Primary Location

PO Box 208

Forest Falls, CA 92339 US





 Bill and Robin Shearer



At first glance the title of this piece might not make much sense. If it had a comma in the middle it would read like a sociopathic call to arms, something you might hear from someone trying to insight violence in a mob. However, there is no comma so it’s really a complete sentence meant to convey the message hurting people are hurtful to people, even hurtful to the people they love.

We are reminded of a song by the Mills Brothers that was popular in World War II:

You always hurt the one you love, the one you should not hurt at all;
You always take the sweetest rose, and crush it till the petals fall;
You always break the kindest heart, with a hasty word you can't recall;
So if I broke your heart last night, it's because I love you most of all. 

You might be thinking: No, that isn’t me. I’m always kind and compassionate, never hurtful.

Well, think about it. How about when you’re really stressed or scared? How about when you’ve experienced something really upsetting or disappointing? How about when your partner is acting in a way you perceive as inconsiderate, or maybe even unloving or rejecting?

So, if you are like nearly all the rest of us humans, there has probably been an occasion when you felt overwhelmed by your own distress, when you were hurting, and you unintentionally, or maybe even intentionally, were hurtful to someone you cared about.

Sometimes you are hurtful because of how you perceive your relationship. Interacting with your partner can be stressful but how about your contribution? Is your perception part of the problem? Do you sometimes perceive that your partner is purposely causing you stress? Do you compound the situation by reacting in a way that in turn further increases your partner’s stress? It can be a vicious circle, with each of you adding to the stress of the situation, each of you creating more distress for your partner.

Jean-Paul Sartre in No Exit stated: “Hell is other people.” A 2011 American Psychological Association survey, Stress in America, seemed to confirm Sartre’s point. The survey found that 58% of American adults point to relationships as a major source of stress. In fact, the survey indicated that work and money issues are less stressful than relationship issues.

Another finding was that only 33% of Americans believe they can trust others leaving 67% interacting with others with defensiveness and self-protection. How about you? The basic question each of us has about our relationship is: “Are you there for me?” Sometimes you’re not sure. When there is conflict, fear and insecurity are easily triggered.

 Let’s look at it from the position of evolutionary psychology and the way our brains have evolved. We are more wired for perceiving threat and reacting quickly with self- protection or avoidance than we are for letting down our guard and choosing caring, openness and respectful dialogue.

Your brain, like everyone’s brain, is designed to be hypervigilant and ready for flight, flight, or freeze, depending upon the situation. If your ancestor sat calmly on a rock admiring a beautiful sunset, he or she might have been eaten by the Sabertooth Tiger lurking in the bushes. Our ancestors survived by remembering every bad thing that ever happened (the negativity bias), while anticipating dangerous things in the future.

Have you ever noticed how your partner in an instant can become a Sabertooth Tiger, at least that’s how your partner may be perceived by your brain’s alarm system. One moment your partner is your soulmate, someone you feel lucky to have found. Then in a flash your partner is transformed to someone who feels dangerous to you (ladder of inference). That’s your protective brain getting activated. Your partner now seems threatening and you may counter that threat with an angry response (fight), or withdrawal to safety (flight), or with a third alternative, doing nothing, shutting down, or getting numb (freeze).

Do you get defensive? Do you get angry? Do you attack? Do you sometimes want nothing more than to avoid anger and conflict? Do you sometimes tell yourself stories about your partner’s evil intent, or their unreasonableness, or the fact that they are obviously wrong? If you answered yes to any of these, it only means you’re human like the rest of us. These are normal responses to anger and conflict, but also responses that lead to more stress and anxiety for both of you.

We tend to get stuck in the emotions that stem from our need for self-protection and avoidance of pain. Do you get caught up in fight, flight, or freeze mode and don’t know how to get out of it?

Decades ago, we spent much of our time intensively teaching couples basic communication skills. We taught them to be assertive. We taught them to listen. We taught them how to negotiate for what they needed. We taught them to be compassionate and respectful.

However, there was a problem.

When conflict arose (and conflict is inevitable given that you are two different people), all of those great communication skills we taught flew out the window. Why? It’s because their old brains took over (their amygdala and limbic system) and negated all the good stuff they had been taught. In the heat of the moment, their only concerns were self-protection and avoidance of pain. Their partner had become an enemy to fight, avoid, or just shut down.

