It’s human nature to hurt one another, whether intentionally or not.
Furthermore, when you have a close relationship with a friend, partner, parent, or child, you’ll inevitably both say or do things that’ll hurt each other at some point.
When this happens, it’s important to take action so you can determine how that hurt happened, how to make amends, and how you can work together to avoid this situation again in the future.
This is the process you should go through:
Step 1: Determine what actually happened.
We often hurt others unintentionally because we all have different thresholds and sore spots. What will be hilarious to one person may devastate another, and vice versa.
Unfortunately, we often won’t know what other people’s sensitivities are until we’ve prodded them.
If you’ve accidentally hurt someone you love due to ignorance about their past experiences, then the best thing you can do is discuss what happened so you both have a firm idea of what occurred.
It’s possible they assumed you already knew that the subject you joked about or the prank you pulled would be deeply upsetting to them, or that some past event they experienced caused your comments or actions to be deeply hurtful.
Meanwhile, they never actually discussed this with you before, so you had no idea about their past traumas and behaved innocently.
Alternatively, you may be accustomed to behaving a certain way with others you’re close to and assume that they’d respond similarly.
We often lose sight of the fact that others don’t necessarily think or feel as we do.
Some degree of conflict is inevitable when humans interact with one another (especially when living in close quarters), but there are ways to mitigate it.
This is especially true if you’re dealing with opposing personalities. For instance, if one partner is fiery and gregarious and the other partner is subdued and introverted, they’ll have to find a healthy balance in their dynamic.
Arguments and hurt feelings will be part of the growing process, but with patience, communication, and mutual understanding, they can find a middle ground that works for both of them.
Examine your motivations, and endeavor to see things from different perspectives.
Very few people try to do this. They’re dead-set on expressing how they feel and attaining things that they want or need, without “walking a mile in the other person’s shoes,” so to speak.
Alternatively, they may be conditioned into defending their position and dying on their chosen hill, no matter what.
If you can listen carefully to what the other person is saying, you’ll gain more insight into how they experience the world. It may be very different from your own experience, but that doesn’t mean that either of you is wrong.
At this point, you can move on to the next step:
Step 2: Discuss your intentions and both of your subsequent reactions.
More often than not, we hurt those we love unintentionally rather than because of malice or sadistic tendencies.
Intention is everything, and when we can learn to express our intentions clearly, and understand where other people are coming from in turn, that goes a long way toward healing hurt.
Love languages are a perfect example of this. When people have different primary love languages than their partner or close friends, there can be intense misunderstandings.
Even though all parties involved are doing their best to show love and appreciation, they’re literally speaking in different tongues.
Let’s say your partner’s love language is “acts of service,” while yours is “gift giving.” They might go above and beyond to do wonderful things for you, and in turn, you buy them gifts that you think they’ll adore.
As a result, they might feel that you don’t appreciate what they do because you don’t do any acts of service for them in return. Instead, you just buy them “stuff.”
Meanwhile, you feel hurt because your partner “only” does things for you and is too cheap to spend money on you.
See how basic miscommunications can cause hurt, even though it isn’t intentional?
When we can recognize and understand why we hurt the ones we love, we can be more aware of our actions and how they affect others.
Quite often, we can avoid causing damage by taking a moment to observe the situation objectively and then determine the best way to move forward.
Additionally: Did you really hurt them? Or are they choosing to feel hurt?
It’s important to note here that just because someone feels hurt, doesn’t mean you’ve hurt them.
Does that make sense?
This isn’t a case of gaslighting someone who’s feeling legitimately hurt because you’ve been an A-hole, nor invalidating their emotions by implying that they’re being irrational or dramatic.
Rather, it’s a case of determining when and if an apology is warranted.
An example would be if someone says that you “made them angry” by doing something they didn’t like. Well, feeling angry or hurt is a choice most of the time. If you did something that they found hurtful, and you feel that they’re taking offense without just cause, then that’s grounds for a frank discussion more than an apology.
A friend of mine is a single mom to a young boy. He constantly challenges her parenting, and has taken to informing her which words he doesn’t like and demanding that she stop using them. She’s obviously not going to change her vocabulary to suit his whims, and he has full-blown tantrums about it.
The child implied that his mother was horrible and that she must hate him because she was unwilling to stop using a word that “hurt his feelings.” It’s a completely innocuous word that’s used regularly, but he’s insisting that it’s causing him pain.
