6 Reasons Some People Hurt the Ones They Love

...and what you can do if you're on the receiving end.

Posted Aug 10, 2020

It’s impossible to go through life without causing hurt to those people we love. We may have to do this for their own good—for instance, when we need to be firm with a child who we believe is engaged in destructive behaviours. We may inflict pain on another person when we need to do what is right for us, such as leaving a relationship.

Most of us feel bad about inflicting hurt and might stay in situations way too long for fear of hurting our loved ones. But some people go through life causing a great deal of hurt to other people, including romantic partners and even their own children. They might fall under the label of narcissistic or borderline personality types. But putting the labels to one side for a bit, why do people repeatedly hurt other people in this way?

1. Low empathy.

Some people have low empathy for others. They have a hard time “walking in someone else’s shoes” and cannot see other people’s perspectives. They’re actually unaware of the hurt they cause other people and don’t know that it’s thoughtless to not follow up a call regarding a sick relative or that being flaky when it comes to meeting up causes deep hurt. Things that might hurt you might not hurt them and they have a hard problem identifying with alternative experiences.

When you’re on the receiving end of this with someone close, it can be unbelievably frustrating. The good news? If it really does come down to a lack of understanding instead of maliciousness—and your partner is willing to change—you can work on ways to improve communication and set ground rules for what is and what is not acceptable behaviour on their part. 

2. Self-dislike.

When people don’t like themselves—no matter how good of a front they put on—they are likely to project this self-dislike onto others. Particularly if this self-dislike stems from abusive behaviour which they have experienced in their past, they will engage in hurtful behaviours towards those people they love—replicating their own lived experiences. They may be driven by a desire to hurt you in the same way they have been hurt, to bring you down and cause you pain in the same ways they have experienced it.

If you are with someone who is driven to cause hurt because of self-dislike—and you want to stay with them—they must get help for their own issues. If they don’t get this help, they’ll keep on repeating the same patterns.

3. Low self-esteem.

When people place a low value on themselves—which is essentially what low self-esteem is—they may be unaware of how hurtful their actions are to other people. Let’s say it’s your turn to host your mother for Christmas and it’s important to you and your family to do so. Your mother, however, doesn’t value herself and doesn’t know how important it is so she makes arrangements to visit your sister for the third time in a row. Your mother’s low self-esteem means that she has a very different perspective from you on how important her presence is and causes you deep hurt in the process.

If you suspect that your loved one doesn’t place a high value on themselves, you can at least demonstrate to them how important they are to you. Don’t assume that they know that.

4. They have an agenda.

Often, people hurt others unintentionally—but sometimes, people deliberately set out to hurt others. If your partner puts you down in front of others, it may make her feel superior. If she criticises you, name calls, or puts down your achievements, it may make her feel like she has power within the relationship. He or she may want you to be in a weakened position so that he or she can become dominant within the relationship and create a power imbalance which is in their favour. Hurting others can be part of a strategy to weaken you.

If you become aware that your partner is engaging in these types of behaviours, it is important to raise these issues with your partner and to ask them to seek help. You should also seek help for yourself and may have to consider leaving the relationship.

5. They enjoy inflicting pain on others.

Some people enjoy the process of hurting other people. Again, this usually stems from a deeply disturbed and potentially abusive childhood. They may be acting out things which have taken place in their own life—this time with them as the abuser—and may experience a thrill from hurting you. Inflicting pain on you may be a distraction from their own pain, a way of "getting even" for things which have happened to them and a way to feel something deeply in a way which makes sense to them, given their past experiences. Tied into gaining control and weakening you, inflicting hurt can feel like a heady experience.

As above, if you’re in a relationship with someone like this, your partner needs help and you need to consider leaving.

6. They attracted you because you’re easily hurt.

This can be a hard pill to swallow, but we don’t choose people by accident. Subconsciously, we choose people who fit in with our unconscious understanding of their world—and if your partner is someone who inflicts hurt on other people for all the above reasons, they may have chosen you because they see you as someone who will respond appropriately to their behaviour. Just as your partner might repeatedly attract people who he can hurt, you might be attracted to relationships in which you are hurt. If you grew up with a parent who was abusive towards you, whether emotionally or physically, you may be attracted to a partner who acts in the same way.

Someone can only be hurtful to you if you’re prepared to play your part. If you have a history of being in relationships where someone intentionally hurts you, you should seek out help for your own issues.

Nobody deserves to be in a relationship with someone who hurts you. If their actions are coming from a place of low empathy or low self-esteem, you may be able to work with them—as long as they accept responsibility for their actions and are willing to change. Working with someone who enjoys inflicting pain and who hurts you as a means to gain control can be far more challenging and you should ensure that you receive the help and support you need in making decisions about whether to remain in this type of relationship.