Every day, you communicate far more to others than you ever actually say out loud. How? By giving off “vibes.”
Whether it’s the obviously annoyed sigh you toss at the barista who dared to take 30 seconds too long making your morning latte, or the long, lingering glance you subtly give the man on the train letting him know, “hello, there. I find you attractive,” all day, every day, your body language sends out nonverbal messages to friends, family, and colleagues (as well as strangers) that communicate loud and clear: Leave me alone. I’m busy. I’m friendly. I’m scared. I want you. Back off, jerk!
This nonverbal communication, or your “vibes,” impacts your relationships in powerful ways, and can often cause relationship problems that seem to arise out of nowhere when, in reality, they’ve been brewing all along.
This is nowhere more so than in our intimate relationships, where we often use nonverbal communication in dishonest, cruel, or passive-aggressive ways to hurt our partner and get what we want (or to punish our partners when we don’t).
Think you’re not guilty of hurting your partner with your own “bad vibes”? Don’t be so sure. I wrote my book “Rock The Boat” to help couples recognize the four most common variations of how they use their energy in seriously unkind and unloving ways.
When your partner hurts your feelings or you feel hurt in a relationship, always address these feelings with your partner.
If you think it would be of any help, seeing a couples therapist has worked for many and could work for both of you if you each put in the same amount of effort. If this will help you feel heard and help your mental health, it’s worth a try.
How do you ruin a relationship?
If you think you might have ruined your relationship and have noticed your relationship with your partner has turned unhealthy, it could be because you’ve stopped talking to your partner as much, have taken them for granted, stopped listening to them, and ignored them.
If you wanted to emotionally hurt your partner because they emotionally hurt you, it’s best to just break up with them. You can easily solve your problem and at the same time get what you want. However, if the relationship is unhealthy and toxic, break things off and save yourself from even more emotional trauma.
But according to relationship coach and psychologist Dr. Wendy Lyon, there’s never a reason to emotionally hurt someone. “If you are upset about something, be clear, kind, and direct in your communication. Learn how to communicate and connect without hurting each other,” she says.
Here’s how you hurt your partner in 4 cruel ways (and how to support your partner in a better way).
1. You use the silent treatment.
Your partner takes an action or makes a choice… and you disapprove. So you send your sweetie a small, micro-aggressive energetic smack that conveys your contempt, lack of respect, and ultimate dismissal of them… all without using a single nasty word or a negative tone.
Your partner, who is deeply attuned to your energy, immediately picks up that vibratory message in their body — and feels your vibe intensely, like a punch in the gut (literally, they’ll suddenly feel sick or nervous in their stomach).
Yes, you said, “It’s fine. No big deal.” But your partner feels the disconnect between your vibe and your words… and it hurts. And, be honest, you meant it to.
Of course, when your partner reacts strongly to this wound from you, you feign ignorance, pretend you did nothing, and accuse them of overreacting.
Over time, most couples get better and better at this technique. You wound one another with the smallest movement, a slight change in posture, a look, or a minor change in their voice. That small, dismissive micro-aggressive gesture or facial expression conveys the message: I only love you when you do what I want. If you displease me, I’ll make you pay for it.
It’s the art of subtle cruelty; quiet violence that leaves no visible fingerprints. Your partner is left feeling attacked but can’t logically explain why or what happened.
2. You play the victim.
For those who like to maintain control without ever seeming controlling, the “victim vibe” is the technique of choice.
You tell your partner you want something and they don’t want to give it, whether that’s going to an event you’re eager to attend or make a purchase they find unnecessary. And so, you start in on them… arguing, badgering, sulking, wearing them down. Finally, they give in (usually begrudgingly or half-heartedly) and you get your way.
But that’s not enough for you — you want service with a smile! Instead of thanking them for acquiescing and then allowing them their honest feelings about how they came to do so, you retaliate by asking, “What’s wrong?” or “What’s going on?” and act like you’re the victim of their bad energy.
Frustrated, they say, “This is what you said you want. But now that you’re getting it, you’re still complaining? Still not happy? What the hell is wrong with you?”
Congratulations, you got what you want by ignoring your partner’s feelings, but now you get to make them the bad guy by acting like you’re the victim.
3. You’re an emotional bully.
With this approach, you’re not taking no for answer and instead of using silence, you’re taking the opposite approach and upping the volume of your words.
