Why do we hurt the people we love?

Do you believe in serendipity? I do. I had just finished an interview with a parent the other day who had shared their sorrows at the viciousness of their ex-partner's messages before using Divvito. They asked me why I thought those who loved us the most could be the cruellest. I didn’t have an answer, and was still pondering the enormity of their question when a song came on the radio – If I could turn back time.

I was 16 when Cher released that number one hit, and at the time was more enamoured by her ability to rock that outfit on a ship full of American sailors than the lyrics. 29 years later, while sitting down to a delicious Malaysian curry for lunch, the song came on. It was the first time I’d actually listened to the lyrics and was bemused at how relevant they were to that question ... and also why we created Divvito.

If I could turn back time
If I could find a way I'd take back those words that hurt you
And you'd stay
I don't know why I did the things I did
I don't know why I said the things I said
Love's like a knife it can cut deep inside
Words are like weapons, they wound sometimes

I didn't really mean to hurt you
I didn't want to see you go
I know I made you cry, but baby
If I could turn back time
If I could find a way I'd take back those words that hurt you
And you'd stay
If I could reach the stars
I'd give 'em all to you
Then you'd love me, love me, like you used to do
If I could turn back time

Not that Cher had the answer, but she re-iterated what many parents share with me: ‘If I could turn back time, if I could find a way, I’d take back those words that hurt you, and you'd stay’. I always ask separated parents if they had their time around again and could address the problems in their relationship earlier, would they have stayed. Many say yes, but many can't answer because too much has happened, too much was said … in the negative.

So why do we say things to hurt the ones we love the most?

Basically, our brains haven’t evolved much from that of our ancestors with regards to our basic threat response process. Without going into too much scientific detail, in our frontal lobe is the pre-frontal cortex that is responsible for planning, organization, logical thinking, reasoning, and managing emotions. It’s our rational brain. Behind this in the centre of our brain is the Amygdala, Hypothalamus and Hippocampus, which all play an important role in our emotions. The Amygdala interprets the emotional meaning of everything that happens to us. If it interprets something as a threat, it sends a message to the Hypothalamus which releases hormones into our body to get ready to ‘fight’ or ‘flight’. The Hippocampus organizes memories so the Amygdala can interpret events in the future and the Hippocampus has a long memory! These three parts make up our emotional brain.

What has this got to do with why we hurt those we love the most? Our emotional brain reacts a lot faster than our rational brain. It does this for survival purposes. If you are in a life-threatening situation, you don’t have time to sit down and draw up a plan of action, you just need to act! While we may not have dinosaurs chasing us anymore, our brain still reacts in the same way. So if someone says something that hurts, we usually don’t respond rationally and advise them on how and why it hurts us. Instead, we react to their threat and either close up, say nothing and walk away (flight), or snap back with something hurtful to defend ourselves (fight). Every time we do this our Hippocampus stores our response, so when it happens again, we react in the same way. With loved ones, we care more about what they say than that of a stranger so our reaction is greater.

Quite literally, we can’t help ourselves.

Hence why we created Dani, our personal messaging bot in Divvito Messenger that helps separated parents keep communication rational, and not emotional. If one messages the other something inappropriate or something that could be misinterpreted, Dani flags the message and delays sending so they have time to revise. Simple intervention … and it works. Parents see a 50% reduction in inappropriate messages sent within the first four weeks of use.

Dani can’t turn back time, but Dani could have helped Cher take back those words that hurt.

Image courtesy of Bustle