One of the most common (and most frustrating) relationship dynamics that we hear about is couples who feel emotionally wounded by each other on a regular basis. They both love each other, and want to stay together, yet they keep hurting each other through verbal abuse, physical rejection, taking each other for granted, betraying emotional trust, or bringing up the most vulnerable topics from their partner’s past. This is a such a common phenomenon that it became the focus of the famous 1944 song by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher, “You Always Hurt the One You Love”, with this bizarre last line: “So if I broke your heart last night, it’s because I love you most of all.” Huh? That’s clearly not love.
Why do we do this? We hurt the one we love for several reasons:
1) Unconscious re-creation of emotional trauma – we all experience various degrees of emotional hurt and trauma growing up. Unfortunately, we form part of our identities around whatever we experience, be it love, distance, drama, or verbal or physical abuse. As adults, we may feel most alive or most like ourselves when we are feeling the same way we did as children, and so we may do things unconsciously to get our partner to trigger those feelings. For example, a person who grew up with a lot of distance may feel uncomfortable with closeness, and may sabotage it by picking fights or avoiding intimacy. Or a person who grew up in a chaotic, dramatic home may be uncomfortable with harmony and quiet and always seem to trigger chaos or drama in their relationships.
Also, as adults, our fantasy is that we will find a person who will finally give us the love we never got as children. If we can’t get the love from our original parent or caretaker, the next best thing is to get the love from someone who has a very similar personality to the person we originally feel wounded by. We’ll generally feel a lot of attraction, chemistry and intensity in our love with such adult partners, due to the interlocking nature of our emotional baggage.
But what we may not realize though, is that this person that we fall in love has the perfect tools and personality to emotionally re-create our childhood hurts. After the initial infatuation wears off and we are in a deeper, committed relationship, their fears (and ours) often get activated. And when they get afraid, they will strike out in exactly the same way that our parents or caretakers did. The result? We get wounded again. Only now it’s worse, because the very person who we hoped could give us the love we never got, is hurting us. Not because they ‘love us most of all’, but because they are unaware of their own unconscious defenses.
2) We lack the knowledge and skills of how to communicate our feelings constructively – many people may realize how they hurt their partners, and feel like they want to change that behavior, but simply not know how to change, or how to communicate what they are feeling in a constructive manner. Our culture does very little to teach us how to relate to our own feelings, and how to communicate those feelings to others in a safe, healthy way. Men especially may feel uncomfortable dealing with feelings of fear or vulnerability and may feel safer expressing anger or control when they are really scared.
So what can we do to stop hurting the one we love? We all have to take responsibility for getting clear and resolving our own emotional hurts from the past. We need to learn how to make it safe for our partners to express how they feel. We need to learn how to create a loving presence where we genuinely listen and validate our partners’ experience. We need to learn how to express feelings in ways that bring us closer, not in ways that create more distance and hurt. We may need to do some work together to understand how and why we trigger each other to lash out in hurtful and destructive ways. We need to respect the fact that in an intimate committed relationship, we have access to the most private and vulnerable aspects of each other’s lives. We need to treat that as a sacred privilege that we relate to with the utmost respect, not as an entitlement to trample upon for our own ego gratification.
We are all on a journey of awakening, and intimate relationships provide us with a powerful opportunity to see ourselves and our psychological and spiritual lessons more clearly. We can hide from ourselves, from our therapists, from our bodies, from our spiritual teachers and from our friends, but we cannot hide from the one we love and who loves us. All of our stuff will eventually come to light through this mysterious and wonderful process we call love. And when it does, we can choose to defend, judge, attack and run away. Or we can choose to be present, to look inside with acceptance and love for ourselves, and to feel gratitude that this aspect of ourselves has revealed itself. Then can we clearly see that any part of ourselves that hurts others is simply a part of ourselves that needs more love. From this perspective, we hurt the one we love so that we can learn to love ourselves and others more unconditionally, more deeply, and more completely. And by loving and healing ourselves, we ultimately heal our partners’ wounds as well, because we make it safer for them to fully be who they are, and to experience the deeper Oneness and magic that only love can bring to our lives.