The story ahead comes from a real experience recounted to me in my practice. Sadly, Kim's experience, or some close version of it, is a common one. Maybe you've experienced it too?
Kim came downstairs for breakfast that morning only to find the coffeemaker full of old coffee. Yesterday’s brew sat in the pot, looking stale and dead. Her husband had always woken up earliest and was the designated coffee-maker in the family.
Kim could count the number of times she’d made coffee on one hand in the nearly two decades of breakfasts together. As she looked at yesterday’s molding coffee, she remembered her husband’s recent announcement that he was swearing off coffee because of acid reflux. The feeling she had standing there, looking at the old brown liquid, listening to her husband chewing his cereal, was of profound hurt, sadness, and anger.
“You didn’t make coffee?” she asked, trying to keep her voice and herself calm. “Because you’re not having coffee, you didn’t think you’d make it for me, or didn’t think I was going to have coffee for some reason?”
“I completely forgot, I didn’t even think about it,” he said, oblivious to her feelings.
Kim, who still had three school lunches to make for her kids, then started to prepare herself a coffee, but soon abandoned the process.
“Because you aren't drinking coffee, what about the coffee I drink?” she asked, trying to hold back tears as she moved away from the coffee maker.
Her husband said nothing, but soon got up and started brewing a pot. Kim continued on with breakfast as if everything was normal, but inside she was struggling with strong feelings. Her chest felt tight, and tears were brimming behind her eyes.
She felt trapped, knowing there was little she could say about what had happened that wouldn’t set off her husband’s anger and turn her into the “crazy” person who felt so much about something so small and meaningless. Fifteen minutes later, unable to hold her feelings in check, she cracked.
After her husband mentioned his acid reflux yet again, Kim responded with the following: “Yes, your symptoms sound really bad, and, my stomach is actually very different from your stomach. So, the fact that you have acid reflux doesn’t mean I do.
Her husband once again said nothing in response and nothing for the remainder of the meal.
Interactions like this one, profound but small hurts, happen all the time in couples, at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and every moment between. And usually, they’re not addressed or healed; they just fade away into the giant cauldron that is an intimate relationship.
In picking apart this experience, Kim and I discovered something surprising and significant: During that breakfast, she had felt guilty for saying something about the coffee. By making those comments, she felt like she had become the aggressor in the situation. She was now to blame; she was the problem. And consequently, she was now at risk of being judged and criticized. What was most painful for Kim was the feeling of having nowhere to go with her feelings of hurt. And, simultaneously, feeling that if she expressed her anger and sadness directly, she would be blamed for having those feelings—she would become the bad guy.
While this case may sound extreme, it’s entirely commonplace. These sorts of deep, wounding moments happen all the time. Kim is not different from most of the men and women I see who are in a relationship. We get hurt all the time, and yet, so often, it doesn’t feel safe to express what we actually feel, and so we don’t, or we do it in a distorted way. Or we immediately start trying to fix the problem before it’s even known.
Kim was hurt when she saw the old coffee. She immediately went into a story in her head about her husband, namely, that he’s self-involved and doesn’t notice what’s happening for anyone but himself. That was her narrative, but under that narrative were big feelings, specifically, feelings of not being taken care of. That little gesture of his making coffee each morning, seemingly meaningless, was, for Kim, a way that her husband took care of her and, ultimately, made her feel loved.
As we unpacked the experience together, it became clear that Kim did not feel emotionally taken care of in the relationship and had been making do with being taken care of on a practical level. Her husband’s thoughtlessness and disregard for her needs (since his needs had changed) made her feel even less taken care of. She would now have to give up one of the crumbs she received in the care-taking desert she inhabited. The feelings that the stale coffee awaiting her that morning evoked were thick with pain.
It was also important to notice that when Kim’s strong feelings and physical sensations arose that morning, she immediately shifted her attention away from herself and towards getting her husband to understand how she felt (which she herself didn’t know just yet). Her husband was now the focus of her attention; he had to get how he had hurt her and the meaning of his choice. And when he couldn’t or wouldn’t offer this to her, she felt even more heartbroken.
Our feelings of hurt too often and too quickly morph into a need to get our feelings understood and validated. We start searching to be understood before we even understand our own experience. Consequently, our feelings don’t have the space to exist, don’t get to deliver the truths they hold, and most certainly don’t get taken care of—not by the other from whom we seek understanding and not through our own self-compassion.
We get hurt and then end up feeling guilty for chasing after the other person’s understanding. In our efforts to be known, we land in the role of the desperate aggressor, the one who’s demanding to have our experience understood, clawing for empathy and yet suffering deeply throughout the process. It's a far too common occurrence in a relationship: feeling hurt, guilty, and not understood—all at once.
Just as an experiment, the next time strong feelings arise, see what it’s like to simply experience what you’re experiencing, feel the feelings in your body. Just for that moment, give yourself permission to not have to get your feelings understood by whoever you believe caused them or must understand them. See what's underneath the feelings, what deeper hurt has been triggered.
When we interrupt our urge to be immediately understood—when we surrender our chase for the other’s empathy and validation—we have a chance to be with ourselves in a loving way, to understand our own experience and be our own container. In so doing, we can take care of ourselves in a profoundly new and powerful way, a way that genuinely helps us heal.
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