We all say hurtful things from time to time. Sometimes we lash out from anger, saying mean things on purpose with the intent to hurt. Sometimes we just don’t think before we speak. We do not mean to cause hurt. But it is easy to forget to use empathy, which tells us to be aware of the impact we are having on the person with whom we are communicating. When we say things without thinking, we sometimes inadvertently cause pain.
When someone hurts my feelings, I find it helpful to question the intention of the one who hurt me. I ask myself, “What do I think was his or her intent?”
For example, Richard was irate with Rena, his girlfriend of three years, for not adhering to their budget. They had agreed on a monthly spending limit and Rena exceeded it. Rena saw a pair of jeans she wanted and impulsively bought them. When one person makes a promise and then breaks it, it can start a fight in any relationship.
So what happens next? Rena and Richard are at a crossroads. They may or may not have a huge fight.
Here’s a brief example of the type of conversation that leads to a rift:
Richard: You did what??? You’re such a jerk. How can you be so inconsiderate? Now what are we going to do if we can’t make rent this month? I don’t think this relationship is working.
Rena (feeling totally attacked): Well, you’re a jerk, too! You never help me around the house. I take care of everything around here. Maybe this relationship isn’t working!
They both storm away feeling angry and miserable.
And here’s a conversation where intent is considered and anger is skillfully managed:
Richard: Give me a minute to calm down and then we’ll talk.
Richard breathes. He takes a walk outside to cool his emotions. After the storm inside calms down a bit, he wonders to himself why Rena would do this. He thinks about Rena’s intent. Did Rena do this to hurt him? No. Then why?
Anger now calmed, Richard’s curiosity kicks in. He returns home ready to talk calmly. Richard starts a conversation from a place of curiosity and a willingness to understand so long as Rena is honest with him.
Richard: I don’t understand what you were thinking, Rena. Can you explain?
Rena: I’m so sorry, Richard. I was feeling low and I just impulsively reached for something to cheer me up. You’ve heard of retail therapy? I’ll work extra hours to pay for them.
Richard: I’d appreciate that, Rena. Next time you’re feeling down, call me at work. I’m here for you.
A Conscious Decision to be Constructive
I am not a fighter. I like having peaceful and loving relationships when possible. As a student of emotion science, I’ve learned that emotions pull for very specific reactions, impulses, and behaviors. When we react from an emotional place, we are by definition not being levelheaded. That is because in an emotional moment, we lose balance.
It is best not to start conversations or make important decisions until our emotions have calmed and our “thinking brain” is more in charge. An emotional reaction to an already tense situation has great power to be destructive. In contrast, when we calm down, the chances are better that we’ll solve problems constructively.
Conversation 1 above is destructive. In this example, Richard allowed his anger to dictate his reaction. Richard’s anger predictably led to Rena’s anger and withdrawal.
Rena also had the opportunity to take the high road and manage her reaction constructively. If one person loses his or her temper, the other has an opportunity to turn the conversation around by suggesting they both calm down before they resume a conversation. Calming emotions and questioning intent prevents fights from escalating unnecessarily.
Conversation 2 is constructive. Even though Rena started the conflict with her “bad behavior,” Richard chooses to take the high road. We all know how easy it is to indulge the fight impulse. Richard exerts strength and energy to stay cool, thoughtful and nonreactive.
Thinking about the other’s intent doesn’t mean you condone their hurtful or bad behaviors. But fighting never solves anything. You can respond in a way to solve a problem or, alternatively, devolve together into more hurtful and destructive places. Which sounds better to you?
Erupting into anger, taking a hurtful jab (metaphorically) or giving someone the silent treatment provides momentary relief because you act out your anger, discharging the energy from inside your body. But once the fight is over, and you and your loved one have retreated into your proverbial corners, often the immediate pleasure of punching back is replaced by self-punishment, sadness, fear, regret, loneliness, and anxiety.
Questioning intent before you fight can help resist the biological pull to react from an angry place. If someone hurts you on purpose, anger is important for setting limits and boundaries. It is not OK to hurt others on purpose. More often in close relationships, we don’t mean to hurt each other. Most likely the needs and wants of each partner have come into conflict. And negotiating conflicting wants and needs is always hard and at times very painful.
Calming anger by thinking about whether your partner intended to hurt you will benefit you. Pausing to think before saying something requires self-control in the short run but long-term results will prove very satisfying.
Angry couple photo available from Shutterstock