Love matters to women in abusive relationships. Consequently, matters of love should mean something to both the legal regime redressing intimate partner violence (“IPV”) and to feminist legal scholars seeking to reform the same. Currently the law ignores matters of love by conditioning legal remedies on the immediate termination of the intimate relationship by the victim.
Feminist legal scholars unwittingly ignore love by failing to be sufficiently specific about the type of abuse we most wish to eradicate: coercive control. This is a pattern of acts—both violent and nonviolent—in which one partner seeks to control and dominate the personhood and liberty of another. In addition, IPV scholars contribute to binary notions of what constitutes IPV (physical violence versus no violence) and intimate relationships generally (abusive versus nonabusive) when we fail to be discerning. These dichotomies mystify, rather than illuminate, the complexity of intimate love as a context in which harm can occur, making the coexistence of love and abuse something “other,” distant from us, our relationships, and the law.
This Article explores where the line should be drawn between abusive and nonabusive relationships so that the love many women experience, even in the context of abuse, can be taken seriously. Moving the line from zero tolerance sheds light on the normalcy of love in the context of abuse, by allowing for a more expansive view of “normal” relationships—as often involving some use of physical and nonphysical aggression. With a more nuanced view of the coexistence of love and “abuse,” we can better understand love even in the context of the most serious type of intimate partner violence: coercively controlling violence. Many women experiencing coercive controlling violence describe the love they feel as a source of strength and as a survival mechanism. Until feminist legal scholars expose and accept the coexistence of love and violence in intimate relationships, our denial of it will continue to have a profound impact on the development of explanations of women’s experience and behavior that reflect reality, and that can fit within the conceptual structure of the law.