“Hurt-People” Hurt People*


People who are in pain, can cause others to have pain.

They don’t wish to; it is not intentional.

Rather, it’s sometimes hard for them to do otherwise.

This will sound insensitive, I know, but beware of starting a new serious relationship with someone who is hurting.

Bear with me here, and perhaps you will think better of me and this advice once you read on.

Let us start with the image of a drowning man. If you swim out to save him, you are likely to find that, in his flailing, panicked, and desperate attempt to stay above water, he grabs on to you and pulls you under.

Life guards know this. Since it is their job to save the drowning, they approach them with caution. They have been well-trained to constrain the movements of the struggling swimmer so that he can be saved and his threat to the rescuer is minimized.

Moving back to dry land in our discussion, how might someone who is hurting do harm to a new best friend or lover?

For one thing, the neediness of the suffering individual can establish an unhealthy basis for the relationship from the start. In effect, the unwritten “contract” between the two parties will require that one does the helping and the other receives the comfort, with little reciprocal responsibility. This inequity risks eventual “burn out” in the caretaker and possible frustration that the damaged friend is not improving fast enough.

Some who are in the role of a “friend/helper” find that their own needs are perpetually postponed and that their efforts to provide solace will be seen as an entitlement and therefore unappreciated. Indeed, even if the altruistic partner receives gratitude early in the relationship, such appreciation often fades.

Sometimes, in fact, the connection between the two people morphs into a “hostile dependency,” where the person receiving the assistance resents the fact that he cannot function without his comrade.


Once the injured person recovers, the helper might also discover that he is no longer needed. Healed from his injury, the formerly damaged partner now might be less interested in spending time together. Just as a bird with an injured wing will fly away when he becomes healthy, so too might your friend take off to do other things with other people. Rebound romances are notorious for this sort of thing.

Unfortunately, the caretaker group of this world is overpopulated with people who believe that they have substantial personal inadequacies: that they aren’t bright enough, handsome enough, interesting enough, confident enough, pretty enough, or successful enough to win the interest of another person who is emotionally stable and successful.

Insecure people tend to believe that no psychologically healthy human would want to go near them. They seek those damaged and hurting souls who might, they reason, find someone with limitations tolerable simply because of the quasi-therapeutic assistance he provides.

To the dismay of the self-doubting persons I’ve just described, I’m here to report that this “solution” to reducing the chance of rejection is potentially disastrous.

Choosing a partner who is damaged because you believe that he will display perpetual gratitude is a recipe for being used and disappointed. Indeed, the accumulation of rejections from those to whom one shows devotion only reduces one’s sense of self and cements the tendency to choose others who are damaged, in the belief that one cannot successfully appeal to anybody else.

Better to “get better” and become more confident, than to select a lover or a group of friends in various stages of dysfunction because you think no one else will have you. Just because someone you know is unhappy or needy, however genuine his need is, doesn’t necessarily make him a good person or someone who is right for you.

In considering whether what I’ve written has any application to your own life, you might ask yourself whether you know very many relatively well-adjusted folks and whether your relationships commonly involve large amounts of hand-holding and quasi-therapeutic devotion. If most of your close social contacts take a good deal more than they give, you just might be choosing the wrong close friends and lovers.

Are you able to predict who will be a reciprocal friend, returning to you close to as much as you give to him? Don’t assume that everyone in the world is badly damaged in psychological terms. It may simply be that everyone you know is functioning with difficulty and that you are forever putting yourself out for the wrong people, effacing your own needs.


Yes, there will be many times in a relationship when generosity and a helping hand are healthy, considerate, and essential. Indeed, that kind of concern and responsiveness to our fellow-man is part of what is best in the human species and is valued by almost every professional therapist at a personal level.

Charity is a good thing, but surrounding yourself with friends who regularly require your charity is a different thing.

Most relationships should not demand perpetual self-sacrifice, especially at the beginning. Remember that therapists are paid for their services even if this is not the only or most important reason that they choose a helping profession.

Even counselors recognize that they cannot assist everyone and that they have emotional limitations to their capacity to provide help to others.

At night, after the work day is done, the therapist goes home (we hope) to family and friends who do not consistently suck the life out of him. Nor does he allow his patients to do this because, if he does, he will not be able to do good work or do it for very long.

Bottom line: leave therapy to the professionals.

If your social life is social work, you have a problem.

Hurt-people, hurt people.

One of the latter could be you.*

*For those who find this essay too harsh, please read the first comment below and my response to it.

The top image above is Oakie Family by Dorothea Lange.

The second image is described as Mediterranean Sea (Sept. 14, 2010): “Lt. j.g. Daniel Cooper and search and rescue (SAR) swimmer Seaman Apprentice Ryan Owens take turns rescuing an injured swimmer during SAR training aboard the amphibious transport dock ship USS Ponce (LPD 15)… (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathanael Miller/Released).” The picture was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The final image, Migrant Mother, (also by Dorothea Lange) is of Florence Thompson with some of her children. The Library of Congress caption reads: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California”

The Wikimedia website states that “in the 1930s, the FSA employed several photographers to document the effects of the Great Depression on the population of America. Many of the photographs can also be seen as propaganda images to support the U.S. government’s policy of distributing support to the worst affected, poorer areas of the country…”

9 thoughts on ““Hurt-People” Hurt People*

  1. What chance do “Hurt People” have to form new relationships with this warning for all to stay away lest they get “the life sucked out” of them? Are you saying that “Hurt People” need to be healed before they can form true friendships that are unhurtful to the other party?


