that feelings of hatered is not to be shunned itself. However, e.g. in my case, I would have been much more well equiped with mental strength if I would have had a channel of somekind through which to communicate those feelings. Perhaps we should have tuning-our-anger-to-better-frequency-for-others-to-receive groups for anger managements stead, i.e. we should take other humans into consideration but also notice that we are not responsible of their feelings. In laymans terms we ought to ask “can I vent?” even though we urge to vent desperately. I find it to be difficult.

  5. Gussie Russaw says:

    There are times that i dont read more than two lines but i think you have a unique blog. Grats !

  6. As with any feeling, hatred can be strong and enticing. We can accept it for what it is, but the better choice is to not succumb to it. I find that I would rather vent with creative outlets like writing that risk a physical reaction. Nice post.

  7. Gina Hardy says:

    Great blog…you speak with such reality. Anger is in all of us and yet we are taught as children that it is unacceptable. Managing it tho is a different matter. Knowing it allowed is the first step…its normal…learning how to let it out without dishonouring and imploding it and harming the other person is another matter…an art to be learned! Trigger spots as I have been taught need to be recognised as feelings in the body first, being the observer of our own emotional process is key ! Thanks for this excellent blog !

  8. It always amazes me how much even giving themselves permission to feel negative emotions changes things for clients. I think in our society in North America we’re taught to push “bad” feelings down and then this manifests in many different dis-eases. Like you said, when you acknowledge the feelings you don’t feel bad about feeling them. Negative emotions are really clues that something is going on inside that we need to look into.

    I too have felt anger and hatred for my kids…and mountains of guilt over it. I’m thankful for various techniques to help release that. Although EFT doesn’t quite work for me I practice Time Empowerment Therapy and that has been miraculous for myself and my clients.
    Excellen blog!

  9. amyfromuk says:

    I just realised that I feal very resentful towards my clinical psychologist whom I previously thought I only had feelings of total love with. He flirted with me, told me how attractive he found me, that if circumstances were different how he would jump at the chance to be with me. Then he “abandonded” me (our therapy came to an end). It’s been several years now and I can’t seem to shake off this erotic transference issue. How do I deal with this sucessfully? Should I contact him?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Sometimes it’s helpful to write a letter to the person, expressing your anger and the reasons for it. You should know that his behavior may not be grounds for legal action but it certainly violates ethical guidelines for psychologists. At the very least, he betrayed your trust. If these feelings continue, instead of contacting your former therapist, it might help to go for some short-term work with a different therapist to sort it out. In any event, your anger and resentment are entirely appropriate.

  10. RJE says:

    Hi.

    I came across this post and felt like commenting.

    You mention how patients deal with their anger by splitting it off and projecting it on someone else. (Boss, garbage man… ect.)

    Let’s say two angry frustrated parents picked one of their children. That child received the anger and then projected on brother and sisters out of fear that the child will have to endure anger from the parents. Then when child is angry with brothers and sisters, parents still blame that child. So in reality the scapegoat child might be a really nice kid, but because parents needed something to dump it’s anger on to, the child because hostile and angry.

    Maybe the child observed this and decided being that angry wasn’t healthy. She learned to suppress and deny her anger because then no one had to deal with it.

    Later on in life it develops into illness.

    How does that child re-gain access to and own the anger and release it so that it can go back to a state of health and wellness?

    I think she realized that it would be safer to shut the anger out because she wasn’t getting heard by anyone anyways, and it wasn’t who she wanted to be, and was deeply hostile.

    She didn’t want to split off and project and blame another, yet she had no-where to project and place it out so she directed it to self.

  11. Hermes says:

    Hate (Hate), n.
    [OE. hate, hete, AS. hete; akin to D. haat, G. hass, Icel. hatr, SW. hat, Dan. had, Goth. hatis. Cf. Hate, v.]

    Strong aversion coupled with desire that evil should befall the person toward whom the feeling is directed; as exercised toward things, intense dislike; hatred; detestation; — opposed to love. “For in a wink the false love turns to hate.” Tennyson.

    There is a difference between anger and hatred. Anger can, sometimes, be a helpful emotion. I don’t like the word “hate” or “hatred”.

