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Enemies to lovers: Why do we fall in love with people we hate?

The enemy to lover trope has captivated us all for centuries – we speak to experts about what makes it so appealing

After a lacklustre run in 2021 – with one of the high points being the brief inclusion of a man who called himself ‘Chuggs’ – Love Island is back to its best, with 100 million streams making the eighth and current season the most-watched yet.

The producers have outdone themselves by assembling an intriguing ensemble of Islanders, who ricochet off each other like bullets off concrete, leaving intricate patterns of chaos in their wake. Ekin-Su Cülcüloğlu is this year’s real star, sitting at the epicentre of this season’s biggest storylines. From crawling to the terrace to sneak kisses from Jay to taking it upon herself to share Gemma’s thoughts on Luca, she is the drama that has fuelled this season’s narrative.

But it is her on-again-off-again relationship with ‘Italian snack’ Davide Sanclimenti that has really captivated Love Island viewers. The pair partnered up early on, but the relationship soured when Ekin-Su’s secretive snogs were shown for all to see, resulting in Davide’s now meme-worthy exclamation that Ekin-Su is a “liar and an actress” who deserves an Oscar for her conniving ways and should “go the fuck out.” While Davide persistently needled Ekin-Su – on one occasion saying that she had “expired” for him – their initial chemistry and constant back-and-forth didn’t stop fans longing for the pair to reunite.

“The romcom babe in me is living for the enemies to lovers trope in Ekin-Su and Davide,” one person wrote on Twitter, while a second person said: “Ekin-Su and Davide are giving star crossed enemies to lovers it’s like a dramatic romcom watching them the best storyline to ever hit the villa.”

The enemies to lovers trope is not a storyline unique to Love Island. It’s a narrative we see littered throughout literature and popular culture: think Beatrice and Benedick’s ‘merry war’ in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Kate and Anthony’s simmering sexual tension in Bridgerton, or the bad-tempered bantering between Kat and Patrick in 10 Things I Hate About You. It’s a trope beloved on BookTok, with videos recommending the spiciest rivals to romantic interest tales quickly racking up hundreds of thousands of likes from eager readers ready to sink their teeth into another steamy hate-to-love story. Often, audiences are given the impression that some of the greatest, most passionate relationships stem from a place of adversity.

But our interest in the well-trodden trope isn’t solely reserved for fiction – it’s something we’re keen to play out in our real lives too, and there is a psychological reason why some people who can’t stand the sight of each other end up in a romantic entanglement. “In the enemies to lovers scenario, we see two individuals in question who may well have had great disdain for each other working through it and becoming a sexual or romantic couple,” explains Dr Tony Ortega, clinical psychologist and author of numerous relationship management books. “Constant sparring can result in something called ‘affect tolerance’. This is one’s ability to be able to deal with negative emotions over time, and the more you engage in a certain behaviour, the stronger it will be.”

“The same would go for verbal sparring. If the pattern of verbal sparring is consistent and well-tolerated by both parties, it will build up to become stimulating.”

“The intensity of emotion between two individuals who view one another as enemies or rivals or a threat creates a dramatic tension,” adds relationship expert and therapist Marisa Peer. “The thin dividing line between love and hate means both emotions conjure up similar reactions, which ensures a powerful interaction from the start. The interaction at the beginning is a point-scoring exercise that both parties enjoy. It provides each an insight into the other’s psyche and an almost visceral understanding of ways to push buttons.”

“Passion has to play a huge role in the transition to lovers [...] With anger and passion, we can throw logic and caution out the window. Passion basically gives permission for the transition from enemies to lovers” – Dr Tony Ortega

While it seems counterintuitive to consider a relationship with someone you absolutely cannot stand, Peer argues it allows for the perfect platform to build an authentic connection. Standing in opposition to the ‘love at first sight’ trope, where someone’s appealing qualities blind any flaws, the enemies to lovers trope sees each rival party focused entirely on the other person’s negatives, and having to renegotiate their perception of them in their mind.

“Both those involved have focused on the flaws of the other and to an extent, exaggerated them to fit with their preconception of an archetypal enemy. Being thrown together in whatever circumstances often means they have to learn to communicate, negotiate and understand the other person,” Peer explains. “They learn to uncover the positive within someone and recognise that the sum of that person’s ‘parts’ creates more of a positive force than they had given them credit for. Usually we don’t get to reveal this side of ourselves to our partners well into a relationship when the initial throes of passion are starting to diminish.”

“In the situation, all the issues are out there and dealt with at the beginning so they really know the person they are choosing to get emotionally involved with.”

The heightened emotions two enemies have when around each other can also lead to more impassioned interactions. “There’s usually some form of anger around someone you don’t like, and anger can be a very passionate feeling,” Dr Otega explains. “Passion has to play a huge role in the transition to lovers. It almost provides a safer outlet than love to be passionate with someone you can't stand. With anger and passion, we can throw logic and caution out the window. Passion basically gives permission for the transition from enemies to lovers.”

Of course, having a romance blossom out of adversity isn’t necessarily always a good thing, despite what many TV series would have us believe. “Because the situation is so emotionally charged, not a lot of thought is deployed,” Dr Ortega explains. “The enemies may just give in to their bare impulses. This may side-step some important relationship-building skills such as vulnerable communication and delay of gratification.” Peer agrees. “If the enemy-turned-lover’s behaviour remains erratic, swinging back and forth between hate and love, then it is likely that the person behaving like this has narcissistic traits,” she says. 

“These sort of chaotic relationships can prove addictive to many people, and counselling may be needed to reframe their idea of love.”

For the most part, we become so invested in the journey these sorts of partnerships go on as it is the ultimate wish-fulfilment we all long for in our own relationships. Seeing people like Ekin-Su and Davide navigate the trope only feeds our insatiable appetite for seeing rivals fall in love. “Who wouldn’t want to see something that they wish they could do, but are too scared to?” Dr Ortega says. “The trope is exciting. The way it often plays out in popular culture is so exciting. It stirs up passion within us and passion is very activating.”

“Enemies to lovers is a tried and tested mechanic so we feel we’re ahead of the game from the start,” Peer adds. “It creates a sense of ownership. We know there will be a happy ending, for the most part, so we enjoy the machinations the couple goes through to get there,” he continues. “We all love a fairytale ending and a successful resolution, and ‘enemies to lovers’ narratives tick all the boxes.”