Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why We Hurt the Ones We Love, and Let Them Hurt Us

When you look in the mirror, whose image do you see?

Source: oliveromg/Shutterstock

For nearly three decades, I’ve worked with people who, in one way or another, have either betrayed loved ones or been betrayed. In recent years, both the frequency and types of betrayal have exploded in my practice and those of my colleagues. More people seem entitled to betray the trust of loved ones if “I feel like it,” or to “get my needs met.”

Betrayal in intimate relationships occurs when a partner lies, cheats, surreptitiously uses family finances, chronically criticizes, stonewalls, yells, or abuses. Each act violates the implicit promise that gives us the courage to love in the first place: No matter what happens, the person you love and trust will ...

  1. Care about your well-being.
  2. Never intentionally hurt you.

Why It Hurts So Bad

Love relationships are mirrors of the inner self. We learn how lovable we are and how valuable our love is to others only by interacting with the people we love. Young children never question the impressions of themselves reflected by caretakers and peers. They do not think that their critical, stressed-out mothers or their raging fathers are just having a bad time or trying to recover from their own difficult childhoods. Young children attribute negative reflections of themselves from significant others to their own inadequacy and unworthiness.

Suppose you had internalized your body image based on reflections from a funhouse mirror, which made your hips look a mile wide. You would think you were in deep trouble and that no diet could help. Once you've internalized such a negative image, you distrust even accurate mirrors.

People who are gaunt from eating disorders actually see themselves as fat when they look in a mirror that reflects little more than skin and bones. Even those who do not have eating disorders but who were told repeatedly as children that they were too thin are likely to see themselves as thin adults, despite mirror reflections that show a few extra pounds.

When it comes to physical appearance, at least we have lots of other mirrors to compare to the distorted funhouse reflection. But there are no reflections of love other than those we get from the people we love. If you judge how lovable you are based on reflections from someone who cannot love without hurt, you will have a necessarily distorted and inaccurate view of yourself.

The instinct to believe the information about the self that loved ones reflect weakens somewhat as we grow older, but it remains active throughout life. You would probably laugh—or at least not get angry—at a stranger who implied that you have green hair, but if your husband or wife says it, you're likely to run to a mirror. The default assumption is, if your partner is displeased, there must be something wrong with you, and you need anger or resentment for protection.

No matter how much we argue with loved ones about their criticisms and put-downs, we are likely to believe them, at least unconsciously. We might not agree with the particular flaw pointed out, but on some deep level, we'll perceive a defect that must be defended. Some part of us buys into the "blemishes" reflected in the mirror of love, even when we know intellectually that our loved one is distorting who we are. This hidden pressure explains why successful and powerful people are just as vulnerable as anyone else to the many forms of betrayal in their love relationships.

Of course, the mirror of love can also reflect good news. If you learn how lovable you are and how valuable your love is from compassionate caretakers, you will naturally have a more realistic view of yourself in love relationships. You'll be disappointed and saddened sometimes, but you will hardly ever feel inadequate, unworthy, or unlovable.

Just as important, when you feel sad or disappointed, you will know that you can do something to improve your emotional state, if not your situation. Your sadness will be short-lived—you may feel bad for a while, but then regroup and do something that will make you feel valuable once again.

The mirror of love generates energy when it reflects value and depletes energy when it doesn't.

The Betrayer’s Rationale: Blaming the Mirror

A distressed or misbehaving child can make us feel like failures as parents and thoroughly inadequate. A raging or rejecting parent can make a child feel powerless, inadequate, and unlovable. A distracted, demanding, or hostile lover can make us feel disregarded, devalued, and rejected. After working for thousands of hours with people trying to overcome painful relationship problems, I'm convinced that we use resentment and anger to punish loved ones, not so much for their behavior as for our painful reflections in the mirror of love. We want to attack the mirror because we don't like the reflection.

The only way out this morass is to stop viewing emotional pain as a punishment inflicted by someone else and learn to act on it as an internal motivation to heal, correct, and improve. This will lead to a deeper self-compassion and put us more in touch with our deepest values, which will, in turn, inspire more compassion for one another. You can love without hurt, but only if you use pain as a signal to heal and improve rather than punish.

All forms of intimate betrayal share a common fundamental motivation, whether the betrayer cheats, lies, abuses, steals, stonewalls, yells, or criticizes. That motivation, usually unconscious, is to gain a momentary feeling of empowerment from the adrenaline rush of violating deeper values like caring about the emotional well-being of loved ones. The rush makes them feel more alive, but only for as long as the adrenaline lasts. As the rush diminishes, self-doubt and depression emerge, creating an urge for more of the stimulant. Like all forms of stimulation, more and more of it is needed to produce the same effect. Betrayal, whatever form it takes, will likely increase in frequency and intensity over time, without intervention.

The way out—for betrayers and betrayed alike—is for each person to create more value and meaning in life. This is utterly necessary, whether or not a couple afflicted with betrayal decides to repair the damaged relationship. Trying to repair the relationship with open wounds of betrayal—or to build a new life apart from the relationship—is fruitless and ultimately dispiriting. If you feel betrayed, healing and growth begins with the realization that you are not damaged, but your relationship is. You must heal first and, if you so choose, attempt repair later.

You must heal first, to love and live fully.

Focus your emotional efforts on healing and growth; healthy relationships will follow.

See more information about free seminars on living and loving after betrayal.

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