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.

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