When You Still Love an Emotional Abuser

26 Mar 2019

 “But I still love them…” say so many ex-partners of emotional abusers. These partners can tell stories of rejection, emotional cruelty and disrespect that would appall a half-way sympathetic bystander. How could anyone love such a callous, toxic monster? the bystander would wonder.

How indeed?

In an ideal world, the abuse survivor would simply turn the page and never look back.  They would celebrate the blessings of being free of their toxic partner every hour of every day for the rest of their lives.  Sadly, in the real world, it doesn’t work like that. Narcissists inflict wounds that leave infections.  You need to heal those infections.

What feeds the ongoing love of the victim for the abuser

In reality, a number of toxic worries feed into the ongoing love for an emotional abuser. These include,

  • Being brainwashed into believing that the abusive ex was the best – actually only – hope of ever finding a loving partner.
  • Feeling incapable of coping alone.
  • Crippling guilt for depriving the children of their other parent (where applicable).
  • Shame for clocking up another perceived failure in the eyes of family, society and or community.
  • Losing the dream that you have doggedly tended over the time you were “together” – despite all evidence to the contrary.
  • Not wanting to let go of the emotional “investment” into which you have poured good love after bad.
  • Believing that you are too broken to start over and/or have a life, anyway.

These are all compelling reasons.  I can remember being overwhelmed by each and every one of them.

The rabbit-hole of anxiety

I remember that time of my life as some kind of apocalyptic video game that constantly played inside my head.  One of these toxic worries would send me down the rabbit-hole of anxiety. I felt my very life was under threat.  Eventually, at the cost of enormous nervous energy, I could just about talk myself out of it. But then, another toxic worry would pop up and take its place. And so it went on. No sooner did I deal with that one than another took aim at my sanity.

Those toxic worries caused me to stay years longer with the wasband than either he – or I – deserved. Equally, they made the early months of recovery hell – until I learned how to stop engaging in that hideous internal video game.

But there is more to “still loving an abusive partner or ex-partner” as well.  And this has only struck me quite recently.

“Still loving” an abuser fills a need

 You “still love” an emotional abuser because of the burning need that you have to love and be loved.   But, at the same time, you cannot love yourself.

Over the years, I have listened to so many women, and men also, who have told me how much they loved their abuser.  They have also told me how much they wanted to be loved.

We all have the words to talk about “love” and “intimacy” and “trust” and “companionship”, together with all the other aspects of love that we encounter in all the media that we consume.

The problem occurs when you have been brought up, as many of us were, in an environment in which healthy love was either thin on the ground or non-existent. In that case, you know the “L” word, but you don’t know the experience of love – and, especially, the experience of being truly loved.  You might as well try to make sense of what chocolate tastes like, if you had never, ever experienced it. You could try to relate it to the best frame of reference you have but that framework would likely not tell you much.

Not knowing the taste of chocolate would, for most of us, be a sorry loss.  Not knowing the experience of being truly loved is a far greater loss.

The lack of inner certainty about what love is

But when you have not had the experience of being truly loved – because, through no fault of your own, you were born into a family with a generational lack of love – you struggle. Your lack of inner certainty about what love is and how it feels leaves you vulnerable.

You don’t know how to love yourself.  In fact, you don’t even feel that that is either possible or “allowed”.

Love, you have already learned, can only come to you from outside yourself.  Plus, it has to be earned.  There is a part of you that truly believes that you have to do a LOOOOOOONG hard apprenticeship to earn lasting love. Part of you believes that all love undergoes a downhill trajectory.

The downhill trajectory of love

Part of you believes that it is perfectly reasonable for someone to come along who

  • Falls in love with you.
  • Claims you for their own.
  • Falls out of love with you once they see the “real” you.
  • Has to be “persuaded” to truly love you by you doing your best approximation of the Labors of Hercules.

For many of us, that immortal line from “Dirty Dancing”, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” describes our inner belief about how validation works. We sit there meekly, tolerating injustice, disregard, rejection, being made to feel inferior and much else besides, more or less fatalistically. We wait for a Johnny to happen along to make us feel loved and lovable.  We need a Johnny to reveal our worth to the world and ourselves.

Sadly, that fantasy is never going to work. Not least because the real Johnny was a really good, warm-hearted guy (albeit with the body of the ultimate Bad Boy).

What “I still love them…” really means 

When someone says, “I still love them…” meaning the partner who hurt them so badly, what they are really saying is, “You know, I don’t know how to love myself.  In fact, I don’t even see myself.  There is a hole in my own vision where my sense of who I am and my own worth should be.” That inability to love – or even see – themselves is not great for them.  Although it is perfectly understandable.

They are not pathetic.  They simply don’t yet know how to find the road back to their true self.  Actually, they don’t even know that there is a road back to the person they truly are.  Nor do they know that being them can be a joyful, rewarding experience.  For the rest of their lives.

Those who “still love” an emotional abuser are blessed inasmuch as they have the capacity for love.  They just haven’t fully realised that they can use that love to nurture themselves first.   Nurturing other –deserving – people comes further down the line. If you need to learn how to nurture yourself,  because you want to start loving yourself rather than “still loving” an abuser, get in touch.


Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.

7 thoughts on “When You Still Love an Emotional Abuser”

    • Dear Michelle,

      I understand that you feel bad. However, feeling disgusted with yourself doesn’t help.

      You did the best you could at the time.

      Warm wishes for your healing and happiness,


  1. My ex mentally abused me, I still love him so much and wanna be with him, I still think he’s a good person and I still feel like it’s all my fault.

    • Good people don’t make a habit of mentally abusing others. I suspect you are more in love with the dream of who he could be than the reality.

  2. Maybe we still love an ex who was abusive because we are loving people. Love is something we give away, whether or not the other person loves us back. If love is real, it doesn’t ever stop. It might change, but it doesn’t end – even sometimes in the after-math of a toxic relationship. My ex had good traits and is worthy of love, even if the toxic nature of our relationship means we can’t have a healthy relationship. Maybe I still want good things for him, and I want good things for me, recognizing that the two of us together are good for each other. Maybe I loved myself enough to know I deserve better and I still love him too.

    • Maybe.

      Most commonly victims of abuse are trauma-bonded rather than deeply in love with a toxic partner.

      But if you still love your ex, you do.


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