Saturday, December 3, 2011

Hurt Vs. Harm in Relationships

Baggage Reclaim is a really cool relationship website run out of the UK. Natalie, the author, offers frequently blog posts that are thoughtful, well written, and often challenge readers to consider ways in which they are dysfunctional about dating and relationships.

In an old post of hers I found, she considers six words that are both overused and misused in the context of relationships. I want to consider one of those words, hurt, in a little more detail. Natalie writes:

It’s important to understand our feelings and own and validate them but sometimes we get the descriptions mixed up. Eg. “I’m hurt that you didn’t take out the bins/trash.’ or I’m hurt you said X’ or ‘I’m hurt that you did Y to me’.

Meaning: Hurt is about experiencing mental pain or distress.

It’s important to distinguish between someone not doing what you want, someone not doing something in the way that you would like, and someone doing something that directly relates to causing emotional distress. Expand your range of feelings beyond hurt because it shouldn’t be the automatic descriptor for everything that other people do that you don’t like.

Acknowledging a variety of feelings appropriate to each situation combined with having levels of what actually constitutes hurt, will make for more meaningful dialogue. If the word we reach for is always ‘hurt’ we communicate to partners that every slight, no matter the size will cause us emotional distress – that’s a lot for someone to deal with.

I think this is good. I also have a slightly different take to add to it.

To me, when it comes to the whole “hurt” issue in relationships, it’s helpful to consider the difference between hurt and “harm.”

I may feel hurt that my partner doesn’t agree with me about something, for example, maybe she doesn't like my favorite writer or musician.

I also might feel hurt if she arrives 20 minutes late for a date, or if she points out that I'm not being totally truthful about something.

But none of these examples should have any long term effect. They aren't red flags, or issues that should make or break relationships.

On the other hand, if my partner lies to me about her intentions for the relationship for example, whatever I feel when I find out I might label as "hurt," but actually the behavior in question could be labeled harmful because it undermines the very trust needed for a healthy relationship.

I remember towards the end of my first long term relationship getting angry at my former partner because she wanted to always hang out with her friends when I was over. It didn't help that I really didn't like her friends, and they didn't like me, but that's another story. Anyway, I was young (age 24 I think) and reactive back then, and instead of telling her why I was upset, I chose to not call her - for nearly three weeks. I think internally somewhere I knew this was harmful to the relationship, and I also was kind of in a backwards way trying to end it. But when we did finally talk, we had an argument about politics and both talked about feeling hurt that we each didn't see the validity of the others' point.

The point in bringing up this story is that it contains the two levels. We fixated on the immediate feelings around disagreeing about some political issue - which falls in the hurt category - but were really acting out of the harm coming from my refusal to call for so long, which had been tied to her increasing refusal to spend time with me alone.

What I see is that many of us, myself included, struggle to pay attention clearly enough to understand whether something is hurtful or harmful. And unfortunately, because of that struggling, we often get hung up on the little things that are fleeting, while simultaneously missing the major red flags that actually need to be confronted, or which mean it’s time to move on.

In the relationship I brought up, it later became clear to me that both of us were making decisions to deliberately avoid spending time together alone, and face our challenges together. We also blamed each other for how we felt, and at the same time, fixated on more trivial things, claiming that a difference over something like wanting to watch TV or not was ruining our relationship. Pretty silly, but also pretty common, isn't it?


  1. Obviously, coming from a BDSM background, the distinction between "hurt" and "harm" is crucial for me; it's a distinction that is deeply embedded in the BDSM community's understanding of "What It Is That We Do".

    With sadomasochism, of course, that's focussing on physical hurt versus harm. But so much of BDSM is on a mental and emotional level, and the same concepts resonate through BDSM there, too.

    I think it's important to recognise when harm is being done to us, which seemed to be the theme in the passage you quoted from Baggage Reclaim, so we know when to get out (I wish I knew what the vanilla relationship equivalent of a "safeword" would be?) Recognising our own hurtful or harmful behaviours is only one half of the equation (and I think everyone has some of them, though they may be rare in occurrence). Recognising when other things harm us and having boundaries to say so is also valuable.

  2. I work form the premise: Do No Harm - first rule for Medicos.

  3. I realy doubt that some relationships can excist without hurt, it's jsut natural for us humans to mistake from time to time, but when the relatioship will turn into harm, then there is one thing to do, move on.

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