What to Do When You Love Someone Who Hurts You

Angry Fingers

“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” ~Pema Chödrön

There is a person in my life who I love with all my heart, but in this relationship I struggle to keep a full cup myself. They are family, the situation is complicated and tender. But learning to have compassion for this other person begins with having compassion for myself.

A nasty divorce spanning most of my childhood set the stage for our current situation. My mother was deeply emotionally wounded by my father, and carried that pain into her parenting of my sister and me.

Contact with the ex (my dad) dropped to nil—maybe a week a year, far below what the court had decided.

Any efforts on our parts to connect with our absent parent, even recounting fond memories, were seen by our mother as attacks on her legitimacy and a discounting of her pain. And what emotional intimacy we shared was often exploited—it kept us locked into the family unit, not believing we could have our needs filled elsewhere, least of all with our absentee father.

A few short years prior, I felt part of a happy, perfect family. Suddenly one parent was effectively gone. My relationship with the other became a labyrinth of confusion—love down this path, hurt down the other, and at my young age I couldn’t find the rhyme or reason to it.

Childhood gifted me a number of unhealthy survival mechanisms, which still follow me around today: a deep fear of conflict (because conflict often meant someone would leave), constant apologies and guilt for things I’m not truly responsible for, and a voice in the back of my mind telling me no matter what I do, who I am, who I become, it will never be enough.

Growing up, I realize that those mindsets that helped me survive as a child, in the trenches of grief, inadequacy, and parental loss, no longer served me. Becoming a healthier person showed me how unhealthy this particular relationship really was.

Healing with my mom—communication about the past, forgiveness, and moving on together—has not taken place. Attempts to bring up my own hurt and pain are minimized and shut down. My words, invariably, have been met with responses like “I can’t do this right now, it’s a bad time,” “I can’t believe you’d do this to me,” or “It all came from a place of love.”

So, in interactions with my mother, I keep my guard up. I know she still hurts, and seems timelessly stuck in her own grief, but it would take a great degree of emotional wholeness on my part to absorb each new wound with simple forgiveness and empathy. I see where my path might point toward such healing in the future, but we’re not there yet.

Many of us have experienced relationships like this: someone we love acts toward us in ways that continually damage.

It’s one thing to forgive and move on from a wound we received in the past, and another animal entirely when we get hurt again and again, in the same place, a scab not quite healed over before it’s ripped off again.

We all have histories, wounds, scars. Most people carry deep tender spots that have never truly healed, and some use all their actions to self-protect. The fear of vulnerability leads them to cover those places, distract from those places.

Attempts to wear the heaviest of armor results in getting “bitter” rather than “better,” and those who are too thick-skinned start to lose their delicate abilities to empathize. They project their fear of getting hurt into decisions that may themselves, unintentionally or intentionally, cause others to suffer.

Here lies the difficulty: in a relationship with someone who continues to act in hurtful ways, how do we toe the line between loving them and interacting with compassion, and protecting our own heart?

We can save no one but ourselves.

Real shifts in our psyche, our inner being, do not come from outside pushes. Change will never stick unless the changer is ready. Our worldly circumstances will nudge us here and there, and we ultimately respond by either softening or embittering our vision, our paradigms.

If we’ve allowed experience to push us toward a scared, closed off, hardened heart, things can only be different when we are ready to make our own intentional choice to be different.

We cannot throw another person over our back, or carry them in our arms through the fire. That cannot be our job. Be there for them, be support, hold space in time of need, even be a guide when asked. But always, the true work will be theirs alone.

Being love does not mean being a doormat.

Compassion for others begins with compassion for ourselves. Loving someone should not mean getting hurt time and again. There will always be need for forgiveness, but not at the cost of healthy boundaries. Here, love might mean taking a step back.

I've realized that sometimes, forgiveness is not about absolving someone of their actions—it means we have given ourselves permission to move on with our lives, deciding “what you did no longer holds power over me.” It’s okay, necessary even, to set up firebreaks, to say, “Enough.”

We can’t resolve hurts from unstable ground.

If someone has hurt you, chances are they’re suffering themselves. When both parties feel pain that they believe the other caused, they will already be on the defensive. I believe the only place from which we can work through those old woundings is one of stability, of love and trust.

Yet closure in the sense of reconciliation, communication, and healing together may never happen. If someone doesn’t believe they have wronged you, arguing your point will only drive the relationship rift further apart.

If we can find common ground in our love and words, it’s possible to move forward together into resolution of hurts. But if one party isn’t ready to look at themselves truthfully and engage in painfully open communication, resolution must come a different way.

Putting things to rest can be one-sided.

Here’s the tough truth: closure won’t come from someone else. It happens when we are ready to let things go.

