"Why Did You Do This to Me?"
When something hurtful occurs in a relationship, I frequently hear one of the partners ask the other, “Why did you do this to me?” When in emotional pain, most people perceive the pain to have been intentionally inflicted. On occasion people do inflict intentional harm on others. I am not referring to those instances. If one finds themselves with someone who intentionally inflicts harm on others, one’s involvement with that person requires serious re-evaluation.
No, what is being referred to here are instances when we are harmed by someone we care about and who otherwise cares about us. The emotional pain people experience in these instances is immediate. And because it occurs in the context of a valued relationship, people perceive the harming act as intentional.
Interestingly, there is a neurological basis for people to attribute their emotional pain to an intentional act. The human brain has a near impossible task in distinguishing between emotional and physical pain. Both types of pain are processed neurologically in the same regions of the brain. In fact, in 2011, researchers examined how pain is processed in the brain through the use of functional MRI. The results suggest that as far as the brain is concerned, pain is pain. It doesn’t matter if one suffered an injury or a partner’s act was hurtful. As the LA Times reported at the time, “getting dumped, disrespected or excluded feels--literally--like pain, but a kind of pain whose physical source is not so evident.”
When something, anything, happens that is unexpected, human beings attempt to seek a cause that would explain their surprise, shock or pain. In other words, when we’ve been hurt, we seek to attribute our pain to a source. Whether that source is the burner we just touched or our partner. We seek a culprit. The suspect who committed the “crime” and who made us hurt intentionally. For example, have you ever stubbed your toe and then added insult to injury by punching the door jamb because, I don’t know, it got in my way? Well? Well if not, you’re eminently smarter than I.
So, what is to be done when our beloved has behaved poorly and their behavior has resulted in harm? After all, our pain is undeserved. We experience pain and ask “Why did you do this to me?” We can retaliate. That is, hurt him or her back. But, like punching a door jamb, retaliation almost always results in more harm by making circumstance worse. Besides, while children might retaliate, as adults we hopefully hold ourselves and others to higher standards than we might have for five year olds.
So, here are some thoughts about what you can do when your partner has hurt you. This is not an exhaustive list. It is only a start. Healing is a process. However, if the process is never started, we may never heal.
- Say, “OUCH!” If no one is made aware that we’ve been harmed by someone else’s action(s), then we remain at risk of getting hurt in a similar way over and over again.
- Be clear with your partner about exactly what happened (the action) that caused you harm.
- Convey how you feel about what happened. “What happened caused me to feel unimportant, disregarded, sad, etc.”
- Convey what you want from the other person as a result of the harm that was done.
Here is, what I believe to be the foundation of emotional pain in our intimate relationships. The harm occurs at the intersection of what we have and what we want. What we have in the nano second prior to being harmed was a sense of safety. What we want in the nano second following the injury is to be safe again. We owe it to ourselves and to our partner to not deny, minimize or otherwise ignore our pain. Doing so fails to heal the wound or otherwise repair the harm. And if left unattended, unacknowledged pain leaves the relationship at risk of more of the same in the long run.