Relationships have a tremendous capacity to heal. They also have a tremendous capacity to hurt. The old adage, “Hurt people hurt people,” is never more true than when we are dealing with close personal relationships.
What Successful Couples Do and Where They Fail
When couples engage with one another, there are many factors that come together to contribute to successful communication and shared understanding.
The first factor is empathy. Can my partner see my perspective? Can he or she understand within my frame of reference how I am viewing the problem?
The second factor is validation. Can my partner validate my perspective? Your partner doesn’t have to agree with you, but with his or her understanding comes some form of affirming communication that says, “Yes I get where you are coming from.”
The final factor is the emotional regulation of the couple. How do they manage the emotions between them? How do they stay within an optimal range of emotion that allows them to stay engaged in the conversation without needing a time out, or without escalating to the point of anger and frustration?
If these elements are successfully managed, then the couple is usually able to resolve most issues on their own with creative solutions to problems. If they can’t manage these things successfully, then they usually end up in a therapist’s office.
When one partner struggles to express empathy and validation and becomes frequently emotionally dysregulated (e.g., behaves angrily, defensively, critically, or shuts down), then there is a block in that partner’s ability to stay engaged in the conversation without escalation. What is it that may cause a partner to struggle with these essential relationship qualities? The answer is past hurts.
I often tell my couples, the depth of connection between couples is directly proportional to the depth of vulnerability each partner is willing to show. Past hurts that have not been worked through create a barrier to how deeply a couple can connect and create cycles that cause disruption and distress.
Past hurts are like scars on our hearts, and when someone or something gets too close to the pain of the scar, we protect it with all we have. We can become angry and defensive, and we move into a fight or flight mode that pushes away the very things we want the most – love, acceptance, and understanding. We want our partner to see our hurt, but our tendency to self-protect keeps it hidden, for fear we may get hurt again.
The courage it takes to make ourselves vulnerable, to open ourselves up to our hurt and pain and show it to our partner, can feel like too great a risk to take. So we push down the pain, hiding it from the world (and especially from the one person we want to love us the most), for fear we will be judged or be made to feel weak or simply not good enough.
The Cost of Past Hurts
Past hurts can be like a double edged sword. First, we become jaded to others’ intentions, and we shrink ever so slightly from the world.
Secondly, we blame ourselves, telling ourselves, “If I had been smarter, stronger and wiser, then this never would have happened.”
We judge and blame ourselves for the hurt that others caused in an effort to make sense of what happened.
These past hurts, whether they are rejection and abandonment from a parent, infidelity by a former lover, or physical, emotional or mental abuse, create a hardening of the heart that locks away our most cherished asset as a human being – our capacity to love and be loved. They block our ability to hear others’ perspectives and prevent us from creating a deeper connection with our partner that elevates our own character and sense of well-being. Consequently, we believe the lie that the person who is supposed to love us the most is not there for us and is untrustworthy…and that the only protection is to hide parts of ourselves that others will never understand.
The problem is that as much as we try to hide past hurts, they end up showing their ugliness when we least expect it. We get triggered by something our partner said and end up ruining a perfectly good date night. We shut down for days and don’t talk to our partner because we can’t find the right words to express our feelings; or just as significantly, we’re not even sure what we’re feeling. We find ourselves expressing anger in order to hide the hurt. All of these behaviors can be symptoms of past hurts.
Overcoming Past Hurts
How do we help ourselves to show more vulnerability to our partner so that we can deepen our connection? How do we prevent our past hurts from showing up in our current relationships? We start by first understanding the triggers, then naming the specific trigger, followed by allowing compassion and empathy for the self.
1. Recognizing Triggers
In some people the trigger is a deep sense of rejection: Never feeling good enough for a parent or partner, or always feeling like you don’t measure up and that you always fall short.
Another trigger is a sense of abandonment: Being left in a time of need, feeling no one is there for you to reflect back your hurt, pain and suffering in crucial moments of your life when you need someone the most.
These are perhaps two of the most common triggers for people, but there are certainly others, like grief over the loss of a loved one.
Perhaps the most impactful is the trauma of emotional, physical, and mental abuse by a parent or partner. This creates a conflict inside the victim, where the very people that are supposed to make you safe are also the very people that hurt you. As a child this becomes especially problematic in later adult relationships because at the core is a lack of trust in others. People with traumatic backgrounds find themselves caught between wanting to be loved by their partner, but not able to internalize the love because their brain is always on guard for potential threats.
Acknowledging a trigger is a matter of self-reflection and being able to hold the hurt long enough to recognize its source and meaning. Usually a feeling develops so quickly in a moment of being triggered that we act on it without processing it. This is, in part, why we call them triggers. They are unconscious, unreflected reactions to emotions that come from a part of the brain whose job it is to protect us.
Being curious about the feeling, slowing down our reactions, and even being able to walk back our reactions, can all contribute to a better understanding of what just happened in that moment. Most importantly, understanding a trigger is not about pointing the finger at what someone else said or did. It is about recognizing how it affected us and our reaction to the other person, regardless of their behavior.
2. Naming the Specific Trigger
After we have been able to reflect on what happened and are able to look inside ourselves, then we need to be able to name the feeling and meaning behind it. Being abandoned brings up sadness, anger and sometimes resentment of not being good enough.
Recognizing that what we felt was a sense of lacking in another's eyes, or not being good enough, we are then positioned to make sense of it. Understanding where the trigger comes from historically, and why you might have experienced certain feelings in a particular moment, is a way of training your brain to be less reactive and to regulate your triggers better.
3. Putting the Pain & Hurt in Perspective
The final step in regulating your triggers or past hurts is having compassion on yourself. Once you understand why you got defensive, and why you might have lashed out at your partner, then you are in a position to give yourself permission to be hurt and acknowledge that the hurt comes from a place and time where you might not have had any control over the situation. You certainly didn’t deserve to be mistreated, abandoned, rejected, or abused - no one does. You deserved better, and whatever mistreatment others did to you in the past says more about their lack of empathy and compassion than it does about you.
Healing from past hurts is an evolving process. These three steps are a good start in healing your past pain. Repeated over time, you will begin to understand why you react emotionally to certain words, tones of voice, or behaviors. You will begin to hold those emotional responses longer to search their meanings and their sources. Finally, when you experience these triggers and emotional responses, you will begin to have a related thought: “I know where this comes from and it’s okay to feel this way.”
Then you can take the most courageous step of all by communicating with your partner about your feelings and what triggered them. This creates a vulnerable moment, and though it takes a great deal of courage to share it, this kind of courage can get a response from your partner that helps heal your hurt. You will provide your partner the opportunity to turn to you and say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that hurt you. I’m here for you, and I want to help you through this.” That kind of healing can only happen when we risk the vulnerability of exposing our hurt. The reward is deeper connection with our loved ones.
- Tom Philp, LPC, CEO
Stonebridge Couples Therapy