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Examining Pain & Hurt in a Relationship

“Those with the capacity to feel great pain are also those with the capacity to feel deep joy.  Those who fall hard, rise gloriously”

“When pain knocks on the door, wise ones breathe deep and say, ‘Come in, sit down with me, and don’t leave until you’ve taught me what I need to know.’”

                                                                                   -Glennon Doyle Melton

Purgatory is a temporary state of suffering and punishment.  That is the term I use to describe those who are paralyzed in an unhealthy, toxic relationship cycle.  That can take the form of someone who’s engaged in a secret affair, emotionally cut off and absent from their spouse and kids but unwilling to leave the marriage or end the affair.   It may also look like someone who feels they’re stuck with an emotionally abusive or absent partner but they’re unwilling to leave or ask the partner to take steps to improve the health of the relationship.  Often these people remain in this paralyzed toxic state for months or even years.  They usually explain that they stay in this state because they’re trying to avoid the pain and consequences involved with making a concrete decision to stay or go. Ironically, maintaining that “in between” stage often brings an even greater and longer lasting level of pain and suffering versus moving in a concrete path toward reconciliation or moving on.

As a therapist I do my best to help clients transcend their challenges and crises in an effort to avoid prolonged suffering.  While PAIN can be an important learning tool during that process, SUFFERING is just drowning in misery.  I, unfortunately, see many clients paralyzed in a state of suffering; numbing, distracting from, and avoiding the pain.

We’re taught that pain is bad and that we should run from it.  But when it comes to emotional growth and gaining a greater understanding of ourselves and others, it is only achieved after we experience emotional discomfort.  It is in these uncomfortable, painful moments in life that we grow stronger, becoming more complex and dynamic.  But only if we sit with the pain and learn from it.  When we avoid this pain and distract ourselves from it versus pausing, listening to what the pain and discomfort is trying to tell us and what we need to figure out, we never have to grow, we never have to face our poor choices and make amends for them, figure out who we are, what we want from life, etc.

Why Are We So Afraid of Pain?

I’ve pondered this question so often.  Its counterintuitive.  We learn and grow when we’re in a state of discomfort.  Yet, we naturally avoid discomfort at all costs.  It’s a design flaw.  When we touch a hot pot, the PAIN we experience causes us to immediately pull away and avoid.  The burn of the hotpot on our skin is burned into our long term memory so we continue to remember “touching a hot pot is dangerous, I shouldn’t do that again”. Pain is meant to keep us alive and help us survive.  That’s physiological pain.  However, IRONICALLY when we experience EMOTIONAL pain and specifically—let’s say—in an unhealthy relationship, we AVOID the pain of making a concrete decision (i.e. come clean about what we’ve done, ask for forgiveness, work on repairing, ask a partner to engage in healing, etc.).  But the more time spent in that state of purgatory is MORE TIME exposed to the suffering.  I spend a lot of time trying to get my clients to understand that just because we’re experience physiological and emotional discomfort during an unhealthy relationship (or during a process of cutting off an unhealthy relationship) does not mean to numb, distract, avoid, runaway from the pain.

“Lean into” and Learn from the Discomfort

When we touch a hot pan, it burns our hand, we quickly pull it away and think “wow, I’m never doing that again.”  But I’m going to argue that the real message from the pain is to do it again, but smarter, and with better equipment.  Pain is a message meant to make us adapt, become smarter, act more wisely, and learn how to do important things better.

How We Handle Pain Culturally and Socially

It’s common to hear from friends and others to “just get over it,” “put it behind you and move on,” or “snap out of it.”  Advertisements are encouraging people to take a pill for your discomfort, buy things to feel better, and address feelings of inadequacies with inanimate objects such as liquor, clothes, cars, or beauty products.  “The message is often that pain, distress, and dissatisfaction are bad things.  Because they are bad, they should be removed, medicated, distracted from, or otherwise avoided.  Once a person is no longer in pain, or his or her pain has been numbed, once he or she is not aware of bad feelings, then he or she will feel good and will experience happiness” (Briere, Scott 85).  Basic message: the only way to feel good is stop bad feelings from being fully felt or expressed. (Briere, Scott 2013)

“Although a common approach to distress in our culture is to do whatever possible to end it, modern psychology (and, as it turns out, philosophies such as Buddhism) suggests that avoiding unwanted thoughts, feelings, and memories actually increases or sustains pain, symptoms, and distress—whereas directly experiencing and engaging pain ultimately reduces it (Briere, Scott 84).”  In fact, those who engage in dissociative (numbing or distracting from pain) behaviors by using drugs, not talking about what happened, or other types of those behaviors (denial) are more likely to develop intrusive and chronic posttraumatic problems and syndromes.  

Facing and Managing the Pain

“Those who are able to more directly experience distress or engage in psychotherapy, mindfulness training, therapeutic exposure or other ways of accessing traumatic memory are likely to have improved and less chronic outcomes”

                                                                                    --Briere & Scott

The above quote from trauma and pain experts was a fancy way of saying that those who courageously face and experience their pain are those who, ultimately, have healthier lives and relationships.  However, I have to add in a disclaimer that sometimes people need to process trauma and distressing memories, feelings, or events incrementally. Everyone has different tolerance levels. One’s ability address their uncomfortable feelings is strongly influences by their history, their support, their coping skills to manage addressing the issues (vs numbing and distracting).  Sometimes, due to the circumstances and environment around the individual, they need to avoid pain for a period or put off processing/facing pain in order to maintain homeostasis or survive an immediate crisis.  An overwhelmed trauma survivor should not flood his/herself with suppressed trauma and pain, but should engage in safe, manageable levels of hurt and pain, with professional and personal support.

Ultimately, however, the goal is for clients to fully process their uncomfortable/painful/hurtful feelings, build a tolerance for them, and avoid distracting, numbing, or ignoring them.  An individual needs to stay present in the pain, avoid less, and experience more. Pain is not bad, nor is anxiety or sadness.  In fact, these may indicate what needs to be acknowledged, processed, and addressed. Once that happens, they may fall away or lessen.

“Painful posttraumatic states such as flashbacks, grief, anxiety, or depression are not necessarily evidence of a disorder, per se.  The presence of uncomfortable feelings can represent a healthy condition, proof of awareness, even if its making you sad, distressed, or fear.” (Briere & Scott 85)

In closing, all relationships are freaking tough.   While there are many upsides to long-term, intimate relationships, they take a ton of work to keep them going down a healthy track.  In addition, it takes a ton of courage and strength to walk away from an unhealthy relationship.  Intimate relationships cannot be sustained without enduring uncomfortable conversations, confronting yucky feelings, and just a lot of pain.  The only problem is, as humans, we have instincts that make us want to run from pain.  If we ignore, numb or distract from the painful information the relationship is telling our instincts and intuition, then we’re missing the opportunity to transcend the crisis and reach a better level of understanding and compassion for ourselves and others. The healing happens when you take control of your life by figuring out who you are, what your values are, your non-negotiables, regardless of the consequences, while telling your body and mind that you’re not going to die as you walk through that state of discomfort. It’s going to be extremely painful and difficult, but you should not resist it.  Learn from it.

Works Cited:

Briere, John, and Catherine Scott.  Principles of Trauma Therapy : A Guide to Symptoms, Evaluation and Treatment.  2d edition Sage Publications. 2013

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