In her book Women Who Run with the Wolves, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola-Estes uses the concept of descansos, death-markers, the white crosses seen on the side of roads in the West and Southwest, as a metaphor for marking, blessing, and moving on from trauma, grief, little “deaths” in our lives.

By tenderly identifying our own descansosthings in our lives which haven’t gone as planned, dreams we’ve had to leave behind, expectations we’ve put aside in exchange for the truth—we give ourselves a unique means for closure.

“Be gentle with yourself and make the descansos, the resting places for the aspects of yourself that were on their way to somewhere, but never arrived…  

Descansos mark the death sites, the dark times, but they are also love notes to your suffering. They are transformative. There is a lot to be said for pinning things to the earth so they don't follow us around. There is a lot to be said for laying them to rest.” – Clarissa Pinkola-Estes

Surround yourself with people who love you.

This one is easily said but sometimes complicated to walk out. Family doesn’t always go hand in hand with blood: people we are related to may never truly be good for us, while the friends we’ve chosen might be more dear and positively impactful than any relatives.

A great relationship inspires and brings out the best in us, and the love shared there has few strings attached.

Great friendships should be sounding boards for the good and the bad in our lives. We need people to see our inner truths, hold our hands in the dark times, exhort us in times of abundance—and we must recognize those people as gifts.

These are hard lessons for me. It is sad to let go of a fairy-tale ideal, what I expected this relationship to look like.

But after a process of grieving, it can be so much healthier and more fulfilling to live with reality, to send out love without expectation of what we “should” get in return, to have compassion for someone without a constant eye for what they “should” do for us.

We take back our power, creating graceful resolution for the future where it wasn’t available in the past.

May we all learn to love without contingency; in the meantime, may we learn to walk our path in self-compassion. Loving ourselves is our dawn into the light of truly loving others.

Fighting fingers image via Shutterstock

About Lauren Erickson-Viereck

Lauren is a Montessori teacher in Bozeman, Montana, where she lives with her partner of five years and their furry rescue mutt. She loves to be on the wild earth, from warm oceans to alpine peaks, and treasures human connection across background and experience. Lauren believes in writing and breathing through pain and peace.

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  • Kaytalin Platt

    I identify with this so much! My mother is difficult to be with. She suffers from mental illness, depression, and alcoholism. She is also extremely selfish, which could be related to her mental illness. Like all addicts, she doesn’t think she has a problem and will drown herself in drink. She refuses to seek help for her depression and instead mixes her meds with liquor. She’s sucked everything out of me, and I kept trying over and over to help. Eventually I moved away. I couldn’t help her or my family and I couldn’t keep getting beaten down over and over. Sometimes she calls me in a drunken rage and it rips the wounds open again. Sometimes we have to let go of what’s hurting us, even if we love it. For someone who is like me, who has a huge soft heart, it is painful and almost impossible to fully cut ties with what is tormenting you.

  • Donnie

    Wonderful article Lauren!

  • sb33162

    Thank you.

  • Riding72

    I feel this Was written just for me. I thank you for your insights.

  • MJ Heiser

    It sounds a little bit like your mother may be an undiagnosed narcissist. The tells are there. I am a survivor of a narcissist-run household; it’s a very damaging place to be, because they are the true black holes of affection: Love goes in and NEVER comes out.

  • Kathleen Rolfe

    What a beautifully written piece. Thank you for going into your depths to share for our greater good, it must not have been easy and so I want to thank you for what you may have needed to go through to hit ‘publish’ on this blog post.

    I resonate so clearly and deeply with this. A personal earthquake 5 years ago shattered my world and my relationship with my family is in ruin. I miss them but I do not miss how we were as a family when I see the situation with a new perspective. It’s hard to know we can’t just ‘fix’ things.

    The thing that keeps me going is to remind myself that living in reality is better than living in the illusion and that I am a much stronger person that’s capable of more that I give myself credit for. I choose confidence.

    Thank you again.

    Love and light

  • Kaytalin Platt

    Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out. I’ve always felt that she was narcissistic. She is also obsessed about her looks and is very bitter about aging. She openly expresses anger at not being young anymore, and I think she projects a lot of it onto me and my sister. You are also right about love going in and never coming out. Which is painful, because no matter how much I know I won’t ever feel loved, I can’t stop loving her.

  • I resonate with your pain. Please know that you’re not alone and that there are ways to protect yourself from the hurt. I used that site almost daily for a while there and still do when I’m feeling particularly frustrated or sad about it. All the best to you x

  • Crystal Ramirez

    Honestly, this article FOUND ME at the right time, on the right day, and at the exact moment that I needed it. This speaks to my soul, my truth in such a deep way. Thank you so much for this article.

