The mystery behind love-hate relationships

People who see their relationships as either all good or all bad tend to have low self-esteem, according to a series of seven studies by Yale researchers published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In two of the studies participants were asked to indicate as quickly as possible whether each of 10 adjectives applied to their relationship partner, adjectives such as caring and warm or greedy and dishonest. Partners in this study included college roommates and mothers.

Individuals low in self-esteem were considerably slower to respond when negative and positive adjectives were alternated than when similar adjectives appeared in blocks. Those high in self-esteem were equally quick to respond to the adjectives no matter how they were presented.

“This suggests it was hard for them to think of their partners as a mix of positive and negative characteristics at a given point in time,” said Margaret Clark, a professor in the Department of Psychology and senior faculty author of the study. “We do not think these results are limited to any one type of relationship. We think they apply to any close relationship.”

Clark said the effects were obtained only when people judged relationship partners. There was no delayed response when judging an object, in this case, their computer.

The researchers first measured self-esteem by asking participants to fill out the Rosenberg self-esteem inventory, a self-report measure of self-esteem. The reaction time task was administered weeks later by an experimenter who did not know their evaluation results.

“Those low in self-esteem are chronically concerned about whether or not their close relationship partners will or will not accept them,” Clark said. “In good times, those low in self-esteem tend to idealize partners, rendering those partners safe for approach and likely to reflect positively upon them. At the first sign of a partner not being perfect, however, they switch to focusing on all possible negatives about the partner so as to justify withdrawing from that partner and not risking vulnerability.”

Based on their research, Clark and Steven Graham, first author of the study, developed a way to measure the extent to which people segregate thoughts about partners into “all good” and “all bad” qualities. Their new scale is called the I-TAPS (Integration of Thoughts About Partners Scale).

From Yale University


  1. I have just come out of 1 one year love/hate relationship. My girlfriend used to fly into rages and the police were involved a couple of times. However when we weren’t fighting I have never known tenderness or intimacy as amazing.

    I am 42 and have had regular girlfriends and long term relationships so I am aware of the work a good relationship requires and of my own shortcomings (well, most of them :).

    Alcohol was a factor at certain times. If she had had a few drinks then it was most likely going to end badly. There are fights and then there are fights. I had never been physically punched or kicked until I dated this girl. This happened 8 times and as I said the police were involved twice, and almost another 2 times when I threatened to call them. Only once did I strike back and kicked her back in the shin. When that happened I was horrified with myself, that I could do that to her, even though she had attacked me 6 times before.

    She suffers from anxiety and a little bit of obessive compulsive disorder so I used that as an excuse for her bad behaviour. But the behaviour became worse over time. The emotional abuse was worse though. She criticised me constantly and when in a rage said the most hurtful things that have ever, ever been said to me. It was so out of proportion that I actually excused the behaviour as mental illness because it as so irrational.

    Her anxiety led to insomnia and back pain which made her more irritable, and subsequently critical. She is aware of all these ailments and tries to live a healthy life to alleviate them. She also is aware of her low self esteem issues. I have a little bit of low self esteem too so it probably doesn’t help.

    She maintains that she has never hit another boyfriend (she was 36, I was 41 during the relationship) but I know she has had volatile relationships in the past including and affair with a married man (her words: “it wasn’t meant to happen but the chemistry on both sides was too strong”). He ended up staying with his wife and 2 kids.

    So here I need to take a look at myself and ask: “Am I really the first man she has treated this way? And if so, why?” Now I need to explain that I am not an overly emotionally expressive guy, but I did read “The 5 Love Languages” a few years back and try to practice it’s philosophy. I bring flowers and small gifts on regular occasions, pay sincere compliments, be tactile and put my arm around her and be generous in lovemaking, and do chores for her. Some of that may have come across as a bit mechanical because I’m still learning to be more communicative, but I was trying.

    My other fault was when she was in a rage a would stay calm and try and calm her down which made things worse. Then I would just wait and hoped she would run out of steam which rarely happened. When the abuse went on for too long, or got too bad ( you can only called a F****** C*** so many times before its gets to you ) I would then lose the plot and explode back at her. I would then say hurtful things which I would regret the next day, and Im still sorry for that.

