Conflict is healthy and normal. You and your partner can both exhibit strong emotion in an appropriate way during arguments. But sometimes during conflict, expression of emotion shifts from appropriate to inappropriate or even destructive. When you cross the line - violate your values or your partner's boundaries in a damaging way - you need to take stock and repair.
What Does It Mean To Cross A Line?
Crossing a line involves saying or doing something unacceptable that leaves your partner feeling very hurt. Crossing a line may look like:
Saying something very insulting
Being aggressive or scary
Ignoring your partner's boundaries
Threatening to leave
Hitting "below the belt" or bringing up very sensitive topics to hurt them
Most couples know the feeling of an invisible line being crossed. For both the partner who did something destructive and the partner who is reeling from the hurt, there is often a sickening sense of a wound that will take time to heal.
How To Repair When You Have Behaved Destructively
Don't wait for your partner to confront you about your behavior. Bring it up on your own as soon as possible to take accountability.
Clearly acknowledge that what you did wasn't okay. Don't blame them for how you acted or imply that you only behaved this way because they acted hurtfully first.
Give them space to talk about the impact of your behavior. Validate their right to feel hurt.
Bring it up again later to check in about how they're feeling. Continue to provide space for them to share without pressuring them to get over it.
Don't do it again in the future.
Your Repair Might Sound Like:
"I called you an idiot during that fight. That was unacceptable. I understand if you're feeling really hurt or angry with me. I'm ready to listen to those feelings for as long as you want to talk about them. There are no excuses for my words, but if it would be helpful to hear what was going on in my head and how I don't actually believe what I said, I can share that with you. Otherwise I'm just ready to listen and tell you as many times as you need to hear that my words were not ok."
But What If They Crossed A Line Too?
During destructive conflict, it's very common for BOTH partners to cross lines, either in response to each other or because they're each so emotionally spun out that they are no longer behaving intentionally.
If you are reeling with hurt feelings from your partner's behavior, focus on caring for yourself first. Don't rush to repair if you are too hurt to do so thoughtfully. Take a break from the interaction to cool off.
When you are ready, focus on repairing the harm you caused without trying to get them to repair in return. Trying to get repair by giving repair undermines your authenticity - you will not seem genuine if your partner senses that you are waiting for them to apologize in kind.
Later, in a separate conversation, you can ask for air time to talk about your hurt feelings. But it’s important not to link those two conversations.
How To Ask For Repair When Your Partner Has Behaved Destructively
As discussed above, it is important to separate your desire for repair from your partner from your own efforts to repair with them. If you give adequate time and energy to repairing, it's possible they will initiate a repair on their own. But don't expect that to happen (this can create a dynamic where it feels like you are testing your partner by waiting for them to initiate repair).
In a different conversation (not immediately after you attempt to repair your destructive behavior), share your hurt feelings and request to talk about them.
Your Request To Talk About Hurt Feelings Might Sound Like:
"I am feeling hurt by something you said during that fight. I'm wondering if we can talk about it, and I can tell you how I'm feeling."
What If It Still Hurts, Months Or Years Later?
But even when repair happens, even when your partner has listened and validated and apologized and most importantly not repeated the behavior, sometimes harsh words or unacceptable actions can ring in your head for months or even years to come. This can feel very frustrating, both to the partner who behaved destructively and to the partner who is still hurting.
For The Partner Who Is Hurting
When a memory of something destructive your partner said or did suddenly pops up, consider:
Did adequate repair ever happen? If not, you may need to circle back with your partner to repair properly.
Is something in the present activating this memory? If so, would it be more effective to address the current concern rather than rehashing the past?
Are there factors outside your relationship bringing this up for you? Is the feeling you're having right now actually about your partner and what they said or did?
For The Partner Who Behaved Destructively
When your partner brings up your past destructive behavior:
It may feel unfair that they are bringing this up again. However, saying so in this conversation will not help. Process your defensiveness on your own later.
When you have done something destructive, saying "I'm sorry" once or even many times is often not enough to repair the harm. Making space to hear their hurt rebuilds a layer of trust. Remind yourself that listening right now is part of ongoing repair.
Set boundaries as needed if you do not have the capacity to listen right now. You can validate their need to be heard while also acknowledging your own limits.
Partners in relationships that are not abusive can cross lines sometimes. That doesn’t make the behavior ok. But even when lines are crossed, both people feel safe, have a voice, and are free to leave. In abusive relationships, one partner feels scared, intimidated, or controlled. They may not feel they are able to leave or speak openly. This post does not apply to abusive relationships. For support, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE
If you live in Minnesota, California, or Oregon, I am available to help. My practice is dedicated to helping couples who struggle with destructive conflict build a close, connected relationship that does not cause harm. Reach out today to start the process.