Overcoming a Hurtful Relationship: Learning from Our Regrets in a Relationship
The regret that we may feel, arising from insensitive, hurtful, or merely unconscious things that we’ve done in our relationships, doesn’t have to lead us right down into the quagmire of guilt. The pain that comes up in these kinds of situations can serve a much more constructive function. It can wake us up to the cause and conditions of a hurtful relationship. It can motivate us to look at ourselves, to learn and grow – so as not to make the same hurtful mistakes in the future.
Relationships are, by their very nature, exploratory. Initially, there can be that rush of excitement, of infatuation – the dopamine high – when we’re first getting to know someone, and we’re swept up in the attraction and anticipation. It usually doesn’t take long for at least some of this glamour to wear off; and then we’re left with the sobering sense of estrangement. We start seeing the other person for who he or she really is. Our partner is not a god or goddess, but merely a human being with foibles and quirks. And, simultaneously, we’ve lost a little luster in their eyes, too. Suddenly, neither partner is on their best behavior. The dynamic is not as intoxicating at this stage, maybe; but it’s a lot more real.
This is one place in the development of a relationship where misunderstandings can rupture the harmony, where hurtful relationship things are often said and done. Perhaps we simply become careless with our words, or not as attentive as we had been; or we lose the enthusiasm we previously had for the time spent together. In more extreme instances, disillusionment with an idealized love affair can be expressed in damaging ways: criticism, insults, power plays, angry displays, and manipulation, to name just a few. In all of these situations, we have the freedom to hold onto our reactions and defend our point of view. But we can also choose to own and feel our regret for the misunderstanding; and that pain can create movement, provoke conversation, diffuse anger, and ultimately bring us closer to our loved ones.
Regret carries the memory of the love that is really there. If we didn’t actually love our partners, then we wouldn’t feel pain when conflicts arose. Thus, feeling our regret for our own behaviors – or for our part of a hurtful relationship – brings us back to our senses and enables us to see what’s real in the moment.
It also facilitates open communication. It’s hard for a conversation to move when both partners are angry. When we feel attacked, we typically defend ourselves; and from that stance, we don’t want to reveal our real feelings and desires. But feeling our pain, without reacting to it, makes us vulnerable. When we’re vulnerable, it’s easier to be honest and fair in our speech. We don’t waste time and energy defending our pride and our position. And if we’re vulnerable ourselves, then our partners may feel like it’s safe for them to lower their defenses, too. Allowing our sense of regret to be part of the conversation, we may realize that we never wanted the present conflict, or the past conflicts that cause the hurtful relationship, in the first place. We may have really wanted to say something entirely different. And our regret can teach us how to avoid making those same mistakes in the future.
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