Most of the damage we do in relationships is largely unintentional. We don’t always break other people on purpose. Often, we are simply responding to our own trauma and triggers, and we don’t realize that we’re exacerbating someone else’s — until it’s too late. We disappoint. We let each other down. We cause damage, and sometimes, we’re not sure how we’re supposed to fix it — assuming it can be fixed at all.
I caused damage. I did it unintentionally. I did it with good intentions. Yet, I caused it all the same. It was hard to fully accept because I was too busy looking at the damage done to me, however well-meaning the intent.
This is how relationships fall apart. We’re so busy licking our own wounds that we don’t always realize we’re causing others. We focus on our own needs to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. While our needs and feelings certainly matter and should be prioritized, relationships require balance. This is why communicating effectively is so important. Otherwise, we’re just hurting people hurting people in an endless cycle.
We can’t expect that our relationships with other people will never hurt us. Actually, we should expect the opposite. We most certainly will get hurt — and we’ll likely hurt others, too. It’s important to keep an open dialogue in relationships so that we can talk about how we’re feeling and how certain behaviors impact us. When we hurt someone, however unintentionally, it’s important to apologize, to make amends, and to find a way to rebuild trust and intimacy through the experience of hurting or being hurt.
The worst damage we do in relationships happens when both parties are hurting. This is when we are the most vulnerable and the most easily triggered. Relationships often break down entirely at this point. Friends go their separate ways. Family members stop speaking to each other. Lovers decide that it’s no longer worth the effort to continue.
Yet, in these hurting moments when we want to give up and walk away, we find the greatest opportunities for connection. When we’re at our most raw and vulnerable, we are also at our most open. We have the choice to either shut down and go off to nurse our wounds alone, or we can use it as an opportunity to build trust and intimacy. Instead of retreating, we can step closer to each other and say how we feel, give them the opportunity to share how they feel, and find a way to connect and resolve the issue.
That sounds lovely in theory, but it’s actually painful and challenging.
My instinct has always been to go into self-protective mode. I retreat into myself, and while I appear to be high-functioning in my grief or anxiety, I usually am over-functioning, pushing myself harder so that I don’t have to look too closely at the hurt or feel it.
Stepping closer instead of retreating is uncomfortable. There is so much hurt and fear happening. We are afraid to open up more lest we encounter further rejection or heartache.
There’s a risk that we take when we choose to get closer instead of taking more space. It could always go wrong. The other person could hurt us more and have no interest in resolving the issues. We could be rejected and left heartbroken again. Yet, the only way we’ll know is to take that step forward — into risk, into the unknown, and into the distinct possibility that we could be hurt.
Why would we even risk it?
Of course, the why is simple. Instead of our relationships breaking down, taking the risk to be vulnerable and work through problems can build intimacy and re-establish trust. It can make our relationships stronger. It doesn’t feel good to do it, but it feels so much worse not to try.
I’m not an expert at stepping closer. I’m very good at retreating, however. Still, I’m learning.
What I’ve learned so far is that we have to be open to having a dialogue with the other person no matter how much it hurts. Not a monologue. Not a soliloquy. We need a dialogue where both parties have the opportunity to openly express their feelings.
We also need to check our triggers, and this step feels impossible. The hurt I caused was caused because I was hurt — even though it wasn’t intentional. It was hard to see the damage being done because my trigger was activated.
My focus was on my experience, which isn’t to say I didn’t have empathy for the point of view outside of it. It just wasn’t my focus. When we acknowledge our triggers, it becomes easier to address them rather than reacting from them.
We need to be willing to work on the relationship. The key word here is work. Apologizing and making amends is a start, but to use these hurting times as a catalyst for greater intimacy, we need to be willing to be more vulnerable, not less. It becomes imperative that we communicate more and find ways to communicate better. We focus on solutions, and we make room for the other person’s experiences alongside our own.
I would like to wake up tomorrow and be great at this — great at relationships, great at resolving conflict, and even better about avoiding unintentional harm to others. I know that’s not going to happen.
But every day, I get to wake up and make choices. I get to choose how I’ll respond in relationships. I get to decide my perspective and whether I will view everything through the lens of a trauma narrative or if I’ll seek out a fresh point of view. I have the opportunity to choose to step closer and build intimacy or to let a little damage destroy everything I’ve built.
If I’m honest, I usually want to retreat. I crave it — those quiet spaces where I keep my emotions to myself. But it’s lonely there. My challenge has been to change — to connect when I want to retreat, to recognize that some relationships are worth every effort and risk. It doesn’t feel good to know that we’ve caused harm, but if we’re brave enough to step into the discomfort, there’s an opportunity to build a relationship stronger than any we’ve known before.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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