  • Lauren Erickson-Viereck

    Kaytalin, thank you for sharing your own story here, I am so sorry to hear about the grief and frustration you must have gone through. A mentor of mine once told me that forgiveness, in situations like this, has little to do with the other person, that it’s more like releasing our hands from around their neck so we can begin to move on and use our hands for being productive again – unsticking ourselves from the grief and trauma so there can be freedom in our lives again. But when events requiring that kind of “forgiveness” happen repeatedly, it’s obviously really difficult. I still have my heart all wrapped up in it, but I’ve been able to create and strengthen some emotional boundaries. Sadly, this means the idea of true, loving emotional intimacy just isn’t safe. But it allows me to be stay involved with some level of self-protection. I sometimes practice being a “witness” to my emotions and reactions, and reminding myself that I can be a consciousness behind my initial emotions frees me a of a little of that stuck hurt energy. It doesn’t always work. Always a process. But little by little, and with the support and love of others and communities like this, things can get better. All my love to you, thank you for posting on here!

  • Lauren Erickson-Viereck

    Crystal – thank you so very much for sharing that! It’s a big piece of my heart and life to send out into the void, but messages like yours are exactly why I chose to share. Sending my love to you.

  • Lauren Erickson-Viereck

    Thank you for your kind words, it means to world to me that this is helpful. We’re all here for each other, in more ways than we know, and I guess sharing our stories speaks to hearts we didn’t even know were hurting. My love goes to you!

  • Lauren Erickson-Viereck

    Thank you for your kind words!

  • Lauren Erickson-Viereck

    Thank you Donnie, that means a great deal!

  • Lauren Erickson-Viereck

    Thank you MJ for sharing this & reaching out to fellow hurting hearts. The bravery it takes for people to step out of the shadow of what has been and into the unknown always inspires me. I hope your life has brought you to a place where you receive back the love you give.

  • Lauren Erickson-Viereck

    Thank you for sharing this, Kathleen! Reaching out to and connecting with people whose painful stories resonate with our own can be such a great step toward healing. My love goes out to you and all the brave souls so deserving of love and safe relationship.

  • star

    thank you, i really needed this article today. It was beautiful and I identified with this sooo very much, this made me feel 100 times better about my life.

  • Marsha

    I had a similar experience growing up and had to basically leave the past behind. Contact with some of my family members only replayed the same hurts. Also other family members had different ideas of what happened to me in my childhood and I realized I could not resolve anything with anyone because they believed otherwise. It only opened more wounds. It is very hard when you want the love of family but can not find closure. It takes a certain amount of bravery to let go and travel your world on your own.

  • Lucas Leach

    I came here looking for something to help me and you encapsulated everything I needed to know and wasn’t looking for.

  • Jamylah

    I read this because my husband says I am constantly destroying him. I don’t know how it is happening. I have a mental health background, so I have tried to use strategies I’ve learned to fight fair and communicate clearly. I never wanted to hurt him once- let alone destroy him repeatedly! So I have been constantly changing and trying to better myself, but apparently the damage toward him continues.

    When I try to talk to him about what is happening, the pain he has stirs up and the conversation becomes a sensitive argument that ends up resolving nothing. I don’t see a clear pattern on my side that is “destructive”, so I haven’t been able to effectively stop the harm. At this point, we are moving toward a divorce to be final next month.

    I know he and I still love each other. I don’t know what I can do to make the difference, and I don’t get the sense he is not being sincere about how he is taking what he gets from me. It’s clear to me he really feels hurt from whatever it is I’m doing and has himself tried to work with it and bear it and whatever else, until it has now reached a point it can’t be taken anymore.

    I really don’t understand how someone with good intentions, hard working efforts, and genuine openness to correction and cooperation could be someone so terribly destructive to another human being. Everything about me wants to be a blessing and withhold harm from others, so how can this be happening? Does anyone have any ideas how I might see what is happening so I can stop? My husband says I am being unfair, and that seems to be the common denominator in all the events, but what leads to that “unfairness” can be anything from having a too emotional moment to asking for emotional nurturing he is not capable of giving, to not seeing a situation clearly or from an objective view when needed, and many other things. How can the result of something with many different doors or causes be changed without being perfect or all knowing? What is your take on working with a destructive person who sincerely wants to and is trying to change, but still is destructive? How should that go?

    Sorry for all the confusion, I am just beaten by it all myself.

  • Betsy K Williams

    This is a profound and amazing writing. It helped me to have a vision which is allowing me to move forward from a very painful stuck place of loss and grief. I’m ever so grateful

  • Sandhya Ramraj

    Exactly! And my situation is pretty similar..any kind of communication or activity with dad is seen as a Jan to the pain she has gone thru…
    And yes..the only person you an save is yourself