There was a time when “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me” was a common mantra. Now we know better: words can indeed cause deep psychic wounds. And when uttered by people we love and have presumed love us back, they pierce even more deeply.
I used to believe that if a couple was getting along and behaving in a loving way to one another, hurtful and even cruel words would naturally fade into the background. But I’ve frequently seen couples in which hurt spouses may forgive their partner for the harsh words spoken in anger, but nonetheless remain haunted by some biting comment that continues to sting long after the argument is over.
This is especially true of character attacks, which can simmer beneath the surface despite truly heartfelt apologies, and bubble up at unexpected times. Hurt spouses may wonder whether their partner really does, deep down, believe what was said. And if so, does that person really love them? And for spouses who’ve already offered a heartfelt apology—one that acknowledges the hurt, expresses remorse, and accepts responsibility—having to explain yet again that they didn’t really mean what was said can seem like a lifelong task.
Over the years, I’ve learned that by approaching this kind of stuckness from multiple therapeutic perspectives—family history, individual issues around guilt and self-blame, cognitive challenging of a dominant narrative, and the normalizing of negative feelings—couples can heal these deep and festering injuries. But it’s not always an easy path to get there.
My work with Alyssa and Caleb seemed to be going well. They’d been married 20 years and were a good team when it came to parenting their three children. Caleb worked in IT for a bank, and Alyssa had recently started her own small business.
Four months ago, Alyssa had persuaded Caleb to come to couples therapy despite his belief that they’d been lucky in life and had “nothing to complain about.” Alyssa was concerned about how much they were bickering, and the fact that they occasionally had big blowups. She said that they once felt like each other’s best friend and confidante, but it didn’t feel that way anymore. When they had sex, she added, it was “very good,” but at this point, those times were few and far between.
Caleb didn’t disagree with Alyssa’s description of the relationship, but was annoyed that she didn’t appreciate what a good husband he was. “I’m a good provider. I’m supportive of your new business. I’m good to your family, and I’ve never cheated and never will. What more do you want?” he argued.
Because my approach to working with couples focuses on building upon strengths, I joined him in his view that he did a lot of things right, and I presented the possibility that he could have an even more gratifying marriage. Over time, as he experienced our sessions focusing on positives as well as difficulties, his skepticism diminished. Soon both he and Alyssa were talking about what they longed for and what more they could do for one another. Their bickering diminished greatly, and their big blowups ceased entirely.
Indeed, their newfound lack of defensiveness, willingness to show vulnerability, and ability to try new ways of interacting made us all optimistic that their progress was real and secure. So we spoke about cutting back on the frequency of the sessions, with the aim of stopping entirely fairly soon—and then we hit a wall.
The next time I saw them, they looked slumped: not deflated completely, but not as full of the hopefulness I’d become accustomed to seeing in them. When I asked about it, they reported that they’d had an argument. On the plus side, they noted that unlike arguments they’d had before, this one had not escalated to days of sulky withdrawal. Still, Alyssa was left deeply unsettled. “I can’t stop thinking about what Caleb said to me when he was mad,” she told me. “He wasn’t yelling like he used to, but that makes it even clearer that he said what he really feels.”
Caleb suddenly jumped in: “I told you I didn’t really mean it. I’ve apologized. I lost my temper and said something stupid. You know how I get. I feel really bad about saying that. What do I have to do? Go down on my knees and beg for forgiveness?”
When they finally told me what he’d said—”Why is this about you? It’s always about you!”—I found myself surprised and thinking, Really? That’s not so bad. It’s not a nice thing, of course, but not terrible. Yet for Alyssa, his words were extremely hurtful, since he’d said things like this in the past. “One time, about eight years ago, he said I was narcissistic,” she explained. “Another time he said that I don’t really care about anybody but myself.”
An exasperated Caleb replied, “How many times do I have to tell you that I didn’t mean that?! You never let go of anything!”
“Because I know that’s what you really believe,” Alyssa shot back. “Whenever you’re mad, your true feelings come out—and it’s always about me being self-centered.”
