How to Discern Hurt from Harm in a Relationship

Great relationships are fulfilling. Great relationships involve risk. You cannot have the first without the second. Dr. John Townsend, Beyond Boundaries

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:

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.

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.

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

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