    I am trying to make sense of it all by reading up on anxiety and the psychology of love hate relationships. I have come to a sort of an explanation but I’m wondering if I’m on the right track:

    She is a very beautiful woman, she is very intelligent and is very socially adept. When she organises drinks or a get together the majority of invitees attend and it’s usually a huge success. She is also a self confessed perfectionist and has high expectations. She won’t go to downmarket cafes or restaurants, although she does wear 2nd hand clothes for financial reasons and always looks stunning in them. Go figure.

    I believe that subconciously she has a ‘perfect man syndrome’ meaning that the further you are from her perfect ideal, the more irritable she becomes with things she doesn’t like about you. I think we all do it. I have had girlfirends in the past where things that shouldn’t annoy you do just because you’re not sure about the relationship.

    Now I’m an average guy – 5’10”, 80kg (175lb), gym fit. I have a business degree in finance and marketing. My parents have been married for 48 years and both my sisters are married to great guys for 20+ years. My career over the last 10 years has involved entrepeneurial ventures such as a food business and property broking and subsequently things are a bit of a struggle. I still don’t own my own home but I have some savings so I’m not in debt or broke. I have subconciously probably avoided marital commitment as I couldn’t realistically see myself as a provider for a family. Since I turned 40 I realise that time is running out so maybe I’m putting pressure on myself. I would love a family.

    Although I’m behind the 8-ball financially, I think people would describe me as a good natured, gregarious, hard working guy. I have many friends in the 20+ year bracket and have good relationships with all my family.

    In my heart of hearts I don’t think she ever felt I was good enough for her. She didn’t like my hair (so I changed the style – it was overdue to be honest), changed my clothes (once again, needed the update), but she also didn’t like my first name, the way I walked (slouched apparently), the way I sat sometimes, the expressive way I used my hands (I’m half Croatian), the fact I used soap instead face wash (gave me excessive lines on my face), said I had excessive lines on my face, I was too skinny (she likes beefier guys), says that I’m too careful (tight!) with money (despite having unpredicatble income and being in a stronger financial postition than her), the list goes on…

    So I’m not sure if I have the answers. I’m sure she’d put a very persuasive argument to me and tell that I’m wrong on many fronts. We parted a couple of weeks ago after the worst fight ever and then I bumped into her yesterday. It’s was Valetines day ironically.

    Maybe I don’t need to figure it all out- the whys, the ifs the whens. I didn’t really mean for this to be so long but once you start writing it just all pours out, so thanks if you’ve read my long story. Maybe I just need to let time do it’s healing.

    It’s just very hard when the person you are so in love with was so unbelievably cruel to you. Yes we had nice moments but the majority of our time together was underlined by tension, even when we weren’t fighting. I believe this tension existed because I didn’t live up to her pre-conceived expectations.

    I’m just very sad. I still love her and miss her, but the tension and fighting is just untenable. I’m so torn. Even if writing this has been cathartic and nothing else, I guess that helps.

    • p.s.

      Re: second to last paragraph:

      She would say the tension existed because I wasn’t expressive enough towards her, but I was aware of this and tried very hard. Even so, did it necessitate verbal and physical assault?

    • Grey Lynn Guy, have you ever heard of Borderline Personality Disorder? It sounds like she has it. You should definitely read more about it. I think it will help you understand your relationship a lot better. It’s not as simple as a love-hate relationship, she has a mental illness. Good luck with everything.

        • Thanks Pharaoh. I loooked up Borderline Personality Disorder on Wikipedia. My God, that’s exactly it. I’m torn as what to do now. We’ve separated but remained friends at a distance. She should address this but I’m not really in the position to suggest it. In fact, she would be very offended if I suggested that she had BPD and should seek help. Very conflicted here.

  2. My relationship is just like this, ive been with my gf for just over 2 years and when its good its good, when its bad its really bad. In the end her childishness at times makes me hate her and not even want to see her, she throws **** in my face when we talk, or when i try to help her at driving for instance she just dismisses everything i say, even though im right as her ego wont allow constructive criticism. But when shes not acting like a spoilt twat, were great together and were in love. Its actually a relief to see others in the same situation as me. Every time we have a big argument we break up as i feel id rather not argue but be single instead, but as soon as i break up with her she crys and we end up back together and the cycle continues. I really dont know what to do, i love her but i hate having to walk on eggshells when talking to her or when she asks for advice.

  3. My boyfriend and I have been together 9 months however we are in our late 30’s and are looking toward building a life together. Problem is he gets drunk and breaks up with me. When he sobers up he apologizes and we start the cycle again. As soon as we have any disagreement, especially when he has been drinking, he is packing his bags. But then he returns, knocking on my window begging for another chance and then things are good all over again.
    I love him, I just think it can’t be too late to fix us.