No matter how many times Caleb apologized and asserted that he’d said something he didn’t mean, Alyssa repeated that it was when Caleb was angry that his true feelings emerged. Stalemate!
It was important for Caleb and Alyssa to understand why Caleb’s accusation would be particularly hurtful to Alyssa, even if someone else might not be as upset by it. When couples are stuck in this way, I often start by zooming in on their understanding of each other’s family history, as well as their own, to explore how legacy issues influence their current perceptions and sensitivities.
First, I asked Caleb how he understood the depth of Alyssa’s hurt. This gave him an opportunity to show empathy, make his apology more meaningful, and be more mindful in the future of the pain his words could inflict. I said, “Caleb, I know you’ve apologized and said you really didn’t mean the things you’ve said, but I wonder if you have some thoughts about why Alyssa is so deeply wounded by your comments.”
“Well,” he answered. “I guess maybe Alyssa thinks that I’m saying that she’s like her mother.” Turning toward Alyssa, he added, “I know how hurt you’ve been that your mother doesn’t seem to be interested in your life or our kids. You’ve said that when your parents got divorced, your mother hardly noticed how awful it was for you; it was all about what she was going through. The last thing you’d ever want is to be like your mother in that respect. I don’t think you’re like your mother.”
I then asked Alyssa to tell me what she knew about Caleb’s background that would have some bearing on why he might be inclined to make that kind of comment, even if he didn’t mean it. She thought for a few moments, and answered, “I guess nobody looked after Caleb when he was growing up. His brother and sister had serious learning difficulties, and his parents were preoccupied with the two of them. Caleb was the kid who could be counted on, so I think he holds a lot in and never asks anyone for help. But when it gets too much, he explodes. I think deep down he believes that he has to take care of everything, and that I only think about myself. Even though I get where it comes from, it doesn’t change how hurt I am that he sees me that way.”
For an understanding of the family history to really take hold in Alyssa’s psyche, I needed to find a way to mobilize Alyssa’s ability to believe Caleb’s explanation—that he was angry and didn’t mean what he said—instead of telling herself that this was Caleb’s true feeling. To do this, Caleb had to be more convincing in his assertion that he didn’t see her as self-centered, and Alyssa had to get in touch with the part of her that believed him.
People almost always have some uncertainty about seemingly fixed beliefs. So I asked Alyssa to try to notice in the next week whether there were any moments when she actually believed Caleb didn’t see her that way. And I told Caleb that in the next session I wanted him to tell Alyssa more about why he doesn’t believe that she’s selfish. “In a sense,” I said, “I’m asking for your evidence. So take this week to think about it.”
Making a Dent and Planning Ahead
The following week, when Alyssa reported that she didn’t see anything that contradicted her belief that Caleb saw her as self-centered, my heart sank a little. But she quickly amended her statement and said, “Well, he did thank me for taking the car in to be washed when I knew he had a lot of work to do over the weekend.”
Next I turned to Caleb, hoping for a bit more from him. “I really didn’t think about it that much,” he shrugged. I sighed quietly, but rather than focusing on why he hadn’t done his “homework,” I asked if he’d think about it now. “Sure, that’s easy,” he replied. “That’s why I didn’t really think about it—it’s so obvious. She’s very giving, not selfish at all.”
This response was too generic, too close to what he’d said in the past. Although he clearly meant it, it seemed almost to land like a dull thud on the carpet between us. “Caleb,” I said, “You’re saying this with a lot of conviction. But I think that it would help Alyssa really take it in if you could spell it out more. Could you talk directly to Alyssa and give her some examples of her being the opposite of self-involved?”
Caleb then effortlessly rattled off how Alyssa was always there for friends when they’re upset, constantly buying little gifts for people when she sees something she knows they’d like. He talked about the many ways she’s a “fantastic mother” and makes an effort to reach out to her parents and his by sending cards and organizing get-togethers. I asked him if there were unselfish things Alyssa did for him in particular. “Yes, of course. She’s always thinking about me. She asks about my work, brings home snacks she knows I like, offers to take over some of the things I have to do for my parents when it’s feeling like too much. There are so many things, I can’t begin to list them all.”
