Why We Hurt
Conflict is inevitable in all of our relationships, and romantic relationships are no exception. Partners in intimate, long-term relationships will surely step on each other’s toes, thereby causing each other emotional pain. Couples need to able to repair painful rifts when they happen in ways that cultivate intimacy, vulnerability, and emotional safety. How might couples do this? To answer this question, we need to understand (1) what causes emotional pain, (2) how it can create conflict and ruptures in relationships, and (3) what couples can do to manage conflict in healthy, constructive ways. This week’s post will be the first of three in response to these questions.
Most of us are familiar with the term “emotional baggage,” which we usually use to refer to the unresolved feelings associated with painful memories, events, and past relationships. All of us have emotional baggage, and in my view, we begin to accumulate our respective assortments of metaphorical Samsonite early in our lives. Pain does not come from emotionally hurtful episodes in a child’s life, however. Pain results from the child’s caregivers not paying caring, close attention to the child’s painful feelings in response to the injurious event.
Imagine that a child running around in a park suddenly falls and skins her knee. She immediately begins sobbing and, clutching her wounded knee, seeks out her nearby mother. The child’s mother responds with soothing, comforting overtures, crooning that “oh, honey, that fall really hurt you, didn’t it?” while calmly cleaning and bandaging the wound.
What is the child’s response? She rejoins her friends in play, doesn’t she? Neither she nor her knee hurt anymore; her mother was “keyed in” to her feelings about her injury, which made her feel validated, valued, and loved. If the mother had been inadequately responsive, she might have concluded that her expressed emotions about her injury were wrong, inappropriate, or shameful. The child begins to believe that these feelings are expressions of, for instance, an unwanted, unlovable, or inadequate self, and that is what’s painful. The child’s core beliefs about him- or herself have radically changed, and the child will interpret similar episodes of inadequate responsiveness from others as confirmations of these painful beliefs.
All of us have these painful self-beliefs. Some have to do with how we think about ourselves, e.g., “I am always a burden,” “I am not worthy of love,” or, “I am good for nothing.” Other beliefs have to do with our relationships: “I must adjust to others’ needs (moods, expectations, and the like) to maintain close relationships.” Whatever our core beliefs, we have carried them for a long time, and we naturally want to set down our heavy, wearisome emotional luggage.
Next week, we will continue by thinking about how these core beliefs impact our most intimate relationships. But first, I invite you to the difficult work of considering the painful feelings that you return to over and over again. What are the core beliefs that you carry about yourself? How do they influence you, your feelings, and your relationships?