I Didn't Mean to Hurt You

by Mark Sichel, LCSW

The word "unconscious" is one of the most popular rationalizations for bad behavior. I work with couples in therapy and often hear one partner say to the other:

He: "I didn't mean to hurt you."
She: "Then why did you come home at four in the morning completely drunk, when you know how much I hate that."
He: "I just lost track of the time, honestly, and I certainly didn't want to hurt you."
She: "But you did."
He: "No, no, I was really just unconscious of the time. I honestly didn't want to hurt you."

Just because an action is not consciously and deliberately plotted to hurt another person, does not rationalize or excuse poor behavior. In reference to the dialogue of the couple quoted above, the husband certainly intended to hurt his wife. He may have felt he'd get away with coming home drunk, he may have felt that his "partying" was for him, and not against her, but the bottom line here is:

He wanted to hurt her. He didn't care about her feelings. When he says he didn't want or mean to hurt her, he's telling a lie that he believes and wants her to believe.

Another client of mine is dating a man who claims to love her and wants to marry her. Yet this man consistently operates as a solo act and shows almost no ability to plan his life with the woman he loves. She has often pointed out to him that she is his third priority after work and his parents, and he typically responds: "But I love you! I don't mean to hurt you"

What's the lesson here?

Judge and evaluate people by their acts, not by their words. Words are cheap, acts are definitive. Words mean nothing, and actions mean everything. This applies to most interpersonal relationships in life, not merely to couples trying to negotiate a life together. A client of mine who really struggles to build his life up in therapy often misses sessions. He does this whenever we're getting close to material he finds painful. When I confront him, he says, "I didn't mean to blow the session off; I really wanted to come. I just forgot. It was totally unconscious." I explain to him that if his unconscious wanted him to miss the session, then in reality the larger or stronger part of him did want to miss the session. This is a difficult concept for him to master, and he really fights to understand this idea.

Money is often a playing field for the excuse that "my unconscious made me do it." "I really wanted to pay you today, Mark, I just forgot. It was completely unconscious." Hey, it's okay to not want to pay your bills, but don't rationalize and justify it by saying it was unconscious. It doesn't mean anything to anyone.

We tend to use similar rationales when it comes to exercising self-control. "I didn't mean to eat three deserts; it was completely unconscious. I didn't even realize I did it until after it was over." Well, it's fine to decide to go into sugar shock, but don't say you didn't mean to pick up the fork and consume all that sugar.

"I didn't mean to forget to pick up your dry cleaning, Honey. I just forgot; it was completely unconscious." Well, you can resent picking up her dry cleaning, but tell her you don't want to do it anymore rather than leaving her with no clean clothes to wear.

Listen to what is said to you by the important people in your life, but listen more closely to their actions. Remember: It's not what you say that counts: It's what YOU DO.


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