For the six darkest months of the relationship, there was me, and then there was shadow me. She walked beside me, an image of myself if every action and motivation were filtered through the least flattering lens. Her generosity was self-serving; her love was patronizing; her promises were false. In those months, she trailed me so tightly that sometimes, when I glanced at my image in the mirror, I couldn’t tell which self I really was.
It took me years to realize that shadow self was not me; that instead, she was what months of gaslighting and emotional abuse had made me believe about myself. Yet in that process of reflection, I confronted a more nuanced truth. Parts of this shadow self did represent qualities I had, but I didn’t need to condemn myself for these flaws or tolerate negative treatment from partners. Instead, I could compassionately confront these aspects of myself, learn from them, and grow.
This acceptance is key to developing healthier relationships with ourselves and others, according to Jadelynn St Dre, MA, LMFT. “We do a really bad job culturally—and I’m thinking specifically about the U.S. right now—allowing space for people who have caused harm to access the support and space necessary to be accountable,” she says. St Dre is a trauma therapist and accountability coach, with an emphasis on working with LGBTQIA+ communities. She, like me, credits abolitionist feminists and transformative justice practitioners with much of the values behind her work.
Relationships therapist Barbara Herring, LMFT, similarly encourages the couples she works with to develop more awareness of self and others. “I want them to see each other more fully and be more compassionate for each other,” she says. That begins with building compassion toward ourselves, and building our accountability skills so that we can listen and grow when we do cause harm to others.
Accept that We All Cause Harm
In our punishment-oriented society, we tend to think that only “bad” people cause harm, while only “innocent” people can be harmed. But the truth is, we’ve all hurt other people, and we can all be hurt. “We go into relationships and there’s this presupposed idea that if we love someone we don’t hurt them. But we do,” says St Dre. That can range from smaller things, like speaking unkindly, to major forms of harm, like sexual assault.
Ask your partner: “How do we communicate through instances of harm? When I cause harm, how will you feel safe enough to let me know?”
Partly, St Dre says, we cause harm because, as human beings, we are inherently fallible. But when it comes to relationships, that harm is also due to the patriarchal, capitalist, and white supremacist beliefs all of us are exposed to. “We are socially indoctrinated into rape culture,” says St Dre, whether through witnessing abuse in our families, imbibing it through the media, or not having access to sexual education that centers affirmative consent. Rape culture particularly disadvantages women and queer people, but all of us, regardless of our gender, internalize its harmful attitudes.
The fact that we all cause harm doesn’t mean hurting our partners is okay. It does mean, however, that accountability, growth, and healing must be a part of all our lives. This challenges us to identify harmful beliefs in ourselves so that we can begin growing toward greater compassion. “We need to look at what is a healthy relationship interaction,” says Herring. “Visualize it or vision it.”
Make a Plan
Most of us have been in that butterflies-in-the-stomach early days of a relationship where we think our partners can do no wrong, only to have the dynamic sour. When we accept that this honeymoon phase is temporary and that relationships will inevitably have bumps, we can build structures for accountability before harm happens.
St Dre advises discussing with a partner early in the relationship: “How do we communicate through instances of harm? When I cause harm, how will you feel safe enough to let me know?” Rather than thinking of this process as unromantic or cynical, communicating about our “dark sides” and making a plan for when they emerge can enable greater safety and intimacy. “We’re providing someone a road map for how to be tender, vulnerable, and in community with us,” says St Dre.
This can include enlisting our loved ones to help us stay safe and accountable. Take stock of your connections: Who are the people who can support you if you are harmed in your relationship? Who are the people you can ask to hold you accountable if you cause harm? Unhealthy relationships often make us feel that we are locked in a two-person struggle, with no outside support. By taking stock of our communities, we can prevent some toxic dynamics from developing, and have support in place if they do. “We tend to operate in a silo: we’ll deal with our problems on our own,” says St Dre. “The reality is that we need community to provide support.”
Having a partner tell us that we’ve harmed them means that our partner trusts us enough to be honest with us.
Listen Without Defensiveness
How can we respond if we do hurt our partners?
The first step is to listen. If your partner hasn’t directly approached you, but you notice something feels off—maybe through body language, or them seeming distant—it’s okay to approach them and gently ask what’s going on. “Ask someone, ‘Hey, I’ve noticed a little bit of distancing in the way you’re acting. Is there anything you want to talk about?’” suggests St Dre. You can tell them directly: “I want to let you know I’m here to listen and be accountable.”
