First Things First
If your best friend reaches across the table for the salt and pokes you in the eye, does your eye hurt any less because it was an accident? Are you more likely to yell “OW!” or to say “WHY did you do that?!” Sure, you might say something a lot stronger than “OW!” because, well, your eyeball hurts. Anger is normal. We may even have an impulse for justice in the form of wanting to poke right back, although I wouldn’t recommend it.
But ultimately, what we want most when poked in the eye is immediate sympathy. The pain comes first, and pain tends to command your attention. It’s hard to focus on anything else but the injury at first. An apology would be nice too. We would want to know that the eye-poker is sorry. But first and foremost we are focused on the poked eye.
It’s unlikely that the friend would spend much time arguing with you that your eye shouldn’t hurt. That wouldn’t make sense. Clearly an accident has happened and you have been hurt. This friend would more likely just sit there, sheepishly, apologizing, and waiting an appropriate amount of time before guiltily salting their food.
Not Much Need For Explanation
In this scenario, once you feel better, you might have some interest in how it happened. Maybe. After all, you don’t want it to happen again, if at all possible. But you pretty much take for granted that your friend didn’t mean it. Why would you have a friend who intentionally hurts you? So the explanation might be mildly helpful but not all that important.
Forgiveness will probably be swift, and the rest of the meal would be spent with you holding your eye and lamenting the accident. Later, you might both share a laugh or a look each time one of you reaches for the salt or pepper shaker. It could be an inside joke forever. Certainly no hard feelings will make it a sore subject down the road.
Emotional Pain Is No Different
When someone hurts us emotionally, the same logic applies. In most cases, we hurt each other unintentionally. Worse, we often hurt each other despite truly wanting to be kind. Without conducting a major multinational survey, I’m going to suggest that at least 95% of the time, emotional hurts are completely accidental. (The other 4% comes as “retaliation” for perceived attacks, and 1% are from people we should avoid at all costs).
For instance, let’s say a husband comes home late on a Friday , looking forward to his plans to go out with his wife. In this case, let’s say it’s been a hard day and he was wrapping up some important work, so he’s an hour later than expected. Imagine she’s been looking forward to a night out all week, and sees his lateness as a sign that he doesn’t care about her. She might feel hurt or afraid that their relationship is unimportant to him. Maybe this is a recurring sore spot with her, because she often fears she’s unimportant to him. So when he walks in the door, she is already mad. She tells him she’s angry (because people often hide the “hurt” part or don’t even know it matters).
This Is Where It Goes Wrong
Very quickly these two people are likely to fall into a pattern that hijacks relationships all the time. Instead of saying “I’m hurt that you are so late,” she is more likely to say “WHY weren’t you home an hour ago?” She might also throw in some criticism, like calling him unreliable or worse. And, right on cue, when asked “why?,” he is likely to start explaining and defending himself against her anger.
What’s the point?
The problem is, her original hurt feelings are unlikely to be addressed. What she really needs, deep down, is confirmation that she is important to him. She needs him to know she got scared that she might be unimportant to him. That way, he might understand and care. If she just criticizes or questions, this won’t happen. Instead of understanding her, he’s probably getting the impression that she doesn’t understand him. He’s probably feeling attacked, and seeing her as unreasonable and hypercritical.
Too often during arguments, wayyyyy too much time is spent dissecting the “why” of it all, and completely leaving out the most important stuff. The quicker the focus can be put on the pain, with no judgment, the quicker it starts to feel better. No amount of defending or explaining can ever feel as good as plain old sympathy and caring. Yes, it’s VERY hard to be caring when you feel unjustly blamed. But if you can show curiosity when someone is upset with you, you will almost always get to know that person better. And you can show them that you care when they’re hurt.
The Way Forward
Ideally, when we are hurt we say so. But even when it’s as obvious as getting an eye poke, we are usually hard wired to get mad first. The trick is in starting to approach every perceived injury as if it’s as real as a physical injury, because it is.
Try this: the next time anyone has a complaint, don’t defend yourself. Defending is just rubbing salt in the wound. See what happens if you get curious, and ask about what hurts and why. Reserve judgment, and simply express how much you care. Acknowledge that even if you have an explanation, it doesn’t mean the other person’s pain doesn’t make sense.
Even better, next time you’re the one who’s hurt, try to just say “ouch.” And acknowledge the possibility that the other person, while guilty, didn’t mean it.
Margie Wheelhouse is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She provides couples and individual counseling in her office in Springfield, Illinois, and throughout the state by phone and web. She helps couples build great relationships and repair broken ones.