|Because Nothing is Scarier.|
TWTITW is a yawning chasm of failure, constantly open beneath you, and there is no describing the horror at the bottom. You just go around with the knowledge that if you make a mistake big enough, you can fall in. If a relationship fails, if you get fired, if you get rejected... you'll fall into TWTITW, so you put everything you've goddamn got into that relationship. You'll try anything to keep the relationship. Because it's literally unthinkable what will happen if it ends.
That unthinkability is how it traps you. Because it's like Stephen King says in Danse Macabre--knowing that there's something horrible behind a door is terrifying. Once you open the door, it's ruined. Even if it's a really terrible thing behind that door, even if it's a six-foot cockroach, any horror you feel is going to be mixed with relief. "Oh, thank God, it's just a six-foot cockroach. It could've been a sixty-foot cockroach."
I remember when my first "I love you" relationship ended. I couldn't abide the thought. I screamed. I cried. I tried to seduce him. (While still crying. Sexxxay.) I threatened to harm myself if he didn't come back. I called him until he stopped taking my calls. The ridiculous thing is, I didn't even like him that much. It wasn't about getting the joy of the relationship back. It was about avoiding TWTITW.
At some point I bawled myself to sleep, and the next morning I woke up and had to pee. Because even in the wake of The Worst Thing In The World, you still have to pee. I peed and went to work. It was the day after the end of eeeeeverything, but the bus still picked me up at 7:08 and I still got a half-hour and a chicken sandwich for lunch. I was in pain, I was in bad pain, but I had thought it would be infinite pain, and it was finite. It was only a six-foot cockroach.
I can't say "and then I never believed in TWTITW again," but it was the start of a journey. Failing a class helped too, as did getting fired from a job, as did very messily breaking up with a very close friend. Not because these things weren't bad. All of them sucked, all of them cost me opportunities I would never get back, all of them caused real and irreparable harm, yet the morning after... I still had to pee.
Eventually I started to understand. The next time a relationship ended, I cried and yelled plenty, but I didn't do anything inappropriate or harmful. I didn't want to let it go, but I wasn't filled with blind animal terror of letting it go. Breaking up was a bad thing--just not The Worst Thing.
I think belief in The Worst Thing In The World is at the heart of a lot of abusive and dysfunctional relationships. I believe that many abusers believe that breaking up, being rejected, feeling emasculated, or losing their power in a relationship are TWTITW, and that's why they're willing to go to desperate lengths and hurt people to avoid it.
What I did to my ex-boyfriend--threatening myself and refusing to leave him alone--was abuse. Fortunately it didn't go on very long, but it was abusive. And I didn't do it because it felt good to scare and upset him. I did it because I was so deeply afraid of losing him. You get ugly when you're really afraid--anyone with a phobia can empathize with this. If you're phobic of snakes and suddenly you fall in a snake pit, it doesn't matter what kind of nice gentle person you normally are. You'll do whatever it takes to get away--you'll step on people, you'll scream at them, you'll shove them out of your way even if it hurts them. What I felt when I screamed "talk to me or I'll hurt myself" at my ex wasn't a power trip or an evil cackling glee. What I felt was snake-fleeing desperation.
I don't think this accounts for all forms of abuse, but I think it's a pretty common motivation. I think cultural narratives of Perfect Love and Forever Love play into it big-time, too. We don't teach kids "someday your Prince Charming will come, and hopefully you'll have good times together even if it doesn't work out in the end." We teach them that people are expected to hook up permanently and seamlessly, and if they don't... we don't really address that possibility. It's left hanging, unspoken but definitely undesirable, perfect conditions for setting something up as TWTITW. The idea that maybe a relationship problem can't be fixed or maybe you will be single when you don't want to be, that these are painful but not infinitely painful, doesn't come up much in any media or education aimed at people under thirty.
I suspect a class on "rejection happens to the best of us, and it's painful and awkward for everyone involved, so here's how to take care of yourself during and after a rejection" would prevent more abuse than just repeating the messages of "no means no" and "hitting is bad."
Realizing that emotional pain is a cockroach, but only a six-foot cockroach, has given me comfort and self-control. I can't say that being rejected or broken up with wouldn't hurt. But I can say it would only hurt some. I can face "some" if I have to.
[Obligatory awkwardly self-effacing comment about not writing an on-topic or timely post. I'm gonna try super hard to get back on schedule and write a kink post Tuesday.]