Many people today throw the victim card around in order to manipulate others into behaving the way they want them to. If they don’t change or respond as desired, then there’s the implication that they’re being “hateful” or “hurtful.”
The onus is on the perceived wrongdoer to go above and beyond to prevent the supposedly injured party from feeling discomfort.
In cases like this, it’s best to find a middle ground in which both parties feel heard and respected, but healthy boundaries are also maintained.
It’s also important to pay close attention to who is creating more boundaries and parameters, as well as how tolerant and respectful they are toward others’ preferences and quirks in turn.
Very often, the ones who constantly demand that others apologize for overstepping or erring simultaneously expect other people to instantly forgive them for their missteps.
They generally offer a litany of excuses as to why they should be allowed greater tolerance (such as age, health conditions, and so on), while simultaneously being absolved of having to control their own poor behaviors.
It’s sad that it needs to be mentioned here, but people have also been known to use various diagnoses as an excuse to behave poorly.
Having certain struggles doesn’t grant anyone permission to be an atrocious human being, nor does it grant anyone more privileges than others. That isn’t fair, and expecting it to be so will cause tension and resentment over time.
Step 3: Figure out whether you’re actually sorry or not.
This is a tricky one because sometimes we hurt those we love by justifiably behaving in a manner they dislike.
They may have said or done something awful or disrespectful, and by calling them out on their crappy behavior, you “made them feel bad.”
Alternatively, simply being yourself and pursuing your own interests can “trigger” people.
For instance, I was once told that I was hurting someone’s feelings because I was doing calisthenic exercises in front of them, in my own room.
They were in an adjacent room, and seeing me work out apparently hurt their feelings. They knew they were out of shape and didn’t have the self-discipline to do anything about it, thus my actions were “hurtful” to them.
Basically, it’s one thing to honestly feel bad about hurting someone who really cares for you, and another when you’ve defended yourself against their attacks or fought to defend a boundary and they try to turn it around to guilt trip you for doing so.
Take some time to consider whether you do in fact feel remorse about what’s happened. Sometimes hurting others is justified, especially if they’ve been horrible to you (or others).
They might try to imply that you’re the guilty party hurting or upsetting them, while simultaneously refusing to see their own contributions to the situation.
If they’re willing to own up to their poor behavior and apologize for their part in everything, and if you do feel any degree of remorse over your response, then by all means, apologize.
That said, if you feel no culpability or guilt about what transpired, then don’t apologize. And if you feel that your actions were justified, then you have nothing to apologize for.
Furthermore, honesty is the best policy. Don’t feel obliged to say, “I’m sorry,” if you aren’t. You’d just be lying, and then any apologies you offer in the future will seem insincere.
When and if you find yourself in this type of scenario, one effective way to move forward is to clearly express what you feel and think about everything that happened.
For example, you can say that you don’t like to hurt this person’s feelings, nor do you appreciate being disrespected, mistreated, or controlled by others.
Remind them that care and respect go both ways, and they can’t expect you to always be gracious and patient while they have free rein to be abusive.
I’ve seen this in action on several occasions, such as when a mother is hitting their child and the kid finally has enough and grabs her arm to stop her or if someone is being belligerent toward a relative and said relative’s partner raises their voice to defend them.
All of a sudden the aggressor turns victim and demands an apology, as though they’re owed one. If and when words like “respect” are mentioned, remind them that it’s a two-way street.
We reap what we sow, and if people are awful toward others, they should be prepared to deal with the consequences of their awful behavior.
One cannot escape accountability. If someone carries on being obnoxious, there will inevitably be a reckoning.
You can say that you’re willing to put in the work if they are, but if it’s going to be solely one sided—with you expected to apologize for missteps while they’re free to say or do whatever they like—then you won’t stick around in their life for very long.
Examine your motivations.
If you discover that you keep hurting those you love on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to do some inner work to determine why this keeps happening.
Take a good look at the damage you’re being accused of inflicting.
Does your partner continually feel hurt because you don’t eat the food you cook? Or because you keep turning down their intimate advances? Do they tell you that you speak to them hurtfully or disrespectfully? Or that you’re inconsiderate with common space and time?
Examine your behavior, and then figure out why you’re acting the way you do. While doing so, you can determine whether this is an issue worth getting into or not.
For example, let’s say the grandmother you’re currently living with finds it hurtful that you play thrash metal loudly at night when she’s trying to get to sleep. Ask yourself why you feel the need to do so at that time. Do you enjoy listening to that kind of music when it’s dark out? Okay, so why aren’t you listening to it with headphones on?