The goal is to pour a ton of energetic intensity on your partner and create a pressure cooker effect. Put the energetic squeeze on them until you get your way. Bully them. Nag them. Over-explain your point. Lecture. Talk too loud. Talk extra slow like they’re a half-deaf idiot child.
The message is clear — you won’t back off or ease the pressure they feel until you get what you want. By overpowering, you hook all sorts of extra negative baggage onto what should otherwise be a simple message.
Note that if you take things a step further and resort to physical violence, this is never okay. Domestic violence is a felony and is never acceptable under any circumstances.
4. You keep your partner in the dark.
You give your partner only part of what you know they want or need, especially in conversations. You offer just a taste of it, to hook them, and then you energetically withhold the rest to ensure that you retain control.
It’s a not-so-subtle power play made through your tone of voice, timing, and how much you do or do not engage with them.
And what is the “thing” they want and need that you withhold? Why, your love, affection, and attention, of course.
Your withholding looks like your partner trying to tell you about his day, you listen briefly, then change the subject before he finishes. It could also look like your partner asking to discuss something with you. You agree, but while she talks, you send texts, or surf the web, or check your email or you interrupt the conversation to make or take a less-than-urgent phone call.
You could also be pretending to pay attention, periodically saying “uh-huh” and “okay.” But really, you don’t care about the conversation (what they’re trying to tell you), and you’re letting them know with your bored tone and indifferent questions such as, “Who are we talking about, again?”
You also might say the right words — “I’m sorry” or “That must really hurt” or “Go on, I’m listening” — but in a bored or uncommitted or uncaring tone, or in an angry monotone: “Whatever. It doesn’t matter” or (the nastiest of all) “It’s fine.”
The vibe you send to them screams, “Oh, I care, and it does matter — a lot. But right now I’m angry, so I’m going to pretend I don’t care and refuse to engage with you. You won’t be able to do anything about my anger. I’m going to make you feel it for a while. Until I feel better, I will make you feel bad.”
How do you respond when you’ve hurt your partner?
In these instances, what often happens is that the other partner finally calls their partner out on this unfair behavior. They straighten their spine and speak their truth.
This can blow the relationship apart… or it can blow it open and create an opportunity for growth and transformation. But positive change can’t occur until both partners acknowledge and commit to changing the way they energetically wound one another without words.
According to Dr. Lyon, you might find yourself defending yourself when your partner hurts you.
“When your actions or words hurt your partner, you might automatically react by defending yourself: ‘I didn’t do it’ or ‘I didn’t mean to do it’ or ‘You made me do it!’ If you want to keep your relationship, catch yourself before you do this again,” Dr. Lyon advises.
If you recognize yourself in this article and are thinking, “I hurt my boyfriend emotionally. How do I fix it?” find the courage to change your own behavior before your partner calls you out on it (or walks away from you entirely).
To improve your nonverbal communication in your relationship, you have to change your attitude.
You might wonder what to do when you hurt your partner’s feelings after a bad fight, or maybe in general you’ve noticed you’ve been treating them badly.
If you really care about the relationship, let them know how sorry you are for not being present in the relationship and caring about their feelings. Show them that from now on you’ll be more attentive and caring, and it’s not going to be one-sided anymore.
When you’ve seriously messed up in your relationship, tell your partner in an honest and genuine way that you’re sorry. You’ll have to hope they can accept your apology, but it helps to show them why they should.
Dr. Lyon recommends saying, “I messed up. I’m so sorry I hurt you. I’m committed to doing everything I can to make sure this never happens again.” Dr. Lyon also recommends acknowledging their pain, checking in, asking if they’re OK, and then apologizing and making amends.
If you want to know how to make it up to your boyfriend after hurting him, prove you care, and want to do better and be a better partner in ways they’ll appreciate and understand.
The truth is — we all send out positive and negative vibes, occasionally without fully realizing it. When I call attention to one of these four toxic patterns emerging between one of my couples in a therapy session, the guilty partner almost always says, “What?! I didn’t say anything!” and hopes their partner will cave to them or take their side.
But, let’s be honest (more often than we’d like to admit), we’re perfectly aware that our “bad vibes” are wounding or seriously distressing the other person. And you likely know that you’re hurting your partner, too!
Resmaa Menakem, MSW, LICSW, is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in couples therapy and domestic violence prevention. His book Rock The Boat is here to help you shift those “bad vibes” into loving energy.