Obviously, we had been missing something. With that realization we began a search to find ways to help our clients have more self-awareness and better self-management. At that point we noticed mindfulness, a 2500-year-old Buddhist practice. 

Learning great communication skills, although important, clearly wasn’t enough. The solution was cultivating, and practicing, mindfulness skills. Our clients needed to learn how to be fully present in the moment, becoming conscious and intentional, with self-calming skill and the ability to create a mindful pause, a space between the stimulus (your trigger), and your response. Our clients needed space for an emotionally intelligent response.


This is easily one of the most important skills you will ever learn. It’s the ability to calm down, slow down, relax, give up control, give up needing to be right, give up needing to defend or avoid, and instead be able to be fully present in the here and now, focused and aware — and able to make emotionally intelligent choices.

Can you imagine consistently catching yourself on the verge of being reactive or defensive and instead choosing attentive listening and the pursuit of understanding? Yes, you can get there but it takes persistent practice to make it a powerful habit. Knowing is not enough.

What usually gets in the way? Your partner’s anger may trigger a well-conditioned and instantly defensive response. So, what is in amygdala?

Your amygdala, an almond shaped group of neurons in each medial temporal lobe of your brain, plays a central role in the processing and memory or emotions, especially fear, anxiety, and aggression. The amygdalae perform primary roles in the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events. When you partner is angry with you your amygdala springs into action, short-circuiting everything you might’ve learned about effective communication. It can be lightning fast. An amygdala hijack is when your amygdala has totally overwhelmed reason and you’re caught up in the past conditioning about anger and conflict. You’re in fight, flight, or freeze mode and you’ve lost IQ points.

We tend to get fixated on the anger. It’s unsettling and often throws us off-balance When your partner is angry with you, they may seem scary and dangerous, or a threat to your self-image and self-esteem. They may seem unloving and you may find the perceived emotional disconnection very disturbing. Your amygdala is activated and you find yourself in fight, flight, or freeze mode.

Have you ever noticed that nothing good happens after your emotional reactivity has reached this point? Are you aware when emotional reactivity has taken over? Are you aware of your amygdala hijack?

Noticing you are headed into fight or flight mode (sympathetic nervous system reactivity) is vital. This is a crucial point. This is where you need to be able to plug-in a learned and practiced shift to a calm, non-defensive, non-reactive state where you slow yourself down and choose to see your partner not as an angry attacker, but as someone worthy of your respect and compassion, someone you love. Rage can give way to compassion.

This is hard to do. It takes a lot of practice. As we so often tell our clients: the essence of a great relationship is self-awareness and self-management – along with a lot of practice and patience. You will never do this perfectly, but you can be better – a lot better.!

Most of us are not very good at emotional self-regulation, at least not until we’ve had sufficient learning and practice. Until then it’s more likely that our emotions and egos will take over when we feel threatened and we then become focused on being right, defending, avoiding, or winning. In a relationship, there is no win/lose, only win/win.

Conflict with a loved one can be painful and defending against emotional pain is totally natural. Of course, when defending, you often tell yourself you’re only trying to get your partner to see things the way they really are.

The most common way of defending is to engage in endless debate over the facts, over who has the best recall, who remembers things accurately. We’ve never seen anyone improve their relationship by debating the facts. They need to go deeper. They need mindfulness.

We also see a familiar cycle we call the Magpie Mole Syndrome. One partner is anxiously trying to engage, but often is seen as angry and attacking. The other partner may be just as anxious, but tends to avoid or shut down. This causes the first partner to feel abandoned and to increase his or her efforts, leading to their partner feeling even more uncomfortable. As that partner shuts down even more, the first partner may come to feel discouraged and may then also shut down. The ultimate result? Increasing distance and increasingly feeling unloved and unloving.

In terms of adult attachment styles, this pattern is a vicious cycle involving an anxiously attached partner and an avoidantly attached partner. It’s a very common pattern, but also very destructive.

What’s the solution? What needs to happen beyond self-calming, and a shift to the mindful pause? The solution involves a paradigm shift.

Shift your focus! Shift your awareness from your own distress to a greater awareness of your partners emotions, your partner’s discomfort. Stop debating the facts. That’s only surface material and debating the facts won’t help the relationship. Go deeper! Focus on emotions and unmet needs. Put your own stuff on the back burner and tune into your partner.

