Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why We Keep Hurting the Ones We Love

The connection of emotional pain and anger blurs judgment and obscures values.

Key points

  • Two principles explain how painful conflicts tend to increase over time, regardless of the personalities involved.
  • The focusing illusion and the pain-processing hierarchy can lead to enormous distress in love relationships.
  • We must focus more on the effects of behavior and less on conscious intentions.
  • We must develop conditioned responses to equate our own pain with that of our partners.

"You always hurt the one you love / The one you shouldn't hurt at all" —1944 song lyric by Alan Roberts and Doris Fisher

Two important principles can help us understand how painful conflict in love relationships tends to increase over time, regardless of the personalities involved:

  • The focusing illusion
  • Pain processing hierarchy

The Focusing Illusion

Coined by Daniel Kahneman, the focusing illusion holds that people tend to focus on one aspect of their lives, ignoring other aspects. Mental focus amplifies and magnifies; whatever we focus on becomes more important than what we don’t focus on. This presents a fundamental problem with complex issues such as hurtful interactions between intimate partners.

The salience of interactions in love relationships is determined by complex factors:

  • Implicit judgments (how the partners view each other)
  • Emotional arousal (what their bodies, facial expressions, and tone of voice display)
  • Conscious intentions (what they hope to do)
  • Overt behavior (what they do)
  • The effects of their behavior (how it makes each other feel).

In judging their own behavior, partners focus on their conscious intentions and minimize the effects on each other. They imply, if not state outright:

“I didn’t mean to hurt or insult you, so you have no right to be hurt or insulted. There’s something wrong with you for being hurt or insulted.”

Neither partner is aware of their implicit judgments of each other (for example, insensitive, controlling, lazy, selfish), their emotional display (approach, avoid, attack), or the effects of their behavior. All the above diverge from conscious intention in conflictive exchanges. The focusing illusion makes partners judge each other’s behavior solely by how it makes them feel. We’re hypersensitive to our partner’s reactions but not what they’re reacting to. This makes us feel like powerless victims, which justifies escalating anger.

Pain-Processing Hierarchy

Intense aversive sensations override less intense ones. A bullet wound will make you forget your headache, and your headache will blur your perception of your partner’s stomachache. The emotional pain we feel is more salient than the pain we inflict. In an argument, the shame one partner feels, with its automatic anger response, dulls the perception of the partner’s anxiety and vice versa. The principle also applies to memory. After an argument with a loved one, you’ll painfully remember the worst thing your partner said or did but not what you said or did immediately before it.

The focusing illusion and the principle of the pain-processing hierarchy explain why partners recounting arguments sound like they were in altogether different interactions. They explain why partners cannot see each other’s perspectives, which leads them to assume the worst about each other’s intentions. Culturally, they explain the epidemic of articles on gaslighting and narcissism, which can inspire self-fulfilling prophecies and aggravate emotional wounds rather than reconcile differences in focus and experience.

Pain and Anger

Anger is a natural response to pain, probably because it has temporary analgesic and amphetamine effects—it numbs pain and gives a surge of energy. If you bang your thumb with a hammer while hanging a picture, your initial response is not prayer or meditation.

Despite the transitory gain in energy and pain relief, anger rarely improves things. Displays of anger in love relationships may get compliance or submission, not willing cooperation. Compliance and submission lead to resentment and growing hostility. To paraphrase a pioneering theoretician of affect, Silvan Tomkins, “Anger exists to make bad matters worse.”

I had a client who painfully bumped his knee on the edge of a coffee table. In anger, he punched the wall and broke his hand. The pain in his hand overrode the pain in his knee sufficiently to enter his procedural memory as a conditioned response—another instance of the pain-processing hierarchy. On autopilot, he will do something other than punch the wall the next time he’s hurt. He won’t have to think about not punching the wall when he’; he’ll he’ll automatically do something different.

That same client came to our boot camp for chronic resentment, anger, and emotional abuse. He was sincerely remorseful each time he verbally abused his wife, but remorse did not break the conditioned response between hurt (perceived insult) and aggression, as his broken hand had done. The conditioned sequence became perceived-insult-abuse-remorse. In other words, to see his wife, much less sympathize with her, she had to be visibly hurt. Of course, we tend to hide hurt beneath the flames of anger until the pain becomes too great to hide.

The new conditioned response he developed in treatment was to associate perceived insult with his wife’s hurt. (If she purposely insulted him, she was feeling hurt.) With practice, perceived insult triggered compassion, usually in the form of an offer to help.

The therapeutic work was to practice associating emotional discomfort with a motivation to improve, in this case, feel compassion for his wife. It took around 500 imaginations of that association (spread out over six weeks) to form the new conditioned response.

Although we barely addressed his perceptions of insult in treatment, the new conditioned response made him perceive far less disrespect; he had an increased tolerance for disagreement and wasn’t so easily insulted. Nothing strengthens the ego quite like improving a bad situation, and nothing weakens it more than making things worse.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today