How to Discern Hurt from Harm in a Relationship

Great relationships are fulfilling. Great relationships involve risk. You can’t have the first without the second.

Great relationships require that you be open to taking risks—risks of being misunderstood, of alienation, of someone being hurt by you as well. It doesn’t mean relationships aren’t worth the risks, for the good ones are. It is simply the price of the course. No pain, no gain.

The challenge is that people who have been burnt in a relationship often have trouble with risk. They get out of balance. Sometimes they insist on no risk and try to control the course of the relationship. This can actually be boring and unfulfilling. And sometimes they allow behavior that is unacceptable in the name of taking risks. In other words, they don’t quite know the difference between risks that are worth taking and risks that are not worth taking. In order to move beyond boundaries and prepare yourself for openness and vulnerability, you have to clarify which risks are—and are not—worth taking.

For example, Nick was a man who came from a harsh and controlling family. He had few choices as a boy and had adopted a compliant personality style to survive his childhood. He just toed the line to make it from day to day and never expressed his real thoughts and feelings. His compliance pattern worked for him, and he learned to channel his energies into being a business success. He worked great in authoritarian structures, where the boss was strict and rigid. But he felt dead inside, and he knew it was a problem.

As I (Dr. Townsend) worked with Nick, he became aware of how much legitimate personal power and control he had never had. As often happens, when he got in touch with those feelings, he went through a season of becoming controlling himself, sort of turning the tables. Actually, it was a way for him to separate himself enough from the controlling dad in his mind, to become more comfortable with his own power. But during this season, he was hard to live with. When his wife disagreed with him about a financial decision he made, for example, this normally easygoing guy said, “If you loved me, you would support and trust me.” In other words, he interpreted her freedom as a lack of love and as something that was not good for him.

But here is the reality: the problem is never the freedom. The problem is always the character of two people: yours and the person you love. Don’t make freedom the bad guy; instead, you must celebrate and protect it, because without it there is no love. But you get hurt either because the person was unloving, there was a miscommunication, or you allowed something you shouldn’t have, or because you wanted something that wasn’t possible. So that leads us to the question of risk. If risk is inevitable and even a good thing, you need to understand the difference between risks that are acceptable and those that are not.

How do you discern the difference between a hurtful result and a harmful result when you take a risk? Here’s the distinction: while hurt is the experience of something painful, it may not be damaging. But harm is different. Harm creates significant problems in the three primary areas of life:

1. Withdrawal from other relationships
If your experience in a relationship affects how you relate to other people in a significantly negative way, this is a sign of harm. For example, if you find yourself unable to reach out and let others in, isolate yourself from people, or withdraw from support, that is harm. The difficult relationship caused damage that impacts your other relationships, and you need time and attention to heal.

2. Personal decline
Your personal life encompasses everything that happens inside your skin: your behaviors, how you feel about yourself, your emotional well-being, and your habits. If the relational conflict results in any kind of sustained personal decline — for example, depression, significant weight change, or incapacitating self-doubt—that is harm.

3. Diminished performance
Performance has to do with the doing aspects of life, the tasks and activities. Your job, career, financial life, home organization, and time management are parts of the performance piece. Harm happens when you can no longer function at the same levels you did or find that you can start projects and tasks but can’t finish them. Often, a person will experience problems in energy, focus, creativity, or enjoyment of work.

Are you starting to see the difference between hurt and harm more clearly? Does it give you a better idea of the kinds of risks that routinely come with connection and the kinds of risks that should never be taken? Here are some additional examples to help make the difference crystal clear:

  • It is acceptable to have an argument, but not to be yelled at and treated with contempt.
  • It is acceptable to pick the wrong person, but not to let that person take over your life, thoughts, and values.
  • It is acceptable to open up to a person and feel bad if they become critical of you, but not to allow it to happen repeatedly.
  • It is acceptable to give up controlling the outcome of the relationship and where it will end up, but not to let the other person’s choices be the only choices.

When problems happen in a relationship, keep pushing through hurt, as long as you are committed to the relationship. But pay attention to when things cross the line into harm.


Beyond Boundaries by Dr. John Townsend is the must-read guide designed to help you reinstate appropriate closeness with someone who broke your trust, discern when true change has occurred, and restore former relationships to a healthy dynamic. Learn More

➡️ Get The 10 Laws of Boundaries eBook when you subscribe to the Boundaries Weekly email newsletter. Learn More


  1. Susan Nance says

    Wish I could afford your book – I will save up for it. You make a lot of sense I struggle with my 95 yr old father and 2 16 yrd old twins (grands I adopted). I have a hard time setting boundries.

