Hate results from a powerful combination of two awful feelings.
Aubrie and I had a little spat the other morning, the kind you would hardly have noticed if you had been sitting in our living room with us. I’m slow and quiet when I first wake up, while she’s bouncy and cheerful. My mood can come off as grumpiness to her, and then she responds with what I perceive as a hurt, slightly snarky tone.
That’s it, that was the spat. The kind couples have all the time.
But I was angry, mostly because my brain was still asleep, and I didn’t know where to put the emotion. Resentment had in fact been building up around this issue for a while (“Why can’t she just let me be in the morning? Why does she have to take it personally?”). And I worried that If I told her how pissed I was, then the silly spat would escalate. If I held my anger in, on the other hand, the resentment would build, and Aubrie always notices my smoldering resentments. So either way, I figured we were headed for a bigger fight. And I detest fights—especially in the morning! There appeared to be no escape from the thing I’m the most afraid of: conflict with Aubrie. It was then that I heard myself say internally, “I hate her.”
Seriously? Hate? Because I’m not a morning person and she is?
Well yes, maybe.
We’re indoctrinated to never use that word. “Hate is a strong word,” we say to children. And it’s true. Hate can lead to ugly outcomes.
On the other hand, the common wisdom these days is to allow ourselves to “have our feelings.” So shouldn’t we allow ourselves to (at least momentarily) hate in that case? The legendary couples therapist, Dr. Peter Pearson said right here on our podcast that it’s inevitable to hate your partner sometimes. His point is that it doesn’t really mean anything unless you act on it, and it will eventually pass like any other feeling.
David Schnarch, another well-known couple’s therapist and author of the brilliant book Passionate Marriage, has coined the term “normal marital sadism” to describe the emotional mayhem that couples regularly inflict on one another, which goes ignored or unreported in our culture. His view is that we could all do ourselves a favor by acknowledging our own occasional cruelty, because ignoring it only makes it stronger.
Both of these ideas are clearly on point, but from my perspective there’s something about hate, specifically, that really misses the mark of self-awareness. And that’s a good clue to deeper understanding. In my example with Aubrie, it’s obviously ridiculous for me to say that I hate the one person I love the most in the world, and particularly so in response to a tiny morning spat. That’s the kind of sentiment we associate with clueless teenagers. So what’s the deal? If it’s so obviously misguided, why do we persist in feeling this odd emotion?
I’ve come to think of hate as the intersection of fear and powerlessness. Both of these feelings are fictions of their own in some sense, but both are inescapable in the human experience. Fear of some bad outcome triggers anger. As the redoubtable Kate Neibauer has taught us in her articles and interviews about anger, when expressed properly, there is great wisdom and action in anger. When it’s bottled up and goes unexpressed, however, it festers and corrupts. Anger that is powerless, that has no way of expressing itself or leading to the result it believes it needs, eventually turns to hate. Hate is the emotion we feel when we desperately believe we need a particular outcome, but have no way of achieving it. This is why it seems so petulant. We have this idea that our inescapable fear and pain must be someone or something’s fault. So we “hate” the cause of our pain. On some level we believe it gives us the strength to take necessary action. But as we all know, action that derives from hate by definition makes matters worse and causes more pain and hence more hate.
All of which begs the question: Are things really so very desperate? Does the outcome you yearn for really matter that much in the end? Are we in fact truly powerless? Of course the answer is no, but that’s hard to remember in the moment when fear arises.
For instance, in my interaction with Aubrie, I was not powerless. I could have taken any number of actions to arrest our dynamic. I could have, for instance, jumped online and bought this T-shirt to wear to bed every night. I could make habit of kissing Aubrie good morning, giving her a big hug, and then spending the first two hours reading or meditating in another room. And of course, I could simply face my own fear and talk to her about what triggers my anger. But the adrenaline of the moment prevented me from remembering all that. And so the feeling of hate erupted.
This illusion of weakness is false. We are never as powerless as we believe. From a practical perspective, there is always another option. The mechanism in our minds that locks us into one course of action is rooted in a flawed analyses; there is always another course of action. And the result is rarely as important as we believe it to be—the fear at the bottom of all our strategies and machinations is nearly always groundless once it is uncovered. Did it really matter, in the big picture, if Aubrie was being a little snarky with me, or if I was coming across as a little grumpy? No. In fact, as I started writing this, I had to try really hard to remember what had actually triggered me.
Our fear and our belief that we are powerless is what fuels hate—but neither is true. Once we realize that the fear is illusory, the fuel dissipates. When we see that there is always another option, that we are never truly powerless, the handcuffs fall away.
Next time you find yourself “hating” your partner, ask yourself whether you are truly powerless, and whether your fear is grounded in reality. This isn’t easy, because we’ve been developing excuses and justifications for our fears for so long. It takes time and attention to develop the awareness and skill to move through it. It’s a humbling, invaluable process.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Aubrie and I are fine. Being transparent with her about feelings like these just keeps making us stronger.
Erik Newton is the founder of Together.