We’ve all had an experience where our intentions just didn’t match up with the impact they have. Sometimes we forget a close friend’s birthday even though we put it on the calendar, miss a date because we get caught in traffic, or—embarrassingly—something we meant as a compliment ends up offending someone we love.
Suffice it to say that our words and actions don’t always land the way we intend. Our mood, the other person’s mood, what’s going on at the time, and each of our own experiences can change how a loved one understands our words and actions. This can happen in any relationship—friendships, romantic relationships, marriages, or family relationships.
What it looks like
Situations in which there is an intent and impact mismatch often cause unintentional hurt. The pain caused in these situations usually requires more than a simple clarification (like, “But I meant…” Or, “I was trying to…”) to heal whatever hurts have been caused. Marriage and family therapist Vienna Pharaon gives an example that shows how big the difference can be between intent and impact: a parent who uses fear or anger when disciplining their daughter in order to protect her from “this scary world.” The intention may be good—to protect the child—but the impact of using fear and anger to do so can cause deep wounds in the child, wounds she might struggle to heal from even in adulthood.
A common response
Usually, when we realize we’ve unintentionally hurt someone, we act as if our good intentions should get us off the hook. We explain what happened and what our intentions were; we give our reasoning, trying to take away the negative impact by justifying
For example, when a friend tells us “I felt so hurt when you said…,” how many of us are quick to respond, “But I didn’t mean it that way!” Or when our spouse says, “I felt betrayed when you went out for a drink instead of coming straight home,” we’re ready with an explanation: “I never wanted to hurt you, I just wanted to see my friends.”
We might also share the attenuating circumstances: “I had such a long day at work, I wasn’t even looking at my phone, so I completely missed the calendar alerts reminding me it was your birthday!” “There was terrible traffic on the highway, which is why I didn’t make it in time. I really wanted to be there.” Or, “I wasn’t trying to be offensive, I thought you would take that as a compliment!”
These statements may be true—maybe you did have a calendar alert or there was unusual traffic. But we have to remember the impact that our words or actions have on a loved one is not changed by our reasoning or good intentions—you forgot the birthday, missed the date, or spoke the words, and that made the other person feel a certain way. And how your loved one feels—the impact—is determined by the person’s individual experience. Your friend may not be a birthday person, so the fact that you forgot it doesn’t bother her too much. Likewise, maybe the date wasn’t a big deal to your husband, so he’s not upset. That’s one possible impact. On the other hand, maybe birthdays really matter to your friend, and she is incredibly disappointed that you forgot it. Maybe your husband’s love language is quality time, so missing a date is particularly devastating to him. That is another possible impact. In both cases, your intent was the same—well-meaning!—but that doesn’t determine the impact it had on the other person. His or her personal experience determines the impact, and it’s not up to us to say what that “should be.”
In fact, explaining can actually worsen the hurt our loved one feels. As a marriage and family therapist, I have witnessed many clients trying to explain their good intentions or “what actually happened” to a partner or family member. Much damage can be done when the offender tries to offer their intentions and misses the hurt that their loved one is feeling, losing an opportunity to apologize.
What to do when intent is not the same as impact
Often, the hurt person is just looking to be seen and heard about how these actions hurt him. He may be fully aware that this was not your intent, but still want you to understand the impact your actions had. Apologizing rather than explaining can be incredibly healing and validating.
So what do you do when you have hurt your loved one instead of explaining your well-intentioned motivation or actions? First, recognize the disconnect; the impact of your actions was not the same as your intent (however good!). This is usually where defensiveness comes in. We feel bad for hurting someone we care about, so we try to defend ourselves to prove we didn’t mean to. Instead, you can quietly realize that what you said or did has hurt someone, even if your motivation was good.
Second, validate the actual impact that your actions had. You can do this by acknowledging to your loved one that you can see how you hurt him. Try simply noticing aloud what you’re seeing, or reflecting back what you hear him say: “You seem really disappointed that I didn’t make it to the game.” Or, “It sounds like you’re really angry that I forgot your birthday.”
The crucial final step is to apologize to your loved one for the impact your words or actions had without explaining your intentions. It can be hard to apologize for something we didn’t mean to do, so this last step is more easily said than done. However, after validating their emotions (the previous step) you can simply add, “I’m really sorry.” Depending on the gravity of the situation or how upset your loved one is, this may or may not be enough. Your loved one may have more to say, and your job is simply to listen, hearing how your actions have (unintentionally) hurt him.
Especially when the hurt has been ongoing, acknowledgement and apologies may only be a start. In such situations in which the negative impact is deep, therapy may be necessary to help a child or loved one heal. We can aid our loved ones’ healing by having a validating and apologetic stance, rather than a defensive and explaining stance.
There are times when explaining one’s intentions is warranted or is even requested by the offended person—I don’t mean to argue that there is never room for pointing out one’s good intentions. However, often the problem arises because we start with our intentions, rather than an apology, or we offer an apology with our reasoning attached to it. The emphasis here is to realize that your actions or words have hurt the other person, whether you meant to or not. Start with a heartfelt apology and pause to let the other person respond. If they ask what happened or what you meant, you can certainly offer it here. If they don’t ask, you can leave it be. If you’re worried that your loved one thinks you hurt them on purpose, you can humbly offer your intentions, but it’s helpful to do so with the awareness that this doesn’t change the impact your actions had. In most cases, simply offering a heartfelt apology without explanation is so rare and disarming that you are not likely to be met with defensiveness or anger, but rather gratitude and understanding.
The urge to explain ourselves when our good intentions have caused a negative impact usually comes from a place of love. We sometimes feel that if our loved one just understands what we meant then he won’t feel hurt. Unfortunately, this is not usually the case. Owning up to our actions and apologizing for the hurt that was caused (albeit unintentionally!) can do wonders for any relationship.