    • says

      Try the Library. If they don’t have it – we usually can request the library to purchase it, and they do. It takes a little while (maybe a month or 2) – but it’s free for us then. 🙂 And then others have the chance to read the book as well!

  2. Sola Olabamiji says

    God is using you greatly please continue to mend life spiritually for destinies and purpose to be accomplished in Chris Jesus. God bless u.

    • Kristin says

      I believe we have a right and duty to protect ourselves from harm. That allowing a harmful relationship to continue isn’t just irresponsible, it is damaging to both persons. And finally, that if you love someone, you’ll do whatever it takes to protect them from harm, so will end the harmful relationship that is damaging you both. Assure your own safety before telling the other why you believe the relationship was harmful and had to end. If they are willing to work with you at establishing a healthy relationship, then you may choose to allow them to earn your trust. This will require a lot of hard work from both of you, as slipping back into the old relationship pattern will be a constant temptation, even with both parties committed to establishing a healthy relationship. Also, I would add: getting /staying healthy mentally, physically, and emotionally is the best thing you can do for those around you.

    • Patricia says

      There are laws to protect you from that. Seek help from HR or if you don’t have that find your voice and stand up for yourself. Record every conversation and complaint.

  3. SEA says

    So how do you suggest getting past the “starting a project but never finishing”? I call my house the house of a thousand and one unfinished projects. I just get so physically and emotionally tired and then something else seems to need more attention. I have just in the last four years discovered that I have been living with emotionally abusive relationships for 60 years. I’m breaking free through therapy and God’s protection, but I cannot seem to break the habit of unfinished projects.

    • Carol says

      I’ve been the same in terms of unfinished projects. I decided to tackle one at a time and push through to try and finish it.. It’s quite a feeling of accomplishment.
      Hope you managed to finish some of those too.

  4. Judy Sonny says

    Thank you so much I have learn’t the different between a hurt or harmful relationship it’s clear now.
    I bought myself three copies boundaries in dating, safe people and boundaries for leaders.

    I bless God for your knowledge it gives me an opportunity to tap in.

    Judy from South Africa

  5. Esme Lottering says

    I am so grateful for your books. I really and truly have received so much help and healing in relationships through your books. It seems to be a continual process of setting and establishing boundaries and containing them. It would be such a great idea if people could be taught these boundary principles in school already. I am sure this would minimize bullying in all walks of life.
    I am 50 years and has experienced these 3 areas of harm effects on my life for the past 10 years in the worst manner. So nice to say that with the help of these books I have started setting boundaries in several relationships. Some with family members that have been abusive ever since I can remember. I recommend your books to everybody. Even buy extra copies from 2nd hand book shops to give away as help to others.

    Thank you kindly, may God bless you both and your families.

  6. Kay says

    Does the Boundaries organization have a retreat or ‘safe place’ for therapy where a person could work on their own stuff, away from the harmful person?

  7. Jim says

    No, I don’t want hurt or harm, thank you! But yes, I do want great, fulfilling relationships! Neither hurt nor harm sounds pleasant or comfortable. But the image at the start of this article states that every “great” relationship is a “fulfilling” relationship that might hurt ie. the risk part. In other words, to grow more fulfilled I must risk feeling hurt from time to time.

    I know from high school math that risk is a reference to probability concepts. Likewise I know from experience that I am not perfect and that I live in an imperfect world with a bunch people who all share my imperfection. So I am thinking the probability of us getting hurt in our relationships with each other is very high.

    According to this article, not only hurt, but even harm may happen to me if I fail to manage hurts well. It seems to me after reading this article that my hurt feelings, weather from anger, humiliation, disrespect, etc. all provide a signal that says, “Hey, pay attention, something is wrong! Get to work and figure it out! Fix it before it becomes harmful.”

    My takeaways:
    1.) When hurt happens, I am going to make it a point to ask God to give me the wisdom I need to proactively prevent harm by fixing hurt feelings in a timely manner.
    2.) Great relationships, may hurt on the way to becoming fulfilling so don’t panic when hurt happens – ask God for wisdom right away.

  8. Elisa says

    Thank you for making clear the difference between hurt and harm. Including some examples. It’s helpful to me.

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