Managing Feelings — 27 June 2004
How to reduce emotional hurts in relationships

Even in good and satisfying relationships people may occasionally experience feeling hurt by their partners’ words, action or inaction. It is important for couples to recognize their pattern of creating and managing hurtful feelings in order to reduce their occurrence and resume a comfortable connection.

A basic belief in relationships is that the partners are each other’s best friend and that all behaviors will honor that understanding. It is also assumed that kindness and consideration will underscore all interactions between the mates and about them with other people. Hurt feelings arise when these assumptions are not adhered to. When a partner feels disrespected, slighted, not considered, rejected, ignored, or minimized, he or she may feel betrayed by the spouse.

Not only can negative acts create hurt, but also the absence of anticipated positive behaviors can cause pain. Partners expect that they will be especially honored on their birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s or Father’s day, Christmas and on milestones of accomplishments in their lives.

It is also during illness, personal crisis or hardship that we desperately need our partners’ kind word, empathic response and practical assistance. When we are down, the tender and compassionate reactions of our partners matter the most. If they are not forthcoming, a deep disappointment and hurt may develop.

We need to have our personal uniqueness and worth affirmed by others regularly, to reinforce our own internal sense of self-esteem. Our mates are the ones from whom we need these affirmations the most. When we routinely receive positive regard, love and consideration, as well as special recognition at momentous occasions, we feel happy and loved.

The absence of the proper support and acknowledgement create hurt that is a blow to our sense of significance. People describe emotional hurt as a painful and crushing feeling. There is a sense of weakness and defeat as well as powerlessness in losing one’s esteem in the eyes of the beloved.

When a person feels hurt, he or she may react in various ways. Most commonly, people either: withdraw, respond in anger or feel vengeful and plan striking back later.

Since deep hurt is a disempowering emotion, the hurt person may feel defeated and stunned, and is incapable of reacting at the moment. As the basic trust has been temporarily shattered, the need to withdraw is paramount in the hurt person finding a measure of safety.

Anger is another reaction that comes to assist the hurt person summon some energy to defend himself. The use of this anger is often destructive.

The silent planning of retribution is a way to regain strength by deferring action to a time when the victim may be better able to avenge the blow he received.

Needless to say, none of these responses to hurt feelings are effective or healthy. They only initiate a new cycle of counter-hurt, withdrawal, anger and retaliation. Notice that the offender has not been informed of his hurtful behavior. What was said or done was not discussed. Therefore, the offending partner may end up being “punished” later for her actions without knowing that what she did was offensive.

In couples where one partner needs more attention and the other is less expressive, the “cycle of hurt” is common. The attention-seeking mate feels deprived and becomes vocal and demanding. The quiet partner feels attacked and withdraws which further deprives his mate of the desired recognition. These people may not be fully aware of the dynamics they create or how they can reverse the cycle of hurt and deprivation.

Other couples state “I don’t know why we end up hurting each other”. They are not ill intentioned people or unloving mates, but resort to attack and counter-attack in passive or active ways as means of self-defense.

Yet in other couples, one partner believes that the other one “always acts in a mean way”. Here too, the cause and intention are not understood. Why would a good and decent person act in an unkind way on a regular basis?

What must be clarified is that hurt feelings occur as a psychological alert so that the injured person can act to restore her dignity and respect. It is a very valuable emotion that can serve us well when we use it correctly.

When you experience hurt feelings about your partner’s behavior, please consider the following:

  • Hurt is an alert mechanism pointing out that your value is not recognized.
  • Tell your partner immediately that you feel hurt and question his or her intent.
  • Listen to the explanation with an open mind. Feeling hurt is not “proof” that ill intent was exercised.
  • If your partner sees the harm caused you and is remorseful, accept the apology and restore yourself to a loving mode.
  • Avoid attacks or harboring revenge, they only damage your health, your self-esteem and your relationship.
  • Remember that all people, including you, may inadvertently hurt others.
  • If you have hurt your mate, apologize and profess your determination not to repeat this behavior. Affirm your love and respect for your partner.
  • If you seek attention and do not receive enough of it, let your mate know exactly how he or she can make you feel cherished. If you are the silent one, attempt to be more verbal in your support and stay present for your spouse.
  • Remember that most often “mean” behavior is a response to feeling threatened – not an attempt to discount you. Ask your partner what caused discomfort for him, rather than assume that he has an unkind nature.
  • Having an open, honest and loving approach to your mate even when you are hurt helps repair the rift and honor both of you.

June 27, 2004

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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