“You always hurt the one you love” is more than just a number 1 Billboard hit for the Mills Brothers in 1944. It’s a sad fact of life.
On some level, it’s not saying much. It’s the same as saying, “You always step on the toes of the one you’re always dancing with.” Well, sure. If two people are always dancing together, they’re going to bang into each other fairly often. Especially if they’re improvising most of the time.
But, yeah, on another level, it’s a big deal. Because we love one another, and count on one another, and give our hearts to one another, we are very easily hurt. That’s on the one side. On the other side, because we’re so distracted and stressed out and (too often) clueless, it’s easy for us to do the hurting. Casual, thoughtless cruelty plus extreme vulnerability is a recipe for...well, you know. You live it. Forgotten birthdays can be the least of it.
Okay, so there it is, the terrible moment. You have done something, or failed to do something, and it has hurt and angered your partner. He or she might be yelling or crying or giving you the silent treatment or whatever. They are, as we say, “upset.”
What should you do?
First of all, here’s what not to do:
Your partner may sound to you like music turned up too loudly. Too intense. Making too much of a big deal. So you’re going to want to turn down the volume. Telling your partner that what you did wasn’t such a big deal. Asking your partner not to make such a big deal of it. Telling your partner they’re crazy or stupid for making such a big deal of this. But check it out. In the entire history of the world this has never worked. It has only made things worse. Don’t do this!
Don’t defend your intentions. Don’t say things like, “I never meant to hurt you.” Or, “I tried to do [whatever] but I forgot at the last minute.” Or, “Honey, you know I’m really sorry, so...”
Don’t make excuses. Even if you have them. The only good excuse is “I was lying unconscious in the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital.” Everything else? Forget about it. “No, you see, honey, the reason I was in a lip lock with your best friend at the Christmas party was...” No! It’s not that there aren’t any possible reasons for your screw up. Yeah, you were late because you were busy. Fine. But unless you have that unconscious-in-the-hospital thing going for you, your excuses will just make you seem like a cold-hearted, clueless jerk.
Don’t keep saying you’re sorry. Yeah, you have to show you’re really sorry. But, as you’ll see, it’s not about you. It’s not about your being able to make some terrific “I’m oh so sorry” performance, with big wet tears and all. Your being sorry isn’t your Get Out of Jail Free card.
Don’t impose a timetable on your partner for “getting over” this. It’s not over when you—the harm inflictor—have decided you’ve heard enough about it. And your trying to impose a time frame will just make it seem as though the whole thing really is about you, which is what got you into this mess in the first place.
So what should you do? Here’s your emergency tool kit:
Most importantly, listen to your partner rant and rave not as a big speech about why you suck but instead as a revelation about the depth and nature of their pain. Zero in on that. Listen for that. Try to understand that. If there’s any question in your mind about that, ask for more information, even if it might feel as though you are opening yourself up to more attacks.
Show you understand the depth and nature of your partner’s pain. Even if the hurt isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Let’s say they’re upset because you came home late without texting. And now they’ve been talking about it on and on. So why was this a big deal for them? Why exactly are they upset and in what way? Do they feel disrespected? Or is it more about feeling unloved? Or is it about an issue of unfairness? Whatever this is about for your partner, your job is to make it clear that you understand their hurt as well as they understand their own hurt themselves.
Ask what you can do to make things better. This makes healing a collaborative process. Yeah, I know: you might get the “well, if you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you” response. Make a suggestion anyway.
Depending upon the enormity of your crime, your partner might need more or less time to talk about it with you, meaning keeping on telling you about how awful the whole thing was for them. This may suck for you, but it’s how healing happens. You can accelerate the healing process by showing you actually do understand your partner’s pain, as opposed to trying to get them to shut up about it.
Ultimately, the hurts we inflict on each other in our relationships are all about power. The insults, the things we forget, the acts of negligence, the casual cruelties are things we did because we could do them, regardless of what our intentions were. They leave our partners feeling helpless and vulnerable. Just the way you feel at a restaurant if they fail to bring over your drinks order or they overcharge you.
So the things our partners do when they’ve been hurt by us are just acts of re-empowerment. From our point of view this might be paradoxical, but we can only help the healing process by helping with their re-empowerment. I’ve just outlined how you can do that.
Why Couples Fight is all about this kind of understanding, these kinds of solutions. For more specific help about healing when trust is broken, do check out our book I Love You, but I Don’t Trust You.