Must I Get Hurt In Relationships?

Our emphasis should not be so much on avoiding pain but instead on repairing it.

Posted Mar 01, 2020

Benjamin Melville
Source: Benjamin Melville

So often in my office, I hear the sentence: “But I don’t want to be hurt.” This statement is usually offered as an explanation for why not to do something, try something, or risk something. But nowhere does it show up more frequently than in intimate relationships, such as when I’m doing couple’s therapy. Partner A doesn’t want to be vulnerable with Partner B for fear of getting hurt.

To which I inevitably reply, “Let me save you the suspense. You will hurt each other. You will be hurt by each other.”

What makes me say something so callous?

First of all, it’s empirical. I have never met a couple in a successful, healthy relationship (to say nothing of couples in unhealthy, dysfunctional relationships), where one doesn’t occasionally hurt the other. When I have seen couples assiduously avoid hurting each other, being polite or avoiding conflict, it inevitably looks like two roommates sharing a home. There is little if any spark or intimacy.

Second, I think the desire not to be hurt — as understandable emotionally as it is — comes from a very young place in us, where being hurt as a child was extremely painful and usually meant we didn’t have any recourse but to take it. While this may have been adaptive in childhood, do you want to let an eight-year-old be in charge of your adult relationship?

Third, I think the idea that our partners should never hurt us is romantic claptrap. Who but our partners, who know us the best, can tell us things we may not want to hear?  Such messages often hurt.

Fourth, hurt and pain, when experienced in a loving and committed relationship, can open us up to a deeper truth than we were able to experience before. So long as we are comfortable, there is little motivation and less ability to experience a broader version of reality. You can see this in some people who are economically insulated from the problems of the world — they often lack compassion for those who are different from them. There is a kind of complacent arrogance that comes with comfort and safety: “If my life works, why doesn’t yours?”

Fifth and finally, the problem isn’t so much in the hurting of our partner, it’s in how we repair it.  I could make a strong case that it is through hurting, being hurt, and repairing those hurts that real intimacy and safety is created  If I know that you will take responsibility for your side when you overstep in words or deed, I will trust you more fully, more deeply as we walk through life. So I believe the emphasis should not be on avoiding hurt but on how best to repair it when it occurs.