Paul and Joan were doing quite well in couple therapy. They knew how to de-escalate conflict and have more engaged conversations. They were starting to feel more emotionally close again. However, I was not entirely sure that they had really discussed some of the deeper concerns that would lead to making permanent change in their relationship. So, I asked whether there was any issue or event of importance from the past that we had not yet discussed. Paul was quick to say ‘No, I don’t think so.’ But there was an uncomfortable silence from Joan.
Joan took a deep breath and began to speak slowly. “When our son Alex was born, it was both an exciting and frightening time for us. Paul had been very involved in the prenatal care and doted on me during my pregnancy. I felt lucky because my pregnancy was fairly easy. However, I felt all kinds of fears that expecting mothers have when it is their first child, like having a healthy baby.”
“Paul was great: helping to prepare the baby’s room, getting my boots on and off during my last month of pregnancy and sharing in the excitement. He was reassuring and during labour and delivery, he was totally there for me. When we brought Alex home, the first two weeks with Paul there went as well as could be expected. Despite the constant crying and sleeplessness, we kept our senses of humour. We felt really close – like a really good team.”
“When it came time for Paul to go back to work after two weeks, I felt a little uneasy. I knew that I could manage, but I was anxious about being alone with a tiny, helpless little baby. My first two days alone with the baby went fine. But on the third day, Paul had to stay late at work and called to tell me. On that same day, Alex would not sleep, or feed properly. He cried and screamed all day long. I was exhausted and felt desperate when nothing seemed to calm him.”
“When Paul waltzed in at 9pm, the baby was still screaming. I was in a frantic state. I don’t think Paul had ever seen me this way, feeling so helpless. What Paul did next was something I will never forget. He did not come to me a give me a kiss or a comforting hug. Instead, he grabbed Alex from me and in a condescending, disapproving tone said, “Calm down, you are so freaked out that you are upsetting him! I will settle him!” With that, holding Alex in his arms, he went into another room leaving me stunned. I could not believe what he had just said to me! I felt so disrespected and devalued. I felt like my rock, my support through the last nine months had just abandoned me! Had I been fooled into thinking he was always going to be there for me? From that moment on, I saw Paul and our relationship differently. Never again could I fully count on him. I knew then that I needed to be more self–reliant!”
When Joan finished her story, Paul looked at his wife and said, “Alex is now 7 years old. Haven’t I paid for that mistake enough? Why can’t you forgive and forget?”
Relationship wounds, or attachment injuries, are those incidents in our relationship that don’t just hurt our feelings or rub up on our raw spots. They are traumatic events in a relationship which wounds deeply and are so powerful, that they render us helpless and fearful. They make us feel like we have lost control and predictability in our lives. An attachment injury is a specific type of betrayal, abandonment or violation of trust that calls into account basic assumptions about the relationship. It is a pivotal moment that leads the hurt partner to ruminate and become hyper vigilant and creates impasses to relationship repair.
While the hurt person may describe the deep psychological wound as betrayal, there seems often to be an even stronger wound of abandonment. The terror and panic of the wound seem to scream out, “How could you, the person I felt so attached to, who I trusted with my life, who I felt close to, violate this emotional connection? Attachment wounds make a relationship less secure.
Six Steps to Healing or Forgiving Attachment Injuries
According to Sue Johnson in her book Hold Me Tight, couples need to take the following actions to heal an attachment injury.
- The hurt partner speaks openly, directly about their pain without anger and blame. They describe how devastating it feels at a moment of urgent need to feel deprived of comfort, deserted and alone, devalued and unimportant. They explain how their partner became a source of danger rather than the haven of safety and security.
Think of an attachment injury in your relationship – an incident where you were hurt by your partner. Ask yourself: Did I feel deprived of support? Was my pain and fear dismissed? Did I feel devalued? Did I suddenly see this person as a source of danger, taking advantage of me, betraying me? When you have this sense of this past hurt see if you can share it with your partner, or at least write it down in a letter to your partner that you may or may not send.
- The injuring partner stays emotionally present and acknowledges the hurt partner’s pain and the part they played in causing it. Staying emotionally present means the injuring partner does not retreat into self defense, guilt, shame and self-blame.
Reflect on how easy or difficult it is for you to apologize about large or even little things. Rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 on your ability to apologize. Sincerity, authenticity, empathy, patience are part of a good apology. Rapid fire, shallow, ‘sorry, sorry, sorry’ apologies, ones where we justify our actions, or those that include the word ‘but’ followed by a justification, will not lead to forgiveness.
- Partners revise the old script that keeps them stuck. In the story above Joan softens her refrain, ‘Never again could I fully count on him.’ to ‘I can now see Paul’s genuine efforts to help calm the baby was his way to help me, but his words and actions undermined any comfort I felt, leaving me with a sense of loneliness and abandonment.’
Reflect on the thoughts you had or the promises you made to yourself when you felt betrayed by your partner. Write them down in one column and next to them see if you can write the revisions. For example, Joan might write: ‘I can’t count on Paul anymore.’ And revise it to: ‘Paul, when you are overwhelmed, you need to pay attention to how you treat those you love. I can help you with that.’
- The injuring partner takes ownership for the pain they caused and expresses regret and remorse.
Reflect on the injury you inflicted on your partner. Write a letter of apology to them including how much you care about them, what you did exactly, why their reaction and feelings of anger are understandable, and how your actions did damage to them. Express your regrets, remorse and embarrassment for what your behaviour did to them. Explain what you learned from your mistake. If you can, find the courage to tell your partner this apology or, if not, give your letter to them.
- The hurt partner identifies what they need right now to bring closure to the trauma of the attachment injury, and the injuring partner responds by demonstrating their ability to meet their partner’s needs now, in a way that they did not before.
If you were the hurt partner, identify what it is about your partner’s apology that helps you accept it. Do you feel you can forgive? If you were the injuring partner, admit to yourself how disappointed you are in your own behaviour and how much your partner means to you. As the hurt partner, Is there any sense that your trust can grow?
- The couple can create a new story that captures the injuring event.
Sum up with your partner in a short story about the painful event, the impact it had on your relationship, and how you both recovered from it, learned about yourself and your partner and how you are going to ensure it does not happen again.
There are many types of injuries or psychological wounds that need to be healed. It is a betrayal as large as an extra-marital affair or something more like the example above. The process of true forgiveness is a difficult, yet very worthwhile endeavour that strengthens your relationship. Often couples need the help of a good relationship therapist to orchestrate this healing process.