The Way You Treat Your Partner is the Way You Treat Yourself

Photo by Courtney Kammers on Unsplash

When people experience pain in their lives, that pain must be expressed in one way or another. There are two ways that pain is expressed. Either the pain will be inflicted onto others or the pain will be inflicted on oneself.

But let me be clear. No one inflicts pain onto others one hundred percent of the time and no one inflicts pain onto themselves one hundred percent of the time. Like many other things in life, this is on a spectrum.

Some people inflict pain onto others the majority of the time but will still have some darts to throw at themselves every now and then. Others are largely super-critical of themselves or make life needlessly difficult for themselves but they will have some choice words about someone or something they dislike.

In terms of our relationships, the unresolved pain within oneself will be expressed at some point. The only question is, who is going to experience the pain?

The most common example of this is the schoolyard bully. People think that a bully merely emulates what they see at home, but the mechanics are more insidious. Based on what they experience at home, it is the pain that they feel inside that they are compelled to express to their peers.

It’s as if they are unconsciously communicating their experience with others.

Bear in mind that other children can also experience pain at home but not externalize it onto their peers. They may lash out at the parent who is hurting them or inflict damage on themselves by bottling up their emotions.

One thing I have consistently noted when it comes to close relationships, but especially romantic ones, is that one’s romantic partner is taken as a part of oneself. Therefore, the partner is going to witness or experience the pain of their partner more than anyone else.

If I note that someone is critical of herself, she may just continue to beat herself up and never dare to say such things to her partner. That is how she unhealthily deals with her pain. But with another individual, I may catch a glimpse of criticism a man has for his partner but over time, I see more and more short glimpses of the criticism.

In another example, I’d seen a guy tell his girlfriend to get over the pain of her mother’s failure as a parent but he had also shared his own frustrations with his mother. This is an example of someone who inflicts pain onto others and onto himself at near identical levels.

Of course, we would just call this projection — the defense mechanism where we take what we deem as negative within ourselves and attribute it to others. But projection isn’t the only defense mechanism that could be used to abuse others. Moreover, we are still at least sometimes guilty of abusing ourselves.

In yet another example, one person bottles up their pain and never expresses it to their partner. It is no wonder that even if this person is introspective, the most sensitive things are never addressed. Not even to themselves.

How Abuse Shows Itself

Some ways in which we abuse others include:

- Criticism that comes in the forms of name-calling, patronizing, sarcasm, jokes and character assassination,

- Control which comes in the forms of spying, threats, financial control, physical altercations, abandonment and yelling commands,

- Denial which shows itself as gaslighting, lying, trivializing and reverse accusations, and

- Neglect that reveals itself as keeping you from others, withholding affection, ignoring you and denying your needs.

Some ways in which we abuse ourselves include:

- Uncertainty of one’s identity,

- Feeling worthless/useless,

- Physical self-abuse,

- Not asking for help,

- Self-criticism,

- Self-hatred,

- Pulling out one’s hair, and

- Holding onto emotions.

Also, consider how people begin their relationships and you will also see how people explicitly or implicitly treat themselves.

The guy who believes that he has to use “negging” is a good example of this. Negging is when someone uses a negative compliment to undermine one’s confidence while simultaneously placing themselves on a pedestal.

Just in the definition alone you can see the implicit pain. The fact that one would even consider to put someone else down is because one already feels that they lack worth.

In another example, one could simply be generally manipulative in order to get what they want. In this scenario, you can see that while the manipulative person may care about the other person, they don’t care about them enough to be honest and to deal with the response if it doesn’t go their way. They must things their way.

This is someone who laments their powerlessness, otherwise they would not try to wrangle control by doing manipulative acts that were born out of the desire to satisfy oneself.

If this is the start of the relationship, what do you think will happen during the course of the relationship? It will be more of the same.

There will be more manipulation and more actions that are all primarily designed to edify oneself. Even if there are acts of selflessness, they are only done for the future goal of getting what one wants.

It doesn’t occur to these folk that they are abusing their partners and it definitely doesn’t occur to them that they are abusing themselves. It’s all done unconsciously and as a result, there is little chance of things changing.

Even when you call them on it, the ego is going to do what it does best and protect their identity of a “good person” and deny that they are doing anything wrong.

But as you probably realized, this is just more abuse. They can’t admit to their flaws and so will be doomed to repeat them.


The very first step in getting better is seeing that this dynamic is real. Maybe you wouldn’t be able to see it in yourself, but you can certainly see it in the relationships of your peers.

You can see that while a certain couple is happy and may even belong together, there are certain acts that one person does to their partner that they also do to themselves. But for some strange reason you can see the similarity but they can’t.

Or you see a couple where they both seem great but one of them beats themselves up and cannot communicate what is wrong to their partner because they don’t want to externalize their pain onto their partner.

Lastly, you can also think of couples who deal with one another in healthy, emotionally mature ways. Not only do they treat their partner well, they treat themselves well too.

After all, if you treat your partner the way you treat yourself and vice versa, it is only natural that a loving dynamic is flowing through both people in the relationship.

If you’re someone who does any of the abusive things I mentioned earlier to others, let’s go back in time. Allow yourself to feel the emotion that you feel right before you were about to hurl the insult or slam the door or gaslight.

This is an emotion that is living within you. You may not know it but there are times when that emotion is something you feel about yourself. Therefore, the abusive things you do to the one(s) you care about are things you do to yourself.

By feeling the emotion and turning it into words, you will know exactly what you are thinking to yourself and you will then stop trying to communicate your pain to others by attacking them.

If you’re someone who abuses themselves, remember the last time or a big time you felt negative emotions. When in a safe place, give yourself permission to verbalize the pain you are feeling and then say it or write it down, whichever you prefer. Ensure that the emotion is the driving force behind your talking or writing.

The language used is what you really want to communicate to those who hurt you, even if one of those persons who hurt you was yourself.

By highlighting the emotions and the contents that gave rise to them, your actions will no longer be unconsciously done and you will be able to naturally treat yourself and others in healthier ways.

The truth is that it is in embracing our pain that causes pain to dissipate. Being unconscious of our pain only keeps it firmly in place.

We are all guilty of expressing our pain onto others or onto ourselves. It’s just that some of us do one type of expression more than the other. Which one are you, and when do you do it? Your answer is the first step to better relationships with others and with yourself.

Former Edu. Psychologist | Current Writer | Constant Learner | “By your stumbling the world is perfected.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store