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The Thin Line Between Love and Hate

The Thin Line Between Love and Hate

Ellie Goulding’s new hit “Hate Me” touches on an interesting subject related to hatred in the context of romantic relationships. It is a topic I didn’t address in my book In Defense of Hatred, and indeed, didn’t even contemplate very closely while writing it.

That subject is the “thin line between love and hate.”

It’s a thin line between all this love and hate
And if you switch sides, you’re gon’ have to claim your place
So baby, this time you’re gon’ have to seal your fate
Yeah baby, this time you’re gon’ have to seal your fate

This omission of this subject in my book led to some confusing conversations. One in particular stands out in my mind, which still makes me feel terrible. Back in 2017, I talked with a friend who was going through a difficult divorce. He described simultaneous feelings of love and hatred towards his then-wife, and was describing the confusion and frustration that accompanied this combination.

“I think you of all people would understand what I’m talking about,” he said.

I had no idea.

I had written about how hatred was motivated by love, that the two emotions were intimately linked, but not that the two were intertwined in relation to a singular object. My claim was that if you loved object X, and person Y threatened X, you would hate person Y. Love of X was related to hatred of Y, but the objects of these emotions were distinct. Love and hatred towards the same object was something different.

I mention Goulding and her song partially because it inspired me to finally get around to this topic. But her song is also useful in another way: it captures the confusing nature of this mix of love and hate. In absentia, it expresses what most people experience when undergoing these emotions precisely because it fails to identify the source.

Let’s work up from the theory.

In my book, I argued that hatred is disgust towards mind. It is our natural, instinctive reaction to a conscious threat — especially an existential threat — against something we love. In application, if this theory holds up, then the threat is obviously our estranged partner. But what is the object of love? Isn’t the whole point of a relationship loving the other person? If they aren’t a threat to themselves, how can this motivate hatred?

I think this conundrum is the source of confusion for many people, which stacks frustration on top of intense pain. But exploring this pain can be a key to unlocking the whole mystery here.

When someone breaks up with us, or otherwise sabotages our relationship, what is the cause of suffering?

There is the sense of betrayal, for one. There is the hit to our ego as well. But I think the biggest source of pain for the heartbroken lover comes from the demolition of their future.

Seriously dating someone naturally leads to all kinds of imaginings about the future. We project forward what our life with this person will be like, often in idealized and romantic tones. We construct a whole imaginary existence together with that person, and over time, come to identify ourselves with that future. In many ways, this imagined future, and not the other person, is the primary object of our love in the relationship.

So when our significant other breaks our relationship, they become the existential, conscious threat to our object of love, which is the future we had envisioned with them. The only problem, of course, is that they are the critical component of that future. So we are torn between loving them for their role in this vision and hating them for threatening to separate us from it. Love and hate… not towards the same objects, but objects closely enough related that it is easy to confuse the two, especially in the heat of intense emotion.

“I love the future I imagined with them” becomes “I love them.” And then you find yourself loving and hating her…

Of course, the love for this vision is not intrinsically incompatible with simultaneous love for the other person themselves. Ideally, in fact, the two would go in tandem. Who would imagine a future with someone whom they do not love? It is not an either or, but an identification of two different kinds of love at work. It is this distinction which allows us to make sense of this confusing, heartbreaking pain that we can experience at the end of a romantic relationship, a love that asks us — almost taunts us — to hate what we once loved.

Hate me, hate me, still tryna replace me
Chase me, chase me, tell me how you hate me
Erase me, ‘rase me, wish you never dated me
Lies, tell me lies, baby, tell me how you hate me…

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