“You always hurt the one you love, the one you should not hurt at all;
You always take the sweetest rose, and crush it till the petals fall;
You always break the kindest heart, with a hasty word you can’t recall;
So if I broke your heart last night, it’s because I love you most of all.”
~ The Mills Brothers, 1944
Recently, the first line of the above lyric was quoted by a client once again, as it has been many times over the last 47 years of clinical practice. It is usually raised in the question: “Why do I say these hurtful things to…” or “I don’t get this angry with anybody else.”
Let’s dig into these popular old-time lyrics sung by the Mills Brothers and see how they represent both the absence of reason and a perversion of love. For a warm-up drill let’s tackle:
“Always” & “Never”
REBT strongly favors “semantic precision,” as readers of this blog well know by now. So, right out of the starting gate, let’s remind ourselves that “always” and “never” are overgeneralizations that perturb emotion and disturb relationships.
Beyond the song lyric asserting the impossible—that lovers hurt each other 100% of the time, overgeneralizing is a marital favorite for fueling a fight: “You always interrupt me,” “You never let me finish!”
“Often” & “Seldom”
Despite the irrationality of Always & Never, some overgeneralizations can seem quite accurate: “I always remember your birthday,” “You never clean the toilet!”
But since there are always exceptions to our perceptions, emotional equanimity and marital harmony are greatly enhanced by reigning in the use of overgeneralizations.
“The lights are often left on” and “It seems that housework is seldom done,” will help create softer conversational startups and increase the odds of a marital argument being constructive.
So let’s agree that we don’t always hurt the one(s) we love and continue on to:
The Tyranny of the Should
A quick review is in order, but reading the Stress Blog post of 5/13/2022 will also be helpful in highlighting what I think is the single most important concept in mental health—the “tyranny of the should” introduced by Karen Horney and advanced by my mentor, Albert Ellis.
Rigid, absolutist, demanding thinking (should, must, ought, have got to, need) is a major cause of human emotional disturbance. The “shitty shoulds” not only cause distress (anger, anxiety, depression) and self-defeating behavior in private, but the public manifestation of musterbation can lead to aggression and war.
Epictetus to the Rescue
This ancient Stoic philosopher and former slave — two thousand years ago — asserted that we are not disturbed by the things that happen to us but by our views and judgements of those things.
Albert Ellis, in 1955, built the theory and practice of REBT upon this rational foundation and identified the specific self-defeating ways of thinking that lead to emotional disturbance including the “tyranny of the should.”
How Partners “Should” on Each Other
Life in the asphalt jungle can be harsh. Making it through the day, dealing with dolts and dimwits, feeling overwhelmed, unappreciated and stressed-out can take a toll on partners’ emotional availability and libidos. It is natural to want our partner to be there for us. But when we think they should, must or need to be there for us, and they’re not, our unmet demands disturb our emotions.
However, our upset in a given moment doesn’t stop at mere emotion. Since thoughts lead to feelings, which lead to behavior, our perturbed emotion often results in perturbed behavior that reflects our upset (eye roll, coldness, snarky remark, etc.) that our partner may find hurtful.
Hurter vs. Hurtee
The cutesy song lyric I’m playing with in this blog post is not only irrational, but absolutely no excuse for a partner repeatedly treating the other poorly.
It is the hurter’s responsibility to hold their character to a higher standard of temperance and self-control. And shame on them for failing to do so when self-improvement help is so widely available today. Though not directly suggested by the song lyric, this intemperate and disrespectful behavior can be a short slide into verbal abuse or even domestic violence.
Hurter Musterbation. Hurtee Musterbation.
You must always be there for me. I must be doing something wrong.
You should put up with me, nobody’s perfect. I shouldn’t be putting up with this.
You need to do more and better around here. I need to feel cherished and appreciated.
You shouldn’t be so demanding and critical. I must be treated well and with respect.
What About the Hurtee?
Experiencing repeated hurtful behavior from a partner is discouraging at best and dangerous at worst. Tolerating the hurter’s poor behavior without them experiencing negative consequences is like raising kids without discipline.
How well does that work?
But the hurtee can learn to think in ways that reduce their suffering and release them from self-blame, fear, anger, depression, guilt and anxiety so they can deal with the hurter more effectively (of course by learning REBT tools and techniques).
Another angle to this discussion is “who is the worse neurotic?” A working definition of neurosis is “a smart person acting stupidly.”
Partners can have a lot of fun with this one! In fact, I often assign couples Albert Ellis’s first pop psychology book titled: How To Live With A Neurotic—At Home And At Work.
When one partner (the hurtee) feels hurt and blames the other for hurting them (which of course is not where their hurt feelings come from), the offending partner (the hurter, who is often the one with testicles) may assert that their partner is just too sensitive, fragile or crazy. This invalidating verbalization can be even more hurtful than the first offense and, of course, damaging to the relationship.
Rational Marriage Vow
Partners tend to say unsane things to each other standing at the altar. Here is a suggestion:
- I will reasonably try, but sometimes fail, to be there for you, especially when you teach me how.
- I rescind this vow if you often need me, since I am not attracted to neediness of most any kind.
- I expect (want, prefer) you to try to be there for me, especially when I sincerely express my wishes.
- I will work just as hard to accept your imperfections, as I will my own, without blame or anger.
- I alone am responsible for my well-being and correct actions, and will use my disappointment with
you as opportunities to grow in maturity, equanimity, and love until it is no longer rational to do so.
Treat your intimate partner at least as respectfully as you would a perfect stranger.