If that person does open up, it’s important to listen with an open heart, without contradicting them, getting angry, or becoming defensive. “Defensiveness can come out of that feeling of guilt and shame,” says St Dre. “Defensiveness is also a mechanism of this capitalistic idea of perfection.” We become defensive because we fear that if we make a mistake, we are that mistake; that if we mess up, we’re unworthy of love.
But we’re all worthy of love. And having a partner tell us that we’ve harmed them means that our partner trusts us enough to be honest with us, even if that conversation is difficult.
Take Time and Space To Reflect
Conflict can feel extremely urgent. But often, acting impulsively can exacerbate an issue. Haste doesn’t give the person we hurt time to heal, and it robs us of our ability to reflect on what happened and grow. Instead, when we’ve caused someone harm, it’s a good idea to take some time and space to feel our feelings. It can hurt like hell to let emotions like guilt and shame wash over us. But often, that’s exactly what we need to do—especially if our partner has asked for space.
Before attempting to process, give yourself a break to do something else. Self-care can prevent our feelings from curdling into anger toward the person we harmed. Watch TV, sleep, hang out with friends, or do an activity you enjoy until your immediate feelings of shame or anger have passed. Then, ask yourself some difficult questions about what happened. “We have to get real on what our intentionality with the harm was,” says Herring. “Was it an accident? Was it on purpose?” If you said something nasty in an argument, ask yourself if you lashed out because you were triggered. If you violated a boundary, think through what you were feeling when you did it, and why you didn’t respect your partner’s wishes.
If there has been a broader pattern of harm and conflict in your relationship, Herring suggests charting out the relationship over time. Consider: What instigates conflicts? What behaviors am I repeating? What are my triggers? If I say I’m going to change, am I actually changing, or am I simply repeating a harmful behavior?
“People act out when they don’t feel heard. People act out when they don’t feel safe. People act out when they’re being ignored in a relationship.”
Taking time away from a partner to reflect can feel like a rejection of the relationship. But St Dre advises framing it as an opportunity to grow. “We tend to think of telling people they’ve harmed us or our boundaries as relationships borders,” says St Dre. “Boundaries are not borders, actually. Boundaries are invitations for people to get closer.”
Seek Support to Address The Root Cause
We can promise change over and over, but we will only grow if we address the root cause of our behavior.
“There are reasons why we did what we did,” says Herring. We need to be deeply honest with ourselves and seek support. Support can come from both the community and a mental health professional—ideally, both. If you already have a therapist, you can set an intention to work through this aspect of your “dark side” with them. If you don’t have a therapist, now may be the time to seek one out.
This is also the moment to reach out to that list of loved ones. The best supporters are people who love you, but don’t put up with your bullshit. Think of your best friend since third grade, or a relative who has seen you at your best and your worst.
Each of us will have a different experience, and a different root cause for our behavior. But a common denominator for many of us is trauma, either from past relationship abuse or simply from going through the world as a marginalized person. Another root cause of relationship harm can be a mutually unhealthy dynamic that brings out our worst sides. “People act out when they don’t feel heard. People act out when they don’t feel safe. People act out when they’re being ignored in a relationship,” says Herring. This doesn’t get us off the hook—we are still accountable for how we choose to perpetuate an unhealthy interaction. But it does help identify the underlying dynamic and seek ways to change or leave it.
Commit to Growth
None of this reflection means anything, however, if we don’t genuinely commit to causing less harm in the future. This can look like many things: going to therapy and practicing what we learn there; being more communicative with our partners; being better at accepting “no.”
Sometimes, the ways we need to grow aren’t the ways we want to. We may, if necessary, need to leave a relationship, or respect our partner’s desire to leave, rather than stay and cause further harm. “Y’all don’t need to be together,” says Herring. “Y’all can be friends. Or have a different shift to your relationship dynamic. But intimate partnership is not for you anymore.”
It can be a hard truth to hear, but sometimes the best way to love someone is to take yourself out of their life, at least in a certain form or for a period of time. It’s especially important to take a step back if you have been abusive in any way, or if you know there is an insurmountable difference in what you and your partner needs—for example, if you are poly but your partner needs monogamy.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Growth is terrifying. It’s scary to take a long look at our shadow selves and confront all the flaws we find. But when we do finally look at our ghostly double, we often find that she is nowhere near as scary as we imagined. She is, merely, human: flawed, hurting, and constantly learning, just like all of us.