When the Hurt Goes Deep
A Connection Gem reader wrote in recently about his attempts to heal an emotional wound with his partner. His partner's response has been as follows:
"Under no circumstance can you repair this, any action you take would be humiliating-that ship has sailed never to return. Doing it now would be meaningless anyway, it would be cleaning up a mess because mom said so-I don't want to be your mom, you need to grow up. This so-called empathy is empty and creates no connection, it's just another layer of protection".
Ouch, that's a painful thing to hear as you attempt to heal with your partner. Where do you go from there? The first stop, of course, is pausing to give yourself empathy. Take time to feel the pain that comes up for you hearing this, your own reactivity and the longing to heal. I am guessing that in an attempt to give yourself empathy about your partner's reaction, you will notice self-critical thoughts arising. Maybe something like:
"If you weren't such an idiot, this wouldn't have happened in the first place."
"She's right you just want to offer empathy so you'll feel better. Once again you're not caring about her experience."
"Why do you even bother?! You messed up and now you have to pay the price."
Each one of these critical voices is an expression of feelings, needs, and requests. As difficult as it is, your work here is to turn toward each critical voice with compassion and empathy. This means first naming it - "there's my critic voice". Then resting your attention on the feelings present - likely some version of hurt, fear, or grief. Then ask yourself what need this critic voice is trying to protect. Don't try to figure this out mentally, just ask yourself for the need and wait for the answer or slowly look through the needs list and see what resonates. Then put it all together. For example,
"When I call myself an idiot, I am really expressing fear and regret and pointing to a need for emotional safety and healing. My request to myself for right now is to focus on healing my own heart through this self-empathy practice."
When you have given yourself empathy, and taken some time for your body to calm after the interaction, you might be ready to orient towards what she said with empathy, just on your side not expressing it verbally to her. In listening with empathy (even after the fact) it's important to remember not to take someone's words literally. Reactive words are a tragic expression of feelings and needs and hearing them literally won't move you towards connection. Even if it's on your own and can't be confirmed, making an empathy guess helps to interrupt the cycle of reactivity and counter-reactivity.
Hearing your partner's words as an expression of her experience, you can make a guess about what might be going on for her. Here is a possible translation of your partner's words as quoted above:
Thoughts, feelings (including impulses & sensations), & needs,
"Hearing your attempt at repair just now, my whole body tightens! I have the impulse to punch you and run at the same time! I feel a surge of anger and the threat of shame in the background. In this moment, I can't imagine what healing from this would look like! I feel disconnected and angry evening trying to imagine it because I need a lot more sense of trust than I am experiencing now. I want to know you are being authentic and not acting out of obligation or some impulse to make things seem okay when they are not.
"I am not able to receive from you yet. I am going to take time on my own for a while, before I make a request of you or accept your offers of reconciliation."
"Stop trying to fix things up for me and just tell me honestly what's going on for you. Show me your emotion and vulnerability by saying what's true for you without editing or trying to protect me from your feelings."
The founder of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), the late Marshall Rosenberg, might have called this screaming in giraffe. Honest expression in NVC isn't about dis-owning violent impulses and angry feelings and trying to pretend you are calm when you're not. Our gem reader might feel relieved to hear his partner express her experience so directly, even if it is still painful.
When you have done something, that triggered a deep hurt for your partner, she has likely lost trust that you really care for her. When this much trust has been lost, caring can often only be received through the vehicle of emotion and body. That is, your partner is looking for the raw expression of your experience. Sadly, this is often the most difficult thing to offer. You are likely protecting yourself from criticism and anger over what you did and that has you approach your partner carefully. Coming forward spontaneously undefended and vulnerable might seem like the last thing you want to do and it might be the most connecting for you both. You get to stand fully in what's true for you and your partner gets to experience your vulnerability and authenticity.
PracticeTake a moment to reflect on a unhealed wound in your relationship. Check in with yourself about it with these questions: In what ways have I been denying my own experience of this event or my partner's? Are there times when I am backing away from saying what's true for me? Am I holding onto an agenda for how I should fix this for my partner or how his/her healing should look?