Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
I talk with a lot of couples about their relationship. And I talk with clients one-on-one who also want to talk about their relationship.
Inevitably, we discuss hurt feelings. Pain that comes not so much from the big things they feel their partner has done to them, but more likely the little things. Little things that can, over time, have a big impact on their relationship. We also talk about the hurtful big and little things they have done to their partner.
I think that being diagnosed with a chronic condition introduces additional challenges in a relationship. Changes to the daily routine. The need for additional assistance. Financial challenges. And on and on. These challenges can lead to stress, not only for the individual living with the chronic condition but also for their partner.
Stress in the home can leave you that much more vulnerable, more sensitive. Words and gestures that you might not even notice or acknowledge can be experienced as catastrophic when you, your partner, and your relationship are under stress.
And as you know, stress resulting from living with a chronic condition can accumulate over time. Leaving you even more sensitive.
This can become a cycle. Challenges from living with a chronic condition. Stress. Tension in your relationship. Feeling more vulnerable to words and actions from your partner. And hurt feelings. See what I mean?
Here are some of the causes of hurt feelings in a relationship.
Words. Sure, launching a verbal attack on your partner, tearing into them for past hurts and disappointments, criticizing the way they do or don’t do things, can result in hurt feelings. But so can flippant comments, sarcasm, underhanded comments. All leaving small wounds in their wake.
Actions. Doing something that you know will not be received well by your partner. Intentional actions, big and small, are often a way of expressing anger. And don’t forget about actions that are not so intentional, resulting from thoughtlessness. They can also result in hurt. Examples of intentional or unintentional actions include turning off the TV when the other person is still watching it, making something for dinner that your partner doesn’t like or can’t eat, or committing to an activity they can’t participate in.
Lack of action. It’s not only what you do, but what you don’t do, that can feel hurtful to your partner. Not following up on something you promised to do. Leaving them with all the chores. Forgetting a special occasion. Again, lack of action can be intentional or unintentional. It might be an expression of anger, or just the result of having too much on your mind. Either way, your partner may feel confused and hurt.
Expressions. We convey a lot through body language. Facial expressions like a simple roll of the eyes, a frown, or appearing to be bored say a lot about how you feel about your partner.
Body language. What you do with your body sends a message too. Like folding your arms, holding your hand up, or turning your head away when they are trying to talk to you. The simplest body language can leave your partner with hurt feelings.
What you can do instead
Don’t forget how the impact of little hurts accumulates over time. Lots of small hurts can add up to a very big hurt. That can impact the day-to-day harmony in your relationship in a big way. And as you know, and may have also experienced, tension in your relationship can also impact your physical and emotional wellness.
So, here are some ideas to help you avoid making your partner feel hurt and to help heal a hurt in your relationship:
Think. Or, as my mom used to say, use your head. Be aware of how your words and actions might affect your partner. You know their hot buttons.
Make kindness your daily goal. Keep in the front of your mind the intention of treating your partner with love and compassion. Doing so will help make acting out of kindness second nature to you—your default position.
Stay aware of your partner. How does your partner appear to be reacting to you? You know them pretty well, after all. What are the signs that tell you they are angry? Frustrated? Hurt? Keep your eyes and ears open to any indications they may have misunderstood something you innocently said or did. Or that they correctly understood any unkindness you may have shown them.
Hurting your partner hurts your relationship. And your wellness.
Be ready to apologize. If it is clear you have done something hurtful to your partner, apologize. As soon as possible. Be willing to humble yourself, even if you feel they did something to merit the way you behaved.
Be willing to forgive. A hurtful action can be the result of a bad day. It can be an oversight. Or it can be intended, but later regretted. Talk it out. Forgive, just as you hope to be forgiven when the ball is in your court.
Be intentional. Every day, perform an act of kindness toward your partner. A smile. A few words of kindness. Do something you know they will appreciate. This will set the tone for kindness in your home.
Focus on the benefit. Both you and your partner win when you are all about showing kindness and staying aware of what you can do to avoid causing hurt to your partner. The reward is harmony in your relationship. Keep this in mind during those times when you are itching to show how angry you are, or aren’t sure if you can quite bring yourself to apologize.
Ask for help. Sometimes you might not be sure what your partner needs from you to know that you are acting out of kindness and not trying to hurt them. Ask them. And if you don’t always recognize when you are acting in a hurtful manner, ask you partner to let you know when you are. It’s that easy.
Ask for more help. If you find that you are constantly hurting to your partner, in words or in deeds, or if your partner is hurting you, then it might be time to reach out to a mental health professional. A therapist or counselor could help you, or your partner, sort out what’s going on that is leading to the desire to cause pain. You might also consider couples counseling, to learn how to work together as a team and treat each other with kindness.
You, your partner, and hurt feelings. Nobody’s perfect, and sometimes we unintentionally, through words and actions, cause our partner to feel hurt. And when we hurt, it is only human to want to hurt back. But either way, you risk injury to your relationship. Make it your goal to avoid both the big things and the little things that can cause your partner to feel hurt, and to react quickly to patch things up when you need to. After all, we’re all in this together.
What helps you and your partner deal with hurt feelings? Share your thoughts by commenting below.