Love, and our need for authentic connection, is our most basic instinct. Love gives personal meaning to our lives and makes life worth living. The experience of feeling known by another, with all our imperfections and gifts, leads to intimacy, passion and commitment. In authentic romantic love, the hope is that we can express our needs and wants, and that our partner will be able to meet those needs and love us in the way we need to be loved, and vice versa. So then the question is, Why do we hurt our most intimate beloved partner? And also, Why do we love a partner who hurts us emotionally and physically?
The news of Amber Heard’s and Johnny Depp’s engagement with domestic violence brings this tragic human universal experience to the forefront once again. Recent statistics show that on average, 20 people per minute are physically abused by their intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men. In relationships that involve domestic violence, a painful, unconscious psychological dance ensues between the abuser and the abused, regardless of sexual orientation or gender. Drugs and alcohol often fuel this dysfunctional cycle of emotional and physical violence, as exemplified by Amber Heard and Johnny Depp.
The romantic relationship between the abused and the abuser in domestic violence is often between a co-dependent and a narcissist. Their unconscious, magnetic attraction is a perfect storm of distorted love and emotional dysfunction. These intimate partners are opposites, yet their individual unhealthy psychological structures fit together like puzzle pieces. Often, the co-dependent/abused partner is a passive, giving, self-sacrificing individual, who is consumed with the needs of others. The narcissist/abuser is a self-centered, controlling, emotional manipulator who feels a grandiose sense of self-importance. Initially, the star-crossed lovers’ relationship is filled with excitement and chemistry. However, over time, the thrilling, magnetic attraction between the dysfunctionally compatible partners transforms into drama, chaos and unhappiness as the abuse escalates.
A universal cycle of violence between intimate partners is often apparent in abusive relationships. The first phase, the tension-building phase, involves criticism, yelling, swearing and threatening. This is followed by the acute battering phase, where the victim is emotionally and physically terrorized and attacked. The final phase, the honeymoon phase, is full of apologies, empty promises and gifts. Despite the trauma vortex experienced, neither partner will easily terminate the relationship because they intrinsically believe that this is what love is and they are addicted to the cycle of violence. The violence and abuse may be appalling, but the honeymoon phase gives the abused the false hope that the situation can improve and everything will be all right. This cycle of violence happens repeatedly, differs in its intensity and duration, and can last days, weeks or months.
We live in a culture that values money, fame, power and sex. However, as seen with Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, even in abundance, these outward trappings of success fail to heal one’s unconscious relational wounding. If you refuse to look inwardly at your bag of relational dysfunction, you will keep re-enacting the same emotional dramas in your life. Fortunately, we are not destined to repeat these cycles for eternity. Neuroscience research demonstrates the extreme plasticity of the human brain. This means that rewiring is possible. We have the potential to update our circuitry, which allows us to change our dysfunctional love patterns. The brain and heart are eager to learn, and even through experiences of domestic violence, the potential for evolution is immense.
Couples therapy is contraindicated with couples that are engaging in domestic violence. Often the raw pain of this type of relationship sends the abused to search for help. Through personal therapy and self-reflection the abused partner can gain the courage to leave their narcissistic abuser and then come to terms with their individual part in the relational merry go round of madness. Love hurts, love teaches, love heals, hence the necessity to get beneath the relational patterns of domestic violence in order to get beyond it.