The Fallacy of Emotional “Fragility”

Dear Dr. Hurd:

I found your web site after searching for answers as to why a man I had been dating internalized a comment I made about myself, then fell apart and ended our relationship.

The day before he told me he felt closer to me than anyone else. I feel bad that I hurt him.

I apologized profusely and he said he was fragile and I devastated him. He refused to talk things out and was done. I don’t understand how someone can tell you they cherish you and you say one wrong thing and they’re gone.

I would appreciate any input you have. I feel responsible for causing him so much pain and ruining the relationship. I have a great therapist who is helping me through all this.


I would take this man at his word. He said he is ‘fragile’ and he meant it.

I’ve never particularly liked the concept ‘fragile.’ It implies an inability to deal with difficult emotions.

The point of using the term ’emotionally fragile’ is not merely to say, ‘Ouch, you hurt me.’ It gives emotions more significant status than they merit.

In other words: ‘What you said devastated me. It’s the exact same as if a boulder fell on top of me.’

Well, is it? Just because he feels something, this doesn’t make it an automatic barometric reading of what’s actually going on.

For one thing, he might have misunderstood you. Unless you have treated him in a deliberately rotten, or negligently insensitive way, for your whole relationship, it seems like you deserved the benefit of the doubt.

I’m frankly puzzled by his response. You’re puzzled, too, I know—mainly by his contradiction. On the one hand he cherished you, on the other hand you say ‘one wrong thing’ and you’re deleted from his life.

I don’t know how well or how long you knew this man. Did you date him for a month, a year, or for years? Regardless, it appears you didn’t know him as well as you thought you did. I doubt you would have invested the trust and time you put into him, if you knew he would so easily leave you.

I use the phrase ‘so easily’ leave you without knowing all the facts. It is conceivable that one person would say to another something so devastating that it would be an immediate deal breaker. It’s unlikely, and I think quite rare (other than as the climax in a long period of conflict in a relationship).

For example, let’s say two people know each other real well. They know each other well enough to know the other’s most vulnerable points. In a conflict, one person takes advantage of this knowledge and uses it against the other—merely for the sake of hurting the other.

This would be a terrible breach of trust. An apology would probably not suffice, because the fact that you said something so deliberately horrible—something you knew full well would hurt him more than anything else could, coming from you—would lead not just to an emotional reaction, but also a rational conclusion of, ‘That’s it.’

I can conceive of such a situation, although I view it as unlikely: Particularly if things had always been excellent or reasonably good between you. When this does happen, it’s always (to my knowledge) in the context of an ongoing, escalating and bitter conflict between two people. It’s almost as if the person saying the hurtful thing is deliberately doing so to ‘end this misery’ once and for all, i.e. the misery of a relationship that has not been working for months or years.

The more likely explanation is that you didn’t know this man as well as you thought you did. People can be complex. They’re not always contradictory, and some do possess high integrity. However, any individual’s psyche can be like the layers of an onion. There’s usually, even after many years, potentially more to discover. That’s not by itself a bad thing, but sometimes it manifests in a painful way. Within the first year of a relationship this is always a high risk frankly, and to some extent even several years after that. It takes time to really get to know someone, not just one’s character, but all the intricate workings of one’s personality, quirks, emotional and behavioral responses.

I realize your ex-boyfriend is probably thinking the same about you, right now. But if you value him as much as it sounds like from your short note, the loss is his for aborting something so quickly rather than rationally working it out. His own self-interest requires this. After all, even if it can’t work out between the two of you, his conflict resolution skills could clearly use a little sharpening. He missed an important opportunity to do that, and lost you when it might not have been necessary for him to do so.

Perhaps with a little time, you’ll hear from him. It will quite likely be too late to turn back, but not too late to gain a little insight as to exactly what went wrong, in terms he can (hopefully) rationally phrase.


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