How Couples Hurt Each Other
If you are in a long-term, committed relationship, you know that conflict and emotional pain are unavoidable. All couples fight. Healthy couples are able to repair painful rifts when they occur in ways that cultivate intimacy, vulnerability, and emotional safety, and next week I will write about how couples might do this. Today, however, we must consider how couples hurt each other now that we know what causes emotional pain.
To recap my previous post, when no one notices or cares about our painful feelings in response to an emotionally hurtful experience, we feel pain. After this happens a number of times, we start to believe things about the very core of who we are (e.g., “I am always a burden,” “I am not worthy of love,” or, “I am good for nothing”). Whatever our core beliefs, they shape our emotional lives in powerful ways, and we naturally want to feel differently about ourselves.
With regard to intimate relationships, we tend to be drawn to partners out of a longing to do just that. We subconsciously say to ourselves, for example, “I want to feel like I’m not a burden all the time, and I think I could feel that way with this person.” There’s always the risk, however, that something will happen in the relationship that will again confirm our painful self-beliefs. “I lost my job and the way she’s looking at me. . . . I feel like a drag on this family.”
To stay with our example, this man feels as though his wife is stepping on his toes. Brimming with the painful, intolerable emotions associated with constantly feeling like a burden his entire life, he may respond without thinking in defensive, destructive ways, for instance:
- He may physically withdraw from his wife. Of course he does, since he needs to protect himself from the perceived assault.
- He may feel overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy and emotionally “shut down.” Of course he does, since it’s easier not to feel than to be in pain.
- He may lash out in anger and denial, blaming her for who-knows-what. Of course he does, since he’s trying to salve his own wounds.
Whatever the husband’s destructive but understandable response, you guessed it—now it’s her turn to be hurt. Her husband’s defensive response confirms what she (perhaps unconsciously) believes about herself. “He’s withdrawing again. He doesn’t care about me because I’m not worth caring about.” Just as her husband wants to feel as though he’s not a constant burden, she wants to feel something other than the dull waves of pain that overcome her when she feels unworthy of loving care and attention. As her husband did, she too responds defensively out of the hurt and pain she feels. Of course she does.
Couples hurt each other during conflict because they inadvertently confirm each other’s painful self-beliefs. Their conflicts get worse because they react without thinking to the hurtful feelings that come up when their self-belief buttons get pushed. One partners triggers his spouse, and in response she triggers her husband, and so the cycle of conflict begins. Usually, these defensive, fear-filled patterns of reactive behavior repeat themselves in ways all too familiar. Before long, the conflict escalates out of control, despite each partner’s fervent desire to be close to his or her partner. What about you? How do you usually respond when someone you love really hurts you? How does your response impact the relationship?