Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


You Always Hurt the One You Love

How can one both love and hurt the same person?

Key points

  • In a survey of over 500 lovers, almost all of them assumed that passionate love is a bittersweet experience.
  • Children often hurt parents in order to express their independence. This behavior is also part of romantic love.
  • Although some kinds of hurt in love are intended, most of them are not.

"You always hurt the one you love, the one you should not hurt at all;
You always take the sweetest rose, and crush it till the petals fall;
You always break the kindest heart, with a hasty word you can't recall;
So if I broke your heart last night, it's because I love you most of all."
The Mills Brothers

It is easy to understand why someone who doesn't love another person might break the heart of this person—when we do not love those who love us, we are likely to hurt them. However, the above song refers to hurting the one we do love. How can one both love and hurt the same person?

Lovers can easily hurt the beloved without intending to do so. Because the lovers are so significant to each other, any innocent remark or action can be interpreted in a manner that the other person did not intend and hence be hurtful. For instance, someone might devote a lot of time to her work, thereby neglecting, and inadvertently hurting, her partner. The more time that two people spend together, the greater the likelihood that this will occur. Our beloveds hold great significance for us, and this makes these people a source of both great happiness and deep sadness; they can bring us great joy, but they can also hurt us deeply.

In situations in which we have nothing of value to lose, we seldom experience disappointment. In love, which involves our happiness and many of our most precious experiences, there is a great deal to lose. Hence, disappointment and frustration, and consequently hurt, are common. It has been said that completely blissful love does not exist. Indeed, in a survey of over 500 lovers, almost all of them assumed that passionate love is a bittersweet experience. Similarly, it has been found that people low in defensiveness have more experiences of love than do highly defensive people. To love is to make oneself vulnerable in ways that enhance the possibility of pain.

These and other considerations indicate how easily you can hurt the one you love without intending to do so. However, the explanation for deliberately hurting the person you love is far more complex. Certainly, one major factor in hurting the beloved deliberately is related to the central role that mutual dependency plays in love.

Mutual dependency may exist in inappropriate proportions: Lovers can consider their dependency on the partner to be too great or too little. Hurting the beloved may be one resort, usually the last one, which the lover takes to bring this dependency to its appropriate proportion. Mutual dependency has many advantages, stemming from the fact that two people are joined together in a relationship attempting to increase each other's happiness. However, a sense of independence is also important for people's self-esteem. Indeed, in a study of anger, the most common motive for its generation was to assert authority or independence or to improve self-image. Anger has been perceived as a useful means to strengthen or readjust a relationship.

This type of behavior is frequent in the child-parent relationship: Children often hurt parents in order to express their independence. This behavior is also part of romantic love in which mutual dependence may threaten each partner's independence. Sometimes lovers hurt their beloved in order to show their independence. Other times, however, hurting the beloved expresses an opposite wish: the lover's wish for more dependency and attention. Indeed, a common complaint of married women, far more than of married men, is that their partners do not spend enough time with them.

By hurting the beloved, the lover wishes to signal that their mutual relationship, and in particular their mutual dependency, should be modified. Hurting the beloved may be the last alarm bell that warns of the lover's difficulties; it is an extreme measure signaling urgency. If the relationship is strong enough, as the lover wishes it to be, it should sustain this measure. A less extreme and more common measure employed is that of moodiness. Moodiness, which imposes a small cost on the relationship, may function as both an alarm bell and as an assessment device to test the strength of the bond. Love involves a dynamic process of mutual adaptation, but not all adaptive processes are smooth and enjoyable; hurting the beloved is an example in kind.

Another consideration in light of which the lover may sometimes hurt the beloved is related to the lack of indifference in love. Since the lover greatly cares for the beloved and their mutual relationship, the lover cannot be indifferent toward anything that may harm the beloved, their relationship, or the lover's own situation. This lack of indifference toward the beloved may lead the lover to take measures that hurt the other when viewed from a partial perspective, but can be seen as beneficial from a global perspective. This is the painful side of care: A close connection exists between people who help and hurt as well. In the same way that improving the quality and happiness of our lives may demand some suffering, improving the quality and happiness of our beloved's life may require such suffering.

As for people who love us, but whom we do not love, we may be indifferent, or at least would not harbor such deep overall concern. Accordingly, we may not bother to help them by hurting them. Therefore, people in love prefer to be hurt by the beloved rather than be treated with indifference. Jose Ortega y Gasset says that the person in love "prefers the anguish which her beloved causes her to painless indifference." Similarly, the saying goes that it is better to break someone's heart than to do nothing with it. Concerning those who are near and dear, we prefer anger to indifference.

I do not want to say, as Oscar Wilde did, that "each man kills the thing he loves"; however, hurting one's beloved is frequent. Since the beloved is a major source of happiness, this person is also a major threat to our happiness: More than anyone else, the beloved can ruin our happiness. Similarly, the security involved in love goes together with the fear of losing that security. Feeling happy is often bound up with the fear of losing that happiness. Caring for the beloved sometimes goes together with hurting the beloved.

Love is closely connected with vulnerability: the ability to hurt and to be hurt. Although some kinds of hurt in love are intended, most of them are not.

Nevertheless, someone who deliberately hurts another person can simultaneously claim to love that person. The phenomenon of emotional ambivalence, stemming from the presence of two different evaluative perspectives, can account for such a possibility (see here). The lack of indifference and mutual dependency typical of love suggests why this frequently occurs in love.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, although this article has given you some justification to hurt me, I am still not sure you are doing it out of your profound love for me."

Adapted from The Subtlety of Emotions, and Die Logik der Gefühle: Kritik der emotionalen Intelligenz.

More from Aaron Ben-Zeév Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today