Updated: Jul 27
Last time we talked about how futile it is to argue over what happened in the past, and how there is a much better alternative. This time we want to talk about how you can recover when one of you has done something to hurt the other, damaging trust and intimacy.
First and foremost, you need to know that a couple can break free from the grip of a terrible thing that happened to them.
Here’s what usually happens to get a couple into trouble. A hurts B. B can’t seem to forgive, or forget, or let go. B thinks that’s because of how terrible the thing is that A did. (Which in a way makes sense, right?) So A and B continue to suffer together, living in the shadow of A’s terrible crime.
But in fact, something else is really going on. Yes, A did something wrong and hurtful, for sure. But in almost every case, the pain and hurt and ongoing trauma are all about how A and B have handled things since that bad thing happened. The “past” they’re suffering from isn’t so much the monstrousness of what A did as the ineptness of how A and B have handled it since then.
This is actually good news. It means that if you know what you’re doing, the damage can heal much, much faster. And the “thing” that happened won’t seem so monstrous after all.
So how do you make the healing happen without making damage happen?
The most important thing is that the person who’s been hurt needs to talk about having been hurt. What the pain was and is, in all its dimensions. I worked with a couple where the guy had cheated on his wife. When he could finally get around to really listening to her, he heard her tell him about how she couldn’t drive down almost any street in their community without passing some coffee shop or bookstore or park where her husband and his lover hadn’t hung out. What would be a normal drive for anyone else was for her contaminated by a geography of pain.
And she needed him to hear that. Know that. Understand that. Feel that. Really get what it was to live with that.
And that’s Step #1. That simple listening and really hearing and understanding. So that the person who’s been hurt can honestly say, “You’ve listened to me and now I know you know and understand and really grasp what I went through and am still going through.” Without that, there can be no healing.
Step #2 is making sure, if you’re in his shoes, that you make your responses be about your partner, not about yourself.
The number one mistake people make here is to defend their intentions. “I never meant to hurt you.” A hurts B, and then A acts as though the most important thing in the world is for B to understand and appreciate A’s intentions!
No!! If A is a good person—and who’s saying A isn’t a good person!—then let them demonstrate that by being there for B and listening to her pain to the point where she knows he knows what it’s really like in-depth and detail. That’s her best insurance against being hurt again and the best first step towards being finally able to let go of the hurt.
Step #3 is acknowledging what you did if you’re the one who hurt your partner. What I mean is this. You do these things:
You give out the whole, complete, true, and final account of what happened. Nothing important left out.
You fully acknowledge your role in it. Nothing about how you couldn’t help it or how you were the victim of circumstances. Just “I did this and I could have avoided doing it.”
You give your best account possible as to why you did it. This is not an opportunity to back into an excuse. But it is a way to help your partner make sense of what happened.
Step #4 is making an effective, meaningful apology. But this is very tricky. It’s all too easy to say, “I apologize.” Or to say, “I’m sorry.” Those are just words. Most often the person who’s been hurt will hear these words as an attempt to put this whole mess into the past. That’s why people often can honestly claim not to have even heard the apologies or the I’m sorries that were actually spoken.
And all too often “I apologize” or “I’m sorry” are heard as versions of “Why don’t you just shut up about that pain of yours that you keep harping on about? I mean, I said I was sorry. What more do you want?”
When “I’m sorry” is heard as “Shut up,” you know you’re in trouble.
So next time we’ll explore the world of apologizing and saying you’re sorry and how to make that lead to real letting go and something like true forgiveness.
Meanwhile, do check out our book I Love You but I Don’t Trust You for detailed help with issues from the past that are affecting your present.
For help with dealing with conflict of all kinds, you should check out Why Couples Fight. You’ll be glad you did.