    Hermes

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Many people feel uncomfortable with the idea of hate or hatred. Culturally, I believe we’re in a place similar to where we were 30 years ago in connection with “anger”. But from my experience, hatred is often the correct word.

      • Leanne says:

        Hate was the last and most difficult piece of myself to face and welcome home. It involved a journey within that did not feel at all safe, with an uncertain destination, but it was profoundly liberating to allow myself to feel what was there, and to realise it too was safe, it is just a feeling after all, and better to feel it consciously in relation to past events, than to hide it away & experience anxiety instead. I could feel around it, observe it and reflect on it, and understand it, know I wouldn’t act on it and that it wouldn’t harm me or others. Truly the only bad emotion is a blocked emotion – feeling it stops us acting it out.

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          Well said. “The only bad emotion is a blocked emotion.” I so agree. It’s the emotions we don’t allow ourselves to feel that cause us the most trouble!

  12. Patrick Lumbania says:

    how about, the problem of my love…her problem is mixed emotions too,,and the next day she said “I dont love you” because of that problem she wants a break up, how to solved this?

  13. Chrissy says:

    How does one tell you everyday that they love you and then not even 24 hours later they make fun of your differencess and point out your flaws and when they see you are upset about it, they show absolutley no emotion whatsoever. Why would they continue to stick around? Is it that they love me but hate me at the same time?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      It sounds like your partner is unable to feel empathy, to begin with; it’s also likely that he or she is projecting all his or her own internal sense of shame and damage into you and they despising you for it. Rather than ambivalence, this person is a narcissist struggling with issues of shame. It’s a subject I’ve written about at length in many different posts: check out those you can find under the menu heading Shame/Narcissism over to the right of the page.

  14. Meredith says:

    The way you talk about “splitting off” anger is something I recognize in my marriage. Often when my husband feels upset with me, I will feel defensively upset in return – and then I’ll feel guilty for my own upset at his feelings and turn all that upset back on myself (if that makes sense…). I’ll end up feeling bad for both what I did in the first place and my emotional reaction (whether I let it out or just kept it inside), and the aftermath of all that leaves me less able to clearly see what’s going on – and less able to truly empathize with my husband and apologize to him in the way he deserves (rather than a frantic and desperate need for forgiveness to fill a pain that he’s had nothing to do with, hurt that I’ve caused to myself).

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      When you use the word “upset”, do you mean “angry”? I notice that you mention my own discussion of splitting off anger, but then you talk only about feeling “upset”; sometimes, we have such a difficult time with anger we don’t even want to call it by its real name (much less calling it “hatred” or “murderous rage”). But I do understand what you’re saying, and the kind of guilt and remorse than comes up when our anger gets the better of us.

  15. Hello,

    This article resonated with me. I think our society is evolved enough to understand that we love our children but they can make us so mad that we can hate them for a few moments here and there, and that it’s healthy. The part I found interesting was how partners treat each other.

    I’ve been involved with someone who’s told me he’s very ambivalent about me. I feel like he loves me but then has outbursts that leave me feeling diminished and disrespected. I believe he has this unacknowledged hostility you speak of and that he can’t integrate feelings of love and hate so the hate winds up bursting out at unexpected times. He was married to someone he said was simple and polite and they had a good relationship that was clear and simple. However, as soon as they encountered a difficulty, they couldn’t handle it and divorced.

    It sounds like people like that can’t be a very close relationship. They need someone who can keep very clear boundaries and can preserve a certain emotional distance. That doesn’t interest me at all. I don’t think I can have a relationship that isn’t close.

    I can’t say your blog was uplifting. Rather the opposite. But it was the clearest explanation I can find of such a dynamic. Is there other literature you can refer me to on this subject?

    Thank you.

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      Pretty much all of object relations theory, especially the work of Melanie Klein, relates to the problem of mixed emotions, but it’s not easy going. I read a lot of it in graduate school and it’s often a work of translation, trying to figure out and relate to the emotional experience that they’re discussing.

      I think you’re right about people who can’t have a close relationship. If you can’t deal with your own anger and hatred, it inevitably keeps you at an emotional distance from others.

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