  4. Wao So many responses and it confirms my thought that I am not alone. I think every relationship is a love-hate relationship. No one is perfect ! right ? So in my opinion if you really love your partner and want to live with him without any of the hassles involved, you should talk. Talking it out is a good start for saving a relationship. You can also ask for professional help. A relationship expert can help you find the faults and defaults in a relationship. Every expert works in his/her own way, some have their own relatietherapie (almere) (Netherlands) courses or sessions which can help and some just let you open up and talk to your partner without hesitations.

  5. I can say I’m in a love/hate, passion/pain relationship now going on 3yrs. I have had longer relationships, however just like life I have rolled with punches of those relationships and used that knowledge to help me; reluctantly realizing inturn hurting my current relationship. I have carried around this ” If your playing, I’m playing mentality”. I have stick to that method of thinking until my current relationship after time. yes, i said after time…
    I have to be honest in saying i die cheat but with that mentality i had it wash like inviting a person into a relationship knowing your going to do whatever you felt like doing regardless. My heartless mentality helped me bhuild a wall or forcefield and that there was my “gift and my curse”.
    When I really committed I learned I had a large amount of insecurity which made it easy to have that careless commitment value I once had. That why I refer to my previous mentality as “a gift & a curse”. It help me metor once i changed but unmasked insecurity i struggle with today…. help with advice please :)

  6. I have been involved in a love/hate relationship, off and on, for most of the last eight years. Ever since year one, I have known that the relationship is not healthy for either party involved, but it’s as if I’m in love with a fantasy image of my own creation that I project onto my partner. Same with him.. and when we each don’t live up to each other’s expectations, the fighting and controlling ensues. I am always the one who moves to end it, but even if we both try to move on, we are bound to our dependence upon this relationship. I do have the foresight to see that dealing with the pain of a breakup now would be far less debilitating than a life spent making each other miserable, so once again I am the one with the strength to make the move. It is hard to completely disassociate with one you have loved rather feels like abandonment, but I cannot remain friends or try to help him, because my cause always ends up sabotaged and we end up back at square one. He was a child of alcoholism/abuse and I grew up with a father who was very possessive and controlling of my mother and every time we get back together, I see the combination of these early environments start to form. The only way I know to stop the cycle is to leave for good and work on my own issues. I don’t wish to be hated or have to cause pain by walking away, but I really do feel it is the right thing to do.

    • It’s as if I wrote the above comment myself. I am in EXACTLY the same sort of situation – right down to our parental backgrounds. I don’t know what to do :(

  7. Wow! I thought I was the only one. My relationship of 2.5 yrs is definately love/hate. As everyone has said when it is good it is really good and when it is bad it is all I can do not to lose my mind! I’m pulled in so many directions. The hardest is deciding whether to stay or go. I know it isn’t healthy fighting the way we do but it is so hard to walk away from the good.

    • Low self esteem is a form of self-centerdness. A form of perverse narcissism. Its a cancer that eats away at relationships, and ourselves. Its not easy to overcome, but the first step is acceptance and moving beyond denial, and then realizing we can conquer it and MUST conquer it, and no one else can do that for us. It’s not easy but I wish everyone the very best.

  8. I have been with a man for just under two years. It is as though he has two personalities. He loves me, wants to get married and be with me forever. During this time frame, I am beautiful and the best thing that ever happened to him and he is very vocal about his feelings. When he says “I love your,” within 48 hours he has staged a fight over something normal individuals would not even react to and he becomes someone else. He calls me ugly names, destroys my possessions, acts like a little boy having a violent temper tantrum and tells me how stupid, fat and ugly I am, though I am none of the above.

    He has left about seven times and stays out for a night, a few days up to three weeks. When he comes back, he is loving and kind and acts like nothing has happened. It is a predictable pattern after this time frame.

    I have researched this and see similarities to borderline personality disorder and narcissism. Can anyone enlighten me please.

    • Love and hate are both based upon self-identification in your experience. You do not bother to love or hate a person that you cannot “identify” with. No deep emotion is elicit or sought after. Hatred always involves and comes in from the painful sense of separation from love, perhaps, as in your partner’s case. A person you feel strongly against , at any given time , upsets you because he, or she does not live up to your expectations, and this works both ways, from your partner’s standpoint, and yours at the same time. If you hate a partner it is precisely because you “expect such love,” (he as well). Anyone from whom you expect nothing, will never earn your bitterness. So, in sort of a strange manner, “hatred” is a means of returning love. Therefore, left alone but expressed, it is meant to communicate a separation that exists in relation to what is expected.