Oh, so you like to hear the acoustics as it pours through that old house. Fair enough, but if you know that it’s disruptive to your elderly grandparent, why do so?
Right, because you live there too, and you want to establish your foothold in that space by doing what you want, when you want, instead of pandering to another’s rules. You likely feel resentful that you live under someone else’s roof and feel like you have no autonomy, so you’re pushing their boundaries to make room for yourself.
That’s all understandable, and it must be immensely frustrating to contend with. At this point, you can try to figure out the consequences that may result from your actions and whether they’d be worthwhile.
For example, if you keep blasting that music, you may end up giving Gran-Gran a heart attack. Would you feel guilty about doing so after the fact? Then perhaps consider a compromise that’s less likely to damage her.
Some people hurt those they love—or who they care about deeply—because it’s “safe” to do so. Children often lash out at their mothers because they know they’ll be loved and forgiven unconditionally, so their moms become emotional punching bags for their own difficult emotions.
Similarly, when some people find themselves in safe, stable intimate relationships, they’ll project past transgressions onto their new partner and punish them for others’ wrongdoings.
This often happens if a person didn’t get justice or closure for past hurts with others. Thus, they feel a need to replay what happened and, this time, they get the upper hand.
For instance, if they had felt pressured for intimacy in a previous relationship, and now feel like they can say “no” without negative repercussions, they may do so simply because they can.
You need to ascertain the intentions behind others’ actions. Things don’t “just happen” by themselves, and tensions can be diffused if everyone feels heard and respected.
Gran may not actually care about the loud music. In reality, she may be feeling a loss of power in her advanced age and is trying to keep control in her own home. She may resent the fact that she needs you to help take care of her and is expressing her hurt and anger as passive-aggressive manipulative control.
Most tense situations can be diffused when people understand one another’s viewpoints, motivations, and subsequent feelings. By discussing things honestly, everyone will understand each other much more.
Step 4: Apologize sincerely—both in words and actions.
If you both determine that an apology is warranted, be sure to apologize promptly and mean what you say.
You are asking for forgiveness from someone you love because you’ve caused them distress. This isn’t the time to protect your ego or “save face.”
You’ve hurt them, whether intentionally or not, and if you care about the person you hurt, you’ll need to make amends.
When you do apologize, state exactly what it is you’re sorry about. This helps them to know that they’ve been heard and understood, that you’ve paid attention to what went wrong, and that you sincerely want to make things better.
In contrast, some examples of what not to say include:
- “I’m sorry you felt that way.”
- “I didn’t mean it badly, but I’m sorry, okay?”
- “I guess I owe you an apology.”
Phrasing your non-apology this way implies that there was something wrong with the person who got hurt. Maybe they were being dramatic or intentionally taking things badly instead of seeing humor in it.
Either way, it’s putting the onus on them to “be the bigger person” and forgive you for their offense, rather than you owning the fact that you caused them grief and letting them know that you feel bad about doing so.
Non-apologies like those listed above often come from people who behave atrociously and are called out for their crappy actions. When called to atone, they might say that they “would like to apologize,” but don’t actually do so.
Furthermore, they may not feel any remorse for their awful behavior but rather want permission to stop feeling bad about what they’ve done.
In fact, they might have apologized for similar wrongdoings several times over but keep repeating the same behavior, offering half-assed apologies every time.
Follow your words with tangible change.
It’s one thing to apologize for something you’ve done and another thing entirely to put real effort into stopping that behavior.
Apologies are cheap and mean very little unless you follow them with changed action. If you don’t, then the person you’re apologizing to knows that you’ve simply paid lip service and that you don’t actually care.
I heard a pretty wild argument between acquaintances once. One was apologizing repeatedly, but it was very clear that he was not sorry at all. It was also apparent that he didn’t care about how anyone else felt. He merely wanted to be exonerated and forgiven so he could return to a comfortable status quo state once again.
The girl he was half-assedly apologizing to replied with: “Beware of saying sorry over and over again—if you keep saying it but not changing anything, all you’re going to be is one sorry MOTHER*#%S^%@ one day.”
I won’t type out exactly what she said because …reasons… but the sentiment rings true.
Are you genuinely sorry and want to change your ways? Do you care enough about the person you hurt that you sincerely want to make amends?
Or are you saying whatever’s necessary so they’ll stop whining and you can stop feeling guilty and go back to what’s comfortable?