As he spoke, Alyssa’s face softened. It was clear that Caleb’s statements had finally made a dent in her conviction that he believed she was selfish. They left the session feeling closer, and not wanting to spoil their good mood, I kept my “whoa, not so fast” feeling to myself. We’d made some progress, but I was aware that one good conversation and some insight didn’t constitute a magic bullet.
In the next session, they reported that they’d had a good week, and Alyssa mentioned that she’d kept thinking about the “sweet things” Caleb had said the prior week. I told her how pleased I was that she could take in his words and hold onto them. Still, it was important to prepare them both for the possibility that, despite the understanding they’d gained, Caleb might sometimes experience Alyssa as self-centered and tell her so. And if he did, Alyssa might once again feel hurt and believe that the truth was coming out.
I said, “We’re all stuck with emotional baggage from our childhood that even when we understand it, as the two of you do, is hard to shake. I think it’d be helpful for us to brainstorm ways to deal with these issues differently if they do rear up again.”
I wanted to normalize mixed and complicated feelings: neither of them had to be saints. In fact, it was okay for Alyssa to sometimes put her needs first. It was also okay for Caleb to sometimes feel hurt or angry that Alyssa was focusing more on herself than on him. As we discussed Alyssa’s guilt when, in her words, she was “looking out for herself,” she recognized how it was connected to why she’d reacted so strongly to Caleb’s accusations.
We then went on to discuss ways that Caleb could help Alyssa feel less guilty about sometimes putting her needs first. For instance, he could make a conscious effort to ask her what she really wanted, and he could remind her that she was generally such a generous person that it was perfectly fine for her to be “selfish” once in a while. Also, they both agreed that it was important to distinguish between occasional thoughts and feelings versus fixed and immutable characterizations. However deeply a couple may love each other, the partners will inevitably fall short of perfection once in a while.
“Don’t you sometimes feel disappointed in Caleb, or see traits in him that you don’t think that highly of?” I asked Alyssa.
She laughed and said, “It’s a good thing Caleb doesn’t take things as personally as I do, because there have been many times when I’ve thought or even said some things to him that weren’t exactly flattering.” Even so, as the session ended, Alyssa raised an issue that wasn’t completely resolved for her: “I still don’t understand how Caleb could want to hurt me so much when he’s angry. I accept that he doesn’t really mean what he says, but he still says those things to hurt me.”
She had a good point, and so in the next session, I introduced the concept of splitting, explaining that when some people get angry, they have trouble holding on to the “whole” person they love. Even when Caleb was very angry or disappointed with one of his children, he was able to hold in mind the love he had for that child—and that awareness kept him from saying things that could be deeply wounding. Clearly, doing this with Alyssa was much more difficult for him.
I then scheduled an individual session with Caleb to discuss ways for him to deal with his intense physiological response when he’s angry with Alyssa. After going over some mindfulness and relaxation practices, we shifted to techniques for helping him access his loving feelings toward Alyssa more readily. One way to do that was to look at photos that evoke them. Caleb decided to put one of his favorite photos of him and Alyssa on the bathroom mirror. He also created an album on his phone that had a lot of family pictures, which he aptly labeled “calming-down photos.” We brainstormed mantras that would help him remember Alyssa as a whole person: he thought “she’s only human” and “everyone makes mistakes” would help.
I scheduled an individual session with Alyssa to help her explore why she tended to give so much weight to Caleb’s judgment of her. We worked on building up her sense of self and self-compassion through loving-kindness meditations.
Although I continued to work with them both for a few more sessions, they decided that they’d built up a solid foundation of tools, understanding, and connection to move forward on their own. We terminated therapy soon after—and frankly, I was almost disappointed that no big arguments had erupted during that time, so we could see whether the strategies we’d discussed would really work.
