In the television series Parenthood, which ended its run eight years ago, the character of Adam tells his younger, more relationship-challenged brother that every morning he utters “I’m sorry” three times to his wife, whether or not he’s aware of having done anything to hurt her. He sees it as a kind of insurance policy against the inevitable injuries of married life. And he seems to understand how easy it is to trigger a partner’s hurt feelings — even accidentally, without intending to.
When we’re emotionally injured, it’s common for our automatic fight or flight response to kick in. Impatient words, an insensitive comment, a joke that falls flat — these are some of the ways hurt feelings can be triggered, especially in our primary relationship where our guard is often down. When our feelings are hurt, we tend to raise our voice in protest and defend ourselves with sharp words of our own. That leads to our partner feeling threatened, his own fight or flight hard-wiring activated. And we’re off to the races.
Can this be avoided? It can if we learn that between the stimulus (what triggered our hurt in the first place) and the response (our fight or flight reaction) there is a space. And in that space is our power to choose a smart response, one that tends to avoid an escalation: acknowledge our hurt.
- I’m feeling hurt.
- What you said hurt my feelings.
- That was very hurtful.
The common human “fight” response—expressing anger—is an attempt to protect ourselves when we’re feeling hurt. But a display of anger invites a partner’s anger in return as they try to defend themselves in the face of our anger. Something altogether different can happen when we express hurt (instead of anger). Saying “I’m hurt” typically invites a softening and compassionate response, often an apology. That’s what repairs the original injury, allowing us to move on.
There’s a kind of paradox here: Just when it’s natural to want to protect ourselves from further injury, the smart response is to be vulnerable instead of steely by exposing our emotional wound: I’m feeling hurt. That’s the only way a partner can really know how their words or actions impacted us.
And next time your partner expresses anger, slow yourself down, take some deep breaths, resist the urge to get defensive. Consider the possibility that your partner might be hurt and doesn’t know how to express it in that moment. Ask the question: Are you feeling hurt right now? Give your partner room to reflect on it. An exchange like this is apt to move the moment toward a much more productive direction.