I’m generally a very compassionate and forgiving person. And that’s great in some ways, but like many things it can be a problem if taken too far.
When we were breaking up, my ex behaved in some very hurtful ways. But even at the time I was fairly sure that this was not because he meant to hurt me or was an unkind person. He hurt me because he was in deep emotional turmoil. I couldn’t get angry with him, because I could see the pain he was in, and the issues he was struggling with.
It’s so hard to know what to do when someone you care about is in so much pain that they lash out at those closest to them. At the time I tried to keep talking, and stay open. I also tried to spare him as much as I could of my own distress. With hindsight, it would have been better for both of us if I’d withdrawn and protected myself, setting strong boundaries and challenging his behaviour and his analysis of the situation. Lashing out in defensive anger wouldn’t have helped, but a little of the protective energy of anger might have helped me set those boundaries.
Anyway, I didn’t get angry, and I didn’t protect myself. This was partly because, as I said in an earlier post (love intuition and insecurity), I wasn’t really facing up to the extent of the problems. But it was also because I knew he was going through a period of confusion and distress, and I felt intense compassion.
That compassion made me want to stay close and help him resolve his problems. I tried to excuse the things that he said, feeling that this wasn’t really him, and that he didn’t intend to hurt me. And I tried to convince myself it was unreasonable to feel hurt when no hurt was intended.
I somehow managed to forget that you can still be hurt by someone who doesn’t intend to hurt you. Friendly fire. And the closer I stayed, and the more of myself I put into trying to resolve the problems between us, the more vulnerable I became to being hurt by him.
Loving someone makes you intensely vulnerable to the things they may say or do. Because you want to respect them. Because you want to believe that they are a good person. Because you want to believe that they’re stable and reasonable and fair. So you end up believing that the hurtful things they say are true, because a good person in an OK state would not say hurtful things without good cause. Being in love also tends to put you in a state of heightened awareness and sensitivity where even gentle criticism can cut deeply.
It was made worse because my ex kept giving me advice on how to react. He meant well, but I think giving a partner that sort of advice is generally a bad thing to do in a relationship crisis. It’s particularly dangerous if the advice doesn’t reflect an awareness that both partners are responsible for the problems in a relationship. And in this case, his advice was based on the very view of psychological reality that was causing him such problems in the first place. I didn’t see this until too late, and so I took far too much of what he said to heart.
Looking back, it’s no wonder I was hurt badly. I was wide open and unprotected in my dealings with someone who was falling apart inside.
I still don’t believe he meant to hurt me.
But I also cannot deny that he did.
And this whole painful mess has taught me that, even if you love someone, and believe that they love you too, you should still be ready to protect yourself against them if necessary. Compassionately, but firmly. For both your sakes. However much sympathy you may feel for a wounded animal, sometimes you just have to stay at a distance in order to be safe.