      You may love a partner, and if the partner does not seem to return that love, and denies your expectations, then hate results. The same partner leads you to expect more of the love that is or was denied. Here, the hatred is meant to get back your love. It is supposed to lead to a communication from you, stating your feelings, clearing the air, so to speak, and bringing you closer to the love object, in this case, your partner. Hatred is not the denial of love then, but an attempt to regain it, and is a painful recognition of the circumstances that separated you from it.

      Trust in your feeling and they will lead you to psychological and spiritual states that enhance mystic understanding, calmness and a peaceful disposition. Following your own emotions can and will lead you to deeper understandings, because you cannot have a “physical self” without emotions, any more than you can have a day without weather.

      Love is of course always changing. There is no one state of deep mutual attraction in which two people are forever involved. The emotion love, is “mobile,” and can change quite easily to anger, or hatred for that matter, and back again to love.

  9. Our life with our loved one is a long journey. Like any road it changes as we travel. It has ups and downs, hard parts and easy parts, sometimes beautiful and sometimes unattractive, at times boring and at times exciting. Through it all we treat our best beloved with love and respect, over and over letting things go, and in so doing we gain dignity for ourselves.

    • First be honest with yourself & the one you with. Do you see the relationship progressing for the two of you or do you linger on to what happened in the past. Neither one of you can’t change the past but you can make do something about your future. Life is too short and if you’re going on an emotional rollercoaster in your relationship then its best to call it quits. Any imperfections your partner has can trigger those haunting negative feelings towards them. Why be in a relationship that is so unpredictable that you have to walk on egg shells so you don’t have an arguement? This is no way to live if you’re in a loving relationship. Life is also about change and change at time could be devastating but as long as you don’t have the feeling of being unfulfilled you could be more happier.

      • I have been in a relationship for nearly 11 years, my partner has definite nartisstic behaviour, our reationship has been up and down for 9 years, I left him for a year, but during that time we were still seeing eachother, i am back with him but nothing much has changed, if marriage is mentioned, he says if you are a good girl and behave yourself, I will think about it. I feel it is time out of this relationship as he is just using me.

        • After 11 years, the best he can offer as far as marriage is “maybe if you’re a good girl”? SMH. Sooner or later, I hope you find the strength to cut ties with him for good.

      • This is how I feel. I either love my baby momma of three years or I can’t stand her. I feel like I love her but I know I’m not happy, She’s just such a bitch and to high maintnece I work my ass off so she can be a stay at home mom and all she does is bitch and when I can get away for 2-3 hours a month she’s blowin up my phone every twenty minutes talkin **** askin dumb questions begging me to pick her something up from the store or tellin me when to be home if she’s not calling me shady I love her but I don’t know how much I can take and fearful of loosening my daughters relationship as well she’s three months now Any Help Please?!?

  10. My husband and I had been dating off and on for four years before we abruptly decided to get married. We have been married for 3.5 months now and he’s decided to leave me again for probably the 10th time. I am sometimes blown away by his ability to go from Dr. Jekyl to Mr. Hyde. He is a crazy African so maybe that has something to do with it? Not completely sure becasue men are crazy all across the earth. If I do have low self-esteem, it’s because of him. I can’t explain why I keep allowing him back in my life either. I have dismissed the fact that we have a three year old together. After he goes off, he will come back in about a month or two. It is really love and hate. I know I deserve more but how to I break this horrible pattern of emotional abuse at the hands of this man?

  11. Well i think relationship is depends on some facts and the most important thing is the healthy communication. So if you are having this and you are providing the best quality to your partner then this will be the sign of the long term relationship.

  12. Interesting that you are all going through the same things. But great that you have have found a way to talk and deal with the issues that you are all going through. I think that often when we talk about things we discover ways of solving problem that we would not otherwise know exist..

  13. Well i think relationship is depends on some facts and the most important thing is the healthy communication. So if you are having this and you are providing the best to your partner then this is the sign of the long term relationship.

  14. Many times a relationship comes to an end due to misunderstandings in that relation, sometimes immaturity is the reason and at times personal egos clash.


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