Communication Currents

Coping with Hurtful Events

February 1, 2012
Interpersonal Communication

Valentine’s Day often conjures up images of long-stemmed roses and heart-shaped boxes filled with chocolate. Yet relationships are not all hearts and flowers. Even in the best of relationships, couples sometimes encounter problems that lead them to feel negative emotions, such as jealousy, anger, and frustration, and to communicate in destructive ways. Managing these types of situations effectively by using constructive forms of communication is one key to maintaining a healthy and happy relationship. 

Over the past two decades, my research has explored various ways that couples use communication to cope with negative events in their relationships. My early work in this area focused on how people communicate jealousy. More recently I have examined how couples cope with hurtful events such as infidelity and deception. This line of research offers some practical suggestions for how couples can be successful in dealing with problematic events in their relationships.

One key to success is for couples to use integrative communication. This style of communication, which focuses on problem solving, negotiation, and social support, is effective when people are experiencing negative emotions such as anger, jealousy, and hurt. Integrative communication strategies include calmly questioning the partner about her or his actions and feelings, explaining one’s own feelings, validating the partner’s position by noting areas of agreement, reassuring one another, and discussing what can be done to prevent a similar problem from occurring in the future.Validation and reassurance may be especially important. Hurt feelings often occur when people feel disrespected, undervalued, and betrayed. Couples who validate one another’s feelings (e.g., “I understand why you feel that way”) and reassure one another (e.g. “You know that I will always love you”) stand a better chance of working through hurtful events.

Another key to success involves using effective remedial strategies. After people engage in hurtful acts, such as cheating, lying, making an especially cruel remark, or betraying a confidence, they often use remedial strategies to try to make themselves look better in the eyes of their partner. Three remedial strategies, in particular, seem to be most effective: sincere apology, appeasement, and relationship invocation. Sincere apology involves saying “I’m sorry” while also expressing remorse for one’s actions. For example, a wife might tell her husband, “I’m sorry I lied to you. I feel really bad about it. If I had it to do over again, I would have told you the truth in the first place.” Apologies are more likely to be accepted if they are perceived to be heartfelt. 

Appeasement involves doing something to try and make it up to the partner. Sending flowers, planning a special evening out, and doing extra favors for the partner are all classic examples of appeasement strategies. These behaviors show that the person who engaged in the hurtful act is willing to work to repair the relationship. Finally, when people use relationship invocation they talk about the hurtful event within the context of the broader relationship. For example, Spencer might tell his girlfriend, “I know we can get through this because we love each other so much.” This type of statement reinforces the positive qualities of the relationship. 

Other remedial strategies are not so successful. Sometimes people try to justify or minimize their actions by saying things like “Someone else made me do it,” or “It’s not that big of a deal.” This type of communication often infuriates the hurt person who is looking for an apology and an acknowledgement of wrongdoing rather than an excuse. Of course, some explanations are valid and can be effective. For example, Sophie might explain that she only had lunch with her ex-boyfriend because he seemed depressed and she wanted to help him, not because she is still attracted to him. This type of explanation showcases that Sophie is a good person and that her ex-boyfriend is not a threat. In general, explanations are more effective when they provide this type of reassurance. 

Perhaps the most ineffective remedial strategy is a refusal. Refusals occur when people refuse to acknowledge that they did anything wrong. A famous example of refusal was featured on the classic television series Friends. Two of the characters, Ross and Rachel, had a big fight and decided to “take a break.” That same night, Ross hooked up with someone else. When Rachel found out, Ross used a lot of different remedial strategies, but eventually he settled on defending himself by saying that he didn’t do anything wrong because they were “on a break.”  This only made matters worse, which is consistent with research showing that the first step toward forgiveness and relationship repair is acknowledging wrongdoing.

Forgiveness plays an essential role in maintaining and repairing relationships after hurtful events have occurred. My program of research suggests that certain kinds of communication are related to forgiveness. Specifically, people report more forgiveness if they perceive themselves to have used integrative communication and their partner to have apologized sincerely and engaged in appeasement behavior. There are times, however, when communication cannot repair the situation. Indeed, the severity of the hurtful action is a key predictor of whether or not forgiveness will be forthcoming. Acts such as infidelity, violence, and lying about something important can permanently damage relationships by destroying the bonds of trust and loyalty that tie partners together. In these cases, if forgiveness is granted, there are often strings attached such that if a similar act occurs in the future, forgiveness will be rescinded. 

On the other hand, my research suggests that relationships are more likely to withstand the trauma associated with hurtful events if they were previously considered rewarding and satisfying. In this case, the positive consequences of staying in the relationship may outweigh the negative effects of the hurtful event, especially if that event is perceived to be an isolated case. Forgiveness is likely to be forthcoming, and people are more likely to communicate forgiveness using constructive methods such as being nonverbally affectionate (e.g., giving the offender a hug) or discussing issues related to the hurtful event. People may also be more likely to forgive when they have put a lot of investment (in terms of time, energy, and other resources) into their relationship, in part because they think it is worth it to try to save a relationship into which they have invested so much. In short, hurtful events are not evaluated in a vacuum. They are considered in the context of the type of relationship that people share. The same hurtful event is more forgivable in an otherwise good relationship than it would be in a relationship that is plagued with other problems.  

In sum, relationships are not always characterized by the love and attraction associated with Valentine’s Day. They are also associated with the ups and downs of everyday living and the bumps that come when partners hurt one another. The saying “we always hurt the ones we love” rings true, but if a couple’s relationship is built on a solid foundation and partners employ constructive rather than destructive communication, they are well equipped to weather the storms that can cloud even the best relationships.

About the author (s)

Laura K. Guerrero

Arizona State University

Professor