Translating “I don’t want to hurt you”

A short list of phrases people don’t want to hear: “We need to talk;” “You have the right to remain silent,” “There’s nothing we can do,” “I hate to be the one to tell you;” and “I don’t want to hurt you.” In each case, the phrase itself is innocuous. The fear of what follows it is the killer.

Several times recently, I’ve been on the receiving end of “I don’t want to hurt you.” At least once I’ve said it, and I’ve thought it other times in the midst of conversations. Each time, the nuance was different. Each time, understanding what was behind the formulaic “I don’t want to hurt you,” could have–or did–make a difference in how the conversation resolved.

Most of us don’t want to cause our loved ones pain. The caveat “I don’t want to hurt you” signals that they have already considered what they are doing or about to say, and decided that we will be hurt. They may be right. They might not be. At any rate, they hope to soften the perceived blow by saying they don’t want to hurt us. Regardless what comes next, we are braced for something bad. Depending on our personalities, we get in a mentally in a defensive position, pulling back emotionally to distance ourselves from the potential hurt and the person causing it, or perhaps we brace ourselves to argue back, maybe hoping to change the hurtful information or action.

Does the person saying it believe that I’m not strong enough to deal with whatever ill wind is being heralded? Is that phrase a signal that I’m too sensitive,  “I don’t want to hurt you, but…” can imply that there is a doubt about my emotional or spiritual strength. It’s a power phrase: someone in a weaker or less powerful position wouldn’t use it. The person who uses it is the person with the power, which can come with the implication that there is a concern that the person hearing it is too weak to deal. That subtext is not always there, but the person saying it is always the one who has the power–at least at that moment if not always.

Perhaps the subtext is that I am the source of the issue that is about to be revealed, whether that’s expressly pointed out or not. The older I get, the more aware of my foibles, downfalls, and mistakes I’ve become. I’ve recognized unnoticed strengths, too, and earned my scars–but I now see how even in situations where I wasn’t causing the issue, my choices compounded it. I’m not as innocent or as victimized as I’d like to believe or about my ability to recognize and accept my fallibility. “I don’t want to hurt you” can preface a statement explicitly or implicitly pointing out my role in creating a problem–and that’s often what I hear, even when it’s not intended.

Or it could mean that the person saying it questions whether the relationship is strong enough to have uncomfortable, hard conversations. “I don’t want to hurt you” can precede information or actions that end a relationship, or that at least throw the previous definition of it up for discussion. Generally, people don’t begin a relationship by saying “I don’t want to hurt you,” but how many breakups include those words? Of course that could be the opening to a productive, open, honest conversation full of a range of emotions–that’s best case, and I would burn candles and wave sage around if I could ensure that was what happened every time I was in a conversation with those words. But using that phrase instead of simply introducing the topic carries with it the idea that maybe–perhaps–the relationship isn’t strong enough in some way to overcome what comes after that phrase. “I don’t want to hurt you” is a sideways check point about the commitment both people–or all the people–have to the relationship or situation involved. What comes after that phrase may be less important that the fact that there’s doubt or fear about how the information will be dealt with.

There’s an assumed “but” after the phrase. “I don’t want to hurt you, but..” However, I’ve used it as a statement of stubbornness. I won’t do something–whether it needs done or not, whether it hurts me or not–because I don’t want to hurt you. When it’s used that way, the person saying it has already decided a course of action or silence, has determined to be a martyr in the name of not hurting someone else. It sounds noble, and it can feel noble, but it’s disempowering to the other party and kills a partnership or relationship in record time.

Of course, all those situations only occur if the phrase is spoken. Perhaps the worst, the hardest to understand or recover from, is the unspoken “I don’t want to hurt you.” Best case, that leads to conversations that begin “I didn’t want to hurt you,” and those come with their own baggage because of the timing, but the previous reasons the information wasn’t disclosed in a more timely manner still apply.

The introductory crutch of “I don’t want to hurt you” is a formula we know, a trope we fall into. I’m sure I’ll use it again, and I’m sure I’ll hear it again. Beware, though: if a conversation ends with that phrase, the relationship may be on life support. Being hurt is part of being alive and being connected with others. Continuing the conversation, more than once if needed, to understand the beliefs behind “I don’t want to hurt you” or “I didn’t want to hurt you” might lead to more understanding, honest, and open communication. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Lessons I Should Have Learned Earlier: The Nice Girl

You probably know me. I’m a nice person. I’m the responsible one who does what needs done, who generally puts others’ needs first, who usually defers my emotional responses until a convenient time. I was raised believing love is patient, love is kind, love doesn’t keep score, and all you need is love.

That made me an easy target. I was drawn to the men who needed me — often angsty intellectuals who I thought were deep. I found it easy to pick up the lost socks of their daily lives because they obviously were focused on less superficial things. I could handle the bills, do the cleaning, and in fact, earn almost all the income — love didn’t keep score, and being patient and kind was a trademark of love. Of course a relationship took work. I accepted that I was the one doing all the work — emotional and physical — without question.

I defined myself by how I could serve. My upbringing and my church encouraged that: Servant Leadership was a buzzword that I heard in weekly church services, and the professional culture surrounding my day gig, education, reinforced it even more. “Whatever It Takes” was the mantra for my life. It took years for me to see that I was a helpfulness-junkie and even longer to begin to change it. I was the accommodating committee member who took on the extra responsibility, the friend who almost always said of course I have time for whatever you need.

When I finally left my two-decade marriage, I was shocked that all my friends and family were happy. Relieved. They were surprised that I finally realized I could walk away. They knew I was the nice girl.

The first lesson that I should have learned earlier was this: Nice girls — and nice boys, too — need to keep score, to yell “No” and “I’m done.” We need to know that any relationship we lose because we refuse to do the lion’s share of work, emotional or physical, is a relationship we’re better off losing. I’ve always been able to champion causes or people I cared about, but I rarely advocated for myself. I had a hard time telling anyone what I needed or wanted because I didn’t know. It was (and still is, usually) nearly unthinkable to inconvenience anyone else, even when I have missed sleep or emptied my pocket fulfilling their needs.

Lennon and McCartney were wrong. Love isn’t all you need, regardless how sincerely they sing it. It may be wrong to keep score of every action every day, but a regular check in to make sure that no one is freeloading in the relationship is essential, especially if one person is prone to enabling.

Today I was talking to an acquaintance, a woman slightly older than myself who had spent a great deal of time and energy arranging an event for a group I’m part of. There had been some complications with the event, and she tenaciously fought to make the event turn out well. It was wonderful, and as I thanked her, she said, “Well, I’m a nice girl, and I didn’t want to let anyone down. That was my fear, you know.”

I know. And in my friend’s situation, being tenaciously nice worked to my group’s advantage. If I had been in her place, I would have done exactly what she did. But that was for a weekend, not for a lifetime. Lesson one that I finally learned — and sometimes have to relearn — is that it is fine, even better than fine, to be not-nice. Now, if people sing “All you need is love” as they expect me to put their dirty socks in the hamper, I do my best to turn my inner channel from The Beatles to Nancy Sinatra. If my niceness is being taken advantage of, “These Boots are Made for Walking” is my new theme song.