I got my answer almost two years later. They wanted help because they were at loggerheads about whether to put one of their children in a school that specialized in learning disabilities: a big life decision, but one we were able to work out quickly, in a matter of a few sessions. What immediately struck me as we got started was their description of a heated argument they’d had about the decision before calling me. Caleb had accused Alyssa of wanting their son to go to that school only because it would be easier for her and, amazingly, Alyssa had responded, “I don’t think you really mean that.”
Driving this response, she told us, were Caleb’s repeated efforts since we’d last met to encourage her to take care of herself and show her how much he appreciated all she did for him. So when he lapsed and once again hurled that old accusation at her, she wasn’t devastated by it at all. For his part, Caleb recognized that he’d allowed himself to get overactivated and had “lost it.” But this time when he apologized, he offered specifics about why he felt she wasn’t selfish and used the incident as a good reminder to practice his calming techniques.
Caleb and Alyssa had come a long way. But can the approach I took with them work with every couple? As with every approach, certainly not. Ultimately, the key ingredient that brings couples therapy alive is the partners’ willingness to learn how to be more emotionally generous to one another. When that ingredient is missing, therapy, no matter how thoughtful and integrative, becomes a far more limited tool, even in the hands of the most determined clinician.
By Steven Stosny
Ellen Wachtel adroitly presents a case in which partners occasionally lash out in anger, without underlying hostility but largely insensitive in the moment to the hurt they cause. She describes a successful course of treatment to make the partners more sensitive to the effects of their actions and reactions, and to help them develop a deeper compassion for each other.
However, this kind of case must be distinguished from verbally aggressive and emotionally abusive relationships, which require a very different approach to treatment. In abusive relationships, one partner deliberately tries to devalue, demean, or make the other feel bad, so the hurt partner will agree with, validate, or do what the offending partner wants. It would be a mistake in an abusive relationship to investigate why particular insults are hurtful, or what the childhood sources of the motivation to hurt may be. The former implies that the hurt party has to justify the hurt with evidence that will satisfy the offending partner; the latter risks reinforcing the abuser’s sense of entitlement—“I’ve been hurt in my life, so you shouldn’t complain about a few negative words.”
Emotional bonds are formed with the implicit promise that our partners will care how we feel, especially when we feel bad. What hurts the most—what we fight about the most in all relationships—is the sense that our partners don’t care how we feel, regardless of the specific words used. Failure of compassion in love relationships feels like betrayal.
Abusive behavior resists change through insight because it’s habituated. The abuser automatically regulates vulnerable states (guilt, shame, anxiety, sadness) and physical discomfort by blaming them on others. Blame provides adrenaline for temporary confidence and energy, which feels more powerful than the self-doubt that comes with vulnerable feelings. Treatment must build a conditioned response of compassion for the partner to occur with the impulse to blame; in other words, it must replace adrenaline as a regulator with endorphins. To change self-regulation habits, it takes a lot of practice, not insight as to why abusive behaviors may have become automatic in the first place.
One factor common to abusive relationships and the one Wachtel presents is apology for past offenses. We need to help partners understand that different time dimensions are at play in this dynamic. One partner is concerned with the past and the other with the future, though perhaps not the way we might think. The hurt party is worried about the recurrence of the hurt in the future, while the offending party feels shame when past sins are raised.
On the outside, the shame looks like impatience, resentment, or anger—which gives the strong impression that the offense will happen again. So the offending partner must learn to view expressed memories of past offenses as opportunities to reassure that they won’t recur, because now that partner knows how to regulate emotions with compassion instead of blame. It’s never enough to feel bad about an offense: the hurt partner needs to hear reasons to feel safe in the future.
ILLUSTRATION BY SALLY WERN COMPORT
Ellen Wachtel, JD, PhD, is in private practice and gives workshops at home and abroad. She’s the author of We Love Each Other But … as well as a new book for therapists, The Heart of Couple Therapy: Knowing What to Do and How to Do It.
Steven Stosny, Ph.D. is a well-known therapist and author of many books and articles. He’s appeared on all the major networks and national radio shows, most of the major newspapers and magazines. He has taught at the University of Maryland. His blog on PsychologyToday.com has more than 21 million views.