When we openly and deliberately invite another human being into an intimate relationship with us, we explicitly, or more often implicitly, exchange vows to be gentle, kind, and caring with each other’s vulnerable hearts. I often say that if we are not ready to take that vow, and live it with seriousness and determination, then we have no business inviting anyone into an intimate relationship with us.
That being said, even when we do our best to live this vow of gentleness, we still inevitably hurt each other’s feelings on a regular basis. Which means that each of us will inevitably and regularly feel the sting and pain of being vulnerable.
If you want to cultivate a deeply intimate relationship, then you have to learn how to move gracefully when swimming in a sea of pain.
That might sound dramatic, and I am explicitly not talking about the toxic realm of interpersonal violence and psychological abuse. However, I am talking about our lived experience of feeling the pain of being stung by something our intimate partner has done.
Intimacy between partners is rooted in our shared vulnerability. The more open hearted we can be with our vulnerability, and the more compassionately and skillfully we can hold our partner’s vulnerability, the deeper the realms of intimacy we will experience. Intimacy feels like love, trust, and safety, but it also, always, feels exquisitely vulnerable.
And here is something, as a couple therapist, that I have noticed to be an inescapable truth of living an intimate relationship. It always, always, hurts us when we hurt our partners. And we most often react to the hurt of hurting our partners by becoming defensive, rather than by soothing the hurt that we have caused.
If I do something, even something small, that stings my partner, say I reply grumpily to a question that she’s asked or make a joke that actually ends up hurting her feelings, I can tell right away that she is hurt. And this is the part that’s interesting – I feel pain myself at the same moment I realize that she is hurt.
We have exchanged ows.
And I think this happens every time that one of us accidentally hurts the other. Whenever there is a perceptible “ow”, it is met simultaneously by the other’s “ow”.
“Ows” seem to always come in pairs.
But, here’s the thing, regardless of whether I intended to or not, I have done something that has hurt my partner’s feelings, and it is my responsibility to attend to and soothe the hurt that has arisen. However, my pain often prevents me from doing so. I feel the sting of having stung my partner, and now I am reacting to my own pain rather than to the pain of my partner. I become defensive and argue that I didn’t mean to hurt her. I was just grumpy about something else or I was just making a joke. Or, maybe I get frustrated with her for being hurt by something that I didn’t intend to be hurtful. After all, I’m a really sweet guy, and she should know that I would never do anything intentionally to hurt her. Why don’t I ever get the benefit of the doubt? Why does she have to be so sensitive?
But, we are sensitive, both of us. Another word for sensitive is vulnerable. And we need vulnerability, if we are going to have intimacy. It cannot be any other way. And the arising of hurt is not always, maybe not even often, rational and defensible. We cannot expect ourselves to only feel hurt when it makes total and perfect sense that we feel hurt. As human beings, we just don’t operate that way. Something happens and suddenly we feel hurt – real pain – and it might not make any defensible sense, but it’s still absolutely and undeniably present and in need of care. We don’t consciously choose to feel hurt. It just happens. Sometimes we can tell a story about why something hurt our feelings, and sometimes we can’t. Being a vulnerable human being is kind of mysterious that way. So, my partner’s feelings are hurt, and maybe it doesn’t make sense, but it doesn’t have to make sense. It just is. Or, my feelings are suddenly hurting, and it doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t have to make sense. But I am definitely feeling it and I could definitely use some loving care right about now. This is what it’s like to be human.
And here is the real problem in these moments of exchanging ows. By becoming consumed in my own upset, I fail to respond gently, kindly, and caringly to hers. I directly or indirectly invalidate her pain by arguing that she shouldn’t feel it, or by ignoring it, or by claiming no responsibility for it. And that lack of compassionate response only adds injury to injury.
And here is the opportunity for the practice of intimacy. The practice of intimacy is rooted in how each of us holds these moments of our own discomfort so that we can respond with skill and compassion right from in the middle of it. If we can practice noticing our own hurt and pain at having caused our partner hurt and pain, just noticing it, breathing into it, allowing it without judgment, then we are just a little bit better able to respond, rather than react; better able to tend to our partner’s hurt, rather than defend our own actions. We can acknowledge the hurt that we have caused, however innocently, validate the obvious truth that our partner is feeling pain (whether it makes rational sense or not), express our regret, and try to learn from the experience how to take even better care of each other’s tender hearts in the future. Vow and repent. Vow and repent. Vow and repent.
This is how we cultivate intimacy rather than callousness, softness rather than coldness, closeness rather than distance.
So, I make a joke and it inadvertently hurts my partners feelings. I can feel her go quiet and immediately realize what has happened. Ugh. Now I feel badly and I was just having fun. I can feel the discomfort arising in my body, feel the constriction, and hear the patterned thoughts of self-defensiveness. I know these thoughts and feelings well. I breathe into them, opening my heart and allowing them to just be. I’m uncomfortable and I make compassionate room for that discomfort. Then, I turn to my partner, and acknowledge what has happened. “Oh, Sweetie, I hurt your feelings. I’m so sorry. Ugh. I feel bad that I stung you. I love you. Are you okay? Can you help me understand what happened, so I can be more careful in the future?”
And, of course, the example often happens in reverse. My partner inadvertently does something that hurts my feelings, can immediately tell that I am hurt, and herself experiences her own pain in that moment of feeling my pain. Her own opportunity for the practice of intimacy. As we say, intimacy is not for the faint of heart. But intimacy is the path of health, freedom, connection, and real love.
And, again, more often than not, the things that cause us hurt are just small things. But they still sting, don’t they? And we still have to deal with them as partners. And how we deal with them can make or break the quality of our intimate connection.
Too many couples respond to these little injuries by ignoring them or dismissing them, and by doing so, they create little bits of emotional distance between them that slowly accumulate over the weeks, and months, and years, until they are just living at some remove from each other. Close, but not too close. Or, maybe, not close at all.
So, what’s the bottom line? I think it is to notice in ourselves that when we have done something that has hurt our partner, we too feel the hurt of it. That we are called on by the practice of intimacy to hold our own pain with compassion, while we compassionately attend to the pain that we have caused to our beloved. That if we can take up this practice, our intimacy will thrive and deepen, and we will be both grow courageous in the midst of our vulnerability.