    • I am not suggesting that one should never begin a relationship with someone who has a problem. I am, however, suggesting caution. In particular, I am trying to say that it is unwise to start a relationship based on the incapacity of the other person, where “heavy lifting” and therapeutic assistance by one of the two people is the basis for the friendship. All of us have problems. It would be ridiculous to look for a “perfect” or “perfectly healthy” person for companionship or love. With respect to your concern about my statement about “having the life sucked out” by someone, it refers specifically to therapists who must be careful to set limits on the tendency to “take on” the patients’ problems and are thereby rendered ineffective and prone to “burn out.” Everyone must have limits, personally and professionally. There are many, many people in therapy and in life who have major problems and can be wonderful friends. If however, their problems and the solution to them becomes the job of a new acquaintance, the relationship is off to a potentially bad start. Better to get to know someone gradually, not become a pseudo-therapist; and form the relationship based on mutual interests, good human qualities, humor and things like that, rather than the individual’s disability, psychological or physical.


  2. I and the public know
    What all schoolchildren learn,
    Those to whom evil is done
    Do evil in return.
    — W.H. Auden


  3. Just to amplify my reply to Pseudonym, a few more words. Auden’s quote does accurately communicate that we are all in danger of becoming the thing we hate — the likeness of the one who has done us harm. For the most part, however, my essay is speaking about the danger of making relationships founded upon the neediness of one or both people in the relationship, rather than good fellowship, shared interests, mutual attraction, and so forth. Better to start with those qualities, instead of making the central focus of a new friendship the acute suffering of one person and the other’s effort to relieve that suffering.


  4. […] is real & not based on the emotional needs we both have? So many questions… no answers. “Hurt-People” Hurt People Share this:FacebookTwitterEmailPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Tags: […]


  5. What happens in cases where one thought they were the ones that were hurt and getting support (initially) and then find themselves eventually being the pseudo-therapist? To make matters worse, the spouse has a Master’s in Psychology and takes on a “Help-rejecting complainer” role as they suspect that no one in the mental health world is qualified enough to help them?

    In my case, I had spent years in my own therapy rebuilding my self-worth. I did this in a vacuum as it was mostly my parents who contributed to my inability to reach certain developmental milestones as a child and they lived 1600 miles away. “Oedipal complex” is often what my situation is described as. In Wikipedia, this seems to be the case when reading up on “Hostile Dependency” in marriage as it compares almost word-for-word with what “accidentally” happened with my wife and I. Upon moving back to the area of my family of origin in 2007, I managed to find yet another person to “save” – my wife. Initially, I thought she actually had it all together and was helping me close the final chapters on my own therapy. She had divorced an abusive husband, sought out and completed a Master’s degree and seemed to carry about herself as this person who had survived. However, once past that phase of our relationship, it turns out that SHE actually suffers from extreme depression and I think it is exasperated by this hostile dependency that we unknowingly forged. In just the past year, she’s started to realize that some unidentifiable issues with her father in her childhood and her distant mother have largely contributed to her feeling of flatly being broken. I can’t be supportive enough. She always states that I don’t want to understand and/or support her depression. Medications have not helped her and there seems to be no therapist capable of getting her through her tried relationships with her parents and her brother. She has figured out through her own advanced knowledge of psychology that she bears the “Scape Goat” role in her family. She dotes on our daughters’ mental health (9 and 3) as if she only cares about how they will grow up and find happiness, especially given the nature of her own current unhappiness and depression.

    She is now a stay at home mom who’s convinced that homeschooling her older daughter (9) and “being there” for her younger hypersensitive daughter (almost 4) is ultimately guaranteeing their future happiness. It’s almost as if she’s using them as a shield or an excuse to avoid finding her own happiness. I’ve read where this Donna Reed situation contributes negatively to the Hostile Dependency relationship we’ve formed. While she does part time consulting, the state is largely unreliable in paying us, which lends itself to the financial inequity feature of that relationship.

    Lastly, as I have no formal education and a riddled past of low self-esteem and self worth that she fully knows about, I feel I don’t have the tools to engage her with this information without her disputing it on the basis of that “everything is incurable” mentality that she holds as a “Help-rejecting complainer”.

    She’s about to go to a psycho-hypnotist in July to try to sort out whatever mystery of abuse she can’t identify from her childhood. After spending over a year pondering whatever ill feelings she has about her father and his constant crossing of appropriate boundaries, I’m not entirely sure she’ll uncover anything. I’m worried that if nothing is revealed, she’ll revert back to her conclusion that she’s just missing something that everyone else has and is incurable.

    While the kids are young and I don’t think she’s suicidal, I wonder how to be supportive of them so that they are least affected by all of this? I am definitely starting to feel that burn out that has been described in this blog. Is divorce healthy for them? It might be healthy for me and possibly for her, but what do they as children of divorce benefit from that course of action? She’s played my hand on that end by more or less getting me to commit that, no matter what, I’m in this and that divorce (again for the sake of our children) is not an option. To that end, I also feel powerless in proposing change because she sees no urgency to consider either us or her getting help.

    I’m open to ideas – thought would strongly prefer those offered by people with clinical background.


    • drgeraldstein

      The suggestions I am about to offer for your consideration are simple, Danny, but not easy. First, think about taking the best possible care of yourself; that is, get whatever support you need from friends, individual therapy, or group treatment for people in challenging marriages. Eat well, exercise, improve your job skills, etc. It also sounds as though you will also have an easier time of changing yourself than of changing your wife. You appear to be a concerned father. Your ability to be a good and admirable dad will also be an important part of making the best of the situation. Once you’ve worked on the things that are in your control, then you can reassess your marital life and the sustainability of that relationship. Good luck with this.


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