Owning our trespasses, then growing and improving ourselves isn’t a comfortable process. Admitting that we’ve acted atrociously is difficult and sometimes humiliating, and changing our ways forces us out of our comfort zones.
We might have been perfectly happy keeping on as we always had, but those old habits don’t mesh with the type of life we want with another person.
Think about how you’d feel if you were on the receiving end of this.
If you’ve told someone that their actions or words toward you were hurtful, but after saying, “I’m sorry,” they kept doing it (possibly several times over), then you’d know they don’t truly care enough to stop causing you pain.
If they actually gave a damn, then they’d make a conscious effort to avoid hurting you the same way.
If you find that you’re stuck in a cyclical or habitual loop that leads to you hurting the person you love, then determine what it is that’s causing it, and make sure to break that cycle so it stops repeating itself.
This way, you’ll be apologizing with tangible action rather than simply saying hollow words.
We won’t have the opportunity for real growth if we fail to pay attention to and amend our shortcomings. If awareness is brought to one of your personal failures, then consider it a challenge.
This is something you can work on and improve. When you respond to a challenge like this in a positive way, you’ll grow exponentially as a person and have better relationships with others as a result.
There’s always a choice: apologize, change your ways, and grow as a person or risk losing everything you care about. It’s your call.
Step 5: Work on prevention techniques.
Once you’ve spoken with the one you hurt about what happened—including both your perspectives on what occurred and how everyone experienced the situation—you can work together on ways to prevent that kind of thing from occurring again in the future.
If you’ve done the previous steps, then you likely have a firmer grasp on which areas need to be negotiated a bit more delicately.
You’ll also be more aware of one another’s communication styles and how best to deal with conflict in the future.
Should you find that you have difficulty talking about what happened, try communicating via text or email instead. Just note that if you’re going to apologize for something sincerely, it’s better to do it verbally, or else write it by hand.
Text on a screen doesn’t have the same gravitas as the written word, or verbally asking for forgiveness with honesty in your voice.
If you get stuck on how to prevent miscommunications and misunderstandings in the future, consider booking some time with a therapist.
Joint counseling can be extremely helpful for understanding where both parties are coming from, as well as for learning tips on how to negotiate delicate topics and situations.
We can do a lot by ourselves, but a trained therapist may offer insights and techniques that wouldn’t have occurred to us.
Furthermore, they can also offer neutral observations that could have gotten overlooked in the heat of an argument or in the aftermath of hurt feelings.
Understand that hurting others is sometimes inevitable.
When you’re trying to negotiate territory after you’ve hurt someone you love—be it intentionally or unintentionally—it’s always important to observe the situation as a whole.
Determine how you got to the point where the hurt happened, and see if you can figure out how to avoid similar situations again.
For example, let’s say you suddenly yank your child by the arm to save them from being hit by a car that’s spinning out of control. The kid will cry because you hurt them and will have absolutely zero awareness of the fact that they were nearly killed.
They didn’t notice the car, and certainly couldn’t grasp the idea that something terrible almost happened to them. All they know is that their mom or dad hurt their arm, and now they’re upset about it.
In a situation like this, you can try to explain to them that they were in danger and they got hurt accidentally because you needed to keep them safe. You can apologize for causing them pain and try to explain the cause-and-effect in language that they can understand.
Then you can put an action plan into place so you can handle similar future situations in a healthier manner.
Generally, young children and some elderly adults are often incapable of recognizing what’s going on around them and what needs to be done.
Children don’t have enough of a grasp of how the world works to be cognizant of the consequences of potential threats, while elderly people may be losing their faculties and are entirely focused on their own thoughts, memories, and desires.
This isn’t out of malice, but rather because there’s a self-involved sociopathy that happens when the brain is either just starting to develop or when it’s breaking down.
This is why good communication between people is key. If you and the person you had conflict with are level-headed and can express how you feel and what your needs are, that massively cuts down on potentially hurtful scenarios.
Even if they simply comprehend what you’re saying and where you’re coming from—and make a conscious effort to offer a sympathetic ear and real compassion—this can be a game changer for everyone.
Hurting those we love is always terrible for everyone involved. We hate to cause them grief, and they certainly don’t like the discomfort or emotional lurches pain can cause.
Hopefully, by getting to the root of what caused it and making real efforts to apologize and change behavior in the future, you can all work together to make life a bit sweeter for everyone.
Forgiveness may take time—especially if the hurt was severe—but love and patience go hand in hand in all close relationships.