Get beyond focusing on your discomfort with your partner’s anger. Don’t let your discomfort and reactivity become part of the problem. Stop reacting and start understanding.

Anger is a secondary emotion. There is always something deeper. What’s behind your partner’s anger? Get curious! Your job is to figure out what the underlying feelings and unmet needs are and help your partner feel listened to and understood on an emotional level.

If your partner is indicating other emotions such as sadness or disappointment, go with it! Your problem isn’t their emotions. Be aware of your discomfort with your partners emotions. It may be that discounting their emotions or needing to avoid their emotions is the problem.

Epictetus, a first century Stoic philosopher said: “It’s not the event that upsets us it’s what we are telling ourselves about the event.” What are you telling yourself about your partners emotions that makes you uncomfortable? How about shifting the focus away from your own self-talk to understanding your partner’s hurt or frustration?

Remember – hurt people hurt people. Don’t get hung up on the surface stuff or how unfair and unreasonable your partner seems to be behaving. Stop debating the facts. That’s surface stuff and relatively unimportant. Try to get at what’s really going on with your partner at an emotional level. How are they wounded? How are they frustrated? What do they need?

Envision your partner as wounded or experiencing difficult emotions. Respond to those emotions with the intention to fully understand their feelings, perhaps with validation and empathy. Your job is to help your partner feel listened to and understood at an emotional level. Just be there for your partner with empathy and understanding. Here’s an example:

Bill: “Robin, when you’re angry with me I remind myself that your anger is a secondary emotion. What’s usually the emotion behind the anger?”

Robin: “It’s usually frustration. I’m feeling frustrated when I’m needing to have things a certain way and I perceive you not working with me or being oblivious of what I need. So, I get frustrated. In turn I get angry.”

Bill: “So, what if I said to you – You seem frustrated. Help me understand that. What do you need from me?”

Robin: “That would help. I wouldn’t get so angry thinking you didn’t care about my needs I’d feel good about you being willing to listen to me.”

So, instead of seeing your partner as that Sabertooth Tiger about to pounce on you, re-envision them as hurting. Realize that you are putting your own spin on their words and behaviors, and that your reactivity may be the true cause of your discomfort. It’s not what your partner is saying so much as what you’re telling yourself about what they are saying. You can choose to respond differently.

Imagine your partner wearing a sweatshirt labeled with feeling words such as frustration, fear, loneliness, frustration, hurt, or a number of other emotions. You job is to re-envision your partner not as that Sabertooth Tiger but as someone trying to express the words on the sweatshirt. Try to figure out what words apply, what emotions your partner is feeling. Be curious. Ask questions. Learn about your partner’s unique awareness of his or her world Develop clarity about what your partner is feeling and what their unmet needs are.

Visualize a more constructive and less reactive response. Imagine engaging in a calm, respectful dialogue about unmet needs and deeper feelings. Of course, you will also get a turn but here it’s good to remember one of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; Seek first to understand and then to be understood. You don’t have to agree but you do have to understand.

So, here’s a summary of what we’ve said:

1. Commit to learning mindfulness skills for being in the now and having clarity about what’s happening in the moment. Learn to slow down and be present, not hanging on to past events or anticipating future events. Be in the now.

2. Learn how to create a mindful pause, a space between stimulus and response in which you are free to choose an emotionally intelligent response rather than a knee-jerk autopilot response.

3. Practice not getting hung up on the facts or your discomfort with your partner’s emotions. Recognize that it is not your partner’s anger so much as the meaning you place on their anger.

4. Shift your focus from your own discomfort to a curiosity about your partners deeper emotions. Be curious about your partner’s unique awareness and experiencing of their world.

5. Envision your partner as wounded, hurting, frustrated, lonely, fearful, etc. and go deeper. Move beyond a debate over the facts to pursuing understanding of your partner’s feelings and unmet needs. You don’t have to agree to have empathy and understanding.

6. Engage in mutually respectful dialogue focusing on needs and feelings in a calm, accepting manner. Strive for  it to be the two of you against the problem instead of being against each other.

There you have it. Simple? No, not really. It takes persistence, practice, and patience, but the rewards are great. Hurt people don’t have to hurt people. Yes, Hell is other people, but heaven can also be other people. Conflict can be an opportunity to grow your relationship.

This material has been drawn from our forthcoming book — Being the Right Partner.


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