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The spiral of pain and harm in partnerships

Interpersonal relationships can be a battlefield of mutual insults and emotional traumas. If one or both parties are not clear about the dark side of their feelings, thoughts, and actions, patterns of offence can arise that repeatedly hurt the other and are harmful to the relationship. Typical relationship dramas are then the result of a downward spiral of these patterns.

Mental wounds occur in partnerships and within the family, in friendships, and in other connections. In the following, I refer to couple’s relationships because damages are in many cases particularly intensely here.

The psychiatrist Reinhard Haller speaks of three phases in relationships in which mutual hurts can increase. At the same time, all stages hold the potential that both parties can grow together, and the relationship can deepen if both want to hold onto the connection. Here are courses shown that typically appear in practice. There is no claim to general validity.

Stage I: First disappointments in relationships

In the time after the first euphoric fall in love, there are inevitable disappointments. Opposing sides of the partner become apparent and can be offensive. The other person may no longer receive the increased attention, and perhaps the first lovelessness creeps in. Overall, mindfulness can decrease, and in many cases, the other’s vulnerability is no longer perceived as sensitively on both sides as at the beginning of the relationship.

In terms of the potential for injury, it is not insignificant how the connection began. If, for example, one of the parties has already rejected, felt unimportant, or in some way restricted as the relationship is approaching, emotions can build up at this point and lead to mutual accusations. For example, one accuses the other of being numb while the other complains about sensitivity.
Quite often, comments and negative behaviour happen unconsciously, which hit a vulnerable spot in the other.

Stage II: Patterns of offence establish themselves

Realistically, relationships cannot meet all of the expectations we have of others. This leads to disappointment and corresponding offensive reactions on both sides, which are a part of human coexistence. Decisive for the individual degree of injury are the extent and form of antagonistic behaviour as well as the personal assessment of the resulting conflicts.

In longer couple relationships, one person often takes the more dominant part, while the other tends to set aside their own needs and set fewer or no limits at all. In many cases, this can result in a pattern in which one person hurts more willingly or unwillingly while the other does not offer adequate resistance. This phase can drag on over a long period.

Character traits, including a person’s nature, play a role but are not the decisive factor. For example, a person can play a dominant role in a couple’s relationship while having another part in a friendship. Interpersonal relationships are complex structures and must therefore always be considered in their individuality. There are, however, specific patterns of offence that can be repeated in a couple’s relationship.

Classic recurring forms of pain and harm in partnerships

  • Harshness, bittering
  • Deprivation of affection, attention and interest, i. E. deprivation of love. Also, in the form of affairs
  • Lecturing and dictating
  • Accusations
  • Excessive demands and expectations
  • Insults, shame
  • Controlling behaviour
  • Humiliations, devaluation
  • Silent removal
  • Make yourself aloof
  • Offended silence
  • Emotional blackmail
  • Emotional manipulation (e.g. making you feel guilty)
  • Sexual inactivity
  • Ignorance
  • Building walls around yourself

Hurtful behaviour mostly occurs because one party feels threatened in its self-worth (more on this under Defense Strategies – Programs to Avoid Painful Feelings).

In unhealthy couple relationships, there are often constellations in which a person is permanently reticent, insecure and tolerant. She/he may be overly careful not to offend or otherwise irritate the other. This can happen to the point of submission. In contrast, the other person leases the prerogative to hurtful behaviour and may even blame the other person for it („Look what you made me do!“).

The possibilities as mentioned above of inflicting emotional wounds on the partner make it clear that power struggles can play a unique role in relationships. The extent to which attributes of power and powerlessness are instrumentalized in couple relationships can be seen, for example, in who takes the first step towards each other after an argument and resumes the conversation. In the unhealthy constellation, this is not the dominant offender, as he/she does not feel that he/she has acted wrongly but only has to pay the other person’s debt.

Suppose feelings and negative experiences build up over a long period and no mature ability to criticize and conflict arises from being together. In that case, the basis of communication is severely damaged.

Stage III: Decision-making phase and separation/divorce

The decision-making and separation process phase can appear abruptly, but it creeps in and can drag on for years. The separation is preceded by a stressful decision-making phase and in which there can be many joint injuries. Not infrequently, violent power struggles are waged, combined with numerous disappointments, as well as devaluations of the other. Pent-up and recurring injuries, insults and arguments eventually lead to disillusionment on one or both sides. You can then decide whether the relationship will reach a new level, where old wounds can be worked up together and a new basis created.

Feelings can also turn around in the decision-making phase: Admiration now turns into rejection, sympathy can turn into contempt and love into hate. In many cases, the connection is broken.

It is not uncommon for the old wounds to become visible again, which have never been discussed or cleared up. This can lead to a reversal of roles: The party that previously tended to be cautious takes on the dominant part and is now the one who hurts several times. In this context, needs for mutual revenge often shimmer. The victim then becomes the „perpetrator“. The perpetrator of yore is now the „victim“.


Then at some point on one side, there is the wrong word, the wrong behaviour that finally brings the barrel to overflowing. It is not uncommon for these to be sayings that do not always have to do with the deeper causes of the conflicts. When the rift is deep, and there is no reflection, admission of personal misconduct, and sincere apologies on one or both sides, there is often no desire to continue working on and holding on to the relationship. In many cases, this is where the other partner can completely lose respect for the other. Then the hostile separation from the partner follows.

The turning away from the other is either carried out in silence, for example, because one party realizes that all attempts at adjustment did not produce the desired results, that explanations and arguments remained misunderstood and could not get through to the other. In most cases, especially in divorce, the distancing is clear and precise, often dramatically.

Many people feel lost and disaffected in the first few weeks and months after a breakup or divorce. With the slow process of coming to terms with many injuries, new hurts are also brought to light, of which there was previously no awareness.

After the breakup

While some people come out of the breakup stronger, more realistic and more tolerant of frustrations, others develop chronic hurt reactions. That means negative feelings about the separation are reactivated again and again by various triggers. In some cases, there may be bitterness and social isolation.

In many cases, the experience of loss itself does not have so much effect on separations and divorces. But often the damaged self-esteem. We are disappointed in ourself and our partner. The mutual injuries reverberate and hurt. Not infrequently, in the course of separations and divorces, feelings of failure and guilt, as well as doubts about oneself, arise. In many cases, behaviours were displayed that do not correspond to the actual essence in the emotional disputes.

However, many feelings and behaviours in the spiral of mutual hurts and injuries can be explained and, at their core, often have understandable backgrounds that can explain, but are not always an apology.

Dealing with one’s own shadow sides

Suppose people deal a little deeper with their dark sides of feeling, thinking and acting. In that case, the separation or divorce offers an opportunity to mature in their personality and establish a meaningful way of dealing with injuries. After some healthy processing time, the separation or divorce can then be integrated as part of personal life experience, and there is room for new, enriching and beneficial partnerships.

In connection with the spiral of hurts and injuries in partnerships, depression or other reactions on a mental and physical level can occur. You can find more information about attachment anxiety, the phases of grief after separation under phases of grief coping and How to reconcile? -Stages of Reconciliation.

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