The past hour has been stained by worry, the discomfort of stress, or a throb of a headache or a bumped elbow; pain and suffering are a part of our daily life experience.
We don’t escape pain, though sometimes we may avoid or delay it.
For some, pain is acute, while others experience chronic physical pain caused by disease or injury. Then, there are those who are plagued with emotional suffering from mental illness or unhealed trauma which makes each day seem interminable.
Less acknowledged is the chronic emotional pain established in our lives born out of insensitive, unstable, or insufficient loving. It’s a pervasive pain, resembling white noise; it fades into the background and is long forgotten, although ever-present. This form of pain becomes part of what seems to be normal and therefore is cast into the unconscious.
This type of pain runs our relationships.
Pain, in many cases, is an initial cause for a relationship’s formation. It’s out of pain, due to loneliness or unfulfillment, many a partner was sought and accepted.
Incompleteness seeks completeness; the quest to love is often launched in an attempt to soothe emotional pain—an aching emptiness of inadequacy which a lover uses to validate worthiness.
Relating offers the opportunity to share pain; understanding opens the possibility of conquering a person’s aloneness. The exceptions are those inevitable moments when it is the partner who hurts us, amplified when judged not deserving of love.
The success of loving another is determined by how well we manage our pain. During this process, we run headlong into a paradox: loving requires openness, yet to endure our suffering, the pull is strong to close off in self-protection. The wounded animal hides securely in a hidden place to lick its wounds.
As much as togetherness seems to soothe, it coincidentally aggravates pain by hooking onto the remnants of very old, early-life injuries sustained before our memory was formed.
In reaction to our relationships, old pain, but not always its associated memories, rises into awareness. Ghosts from earlier days are set free into our current consciousness. Most lovers shadow box with these ghosts while firmly believing it is their partner doing the misdeeds. Innumerable partners are punished due to the others’ pain.
Almost automatically, when in pain, a partner is to be blamed; “If I am hurting, it must be your fault!” Patience is barely a hair’s thickness while suffering, a layer easily snapped by even a well-intentioned partner.
Shame-based pain is toyed with when teasing and taunting. Competitive bickering can be exciting, but underneath it fearfully forces partners to hide authenticity like buried treasure. The relationship’s loving potential goes down along with it. Partners urgently seek relief from shame in activities that are temporarily soothing but which quickly become extreme in obsession while injuring the other along the way.
Anger, hurtfulness, and frustration are provoked by sharpness. Countless lovers keep their best self out of view due to fear of rejection. Uncountable are the myriad of paper-cut hurts from insensitivity over the course of time.
The environment in which love thrives is contaminated by the effects of pain. Negativity blocks the sun of love. Wrong-making built from accusation forces defensiveness, a seemingly impenetrable wall, in the path to connection. Belittling passes on the pain from past disrespect. Irrational, futile hope of improvement and repair energizes partner battles.
Couples in pain turn away from each other to feel relief in the short-run. Distance gives the illusion of freedom from tasting the other’s pain. They kick the can of pain down the road upon which they soon will travel, tripping over the same can later.
No one’s pain is less valid than another’s. In a couple, all pain is our pain. We live in this suffering together; it’s hard to remain open while resisting the urge to push or run away from the significant other.
Listen underneath many of your loved one’s expressions and observe his or her suffering. It deserves a compassionate response, offering togetherness in what otherwise can be a very lonely pain.
Andrew Aaron, LICSW is a sex and relationship therapist who practices in the New Bedford Seaport.