Mark and Rachel are in their mid 40’s and have been married for 20 years. They have been attending couples therapy following a “drifting apart” from each other over several years. In the sessions, they are gradually sharing their feelings to try to regain a greater sense of closeness that they had previously experienced. In one session, Rachel erupts into anger, indicating that she doesn’t think that she can continue the couples therapy as she has not trusted Mark for the past 10 years. Mark is shocked to learn that she is “full of resentment” that “he was not there” for her when she had a miscarriage 10 years earlier. She explains that Mark did not come with her to the doctor’s office at the time and worked late and “was not with me” when she got home that night. Despite seeing her anguish and grief at the time, he avoided talking with her about it, and acted like “it was just a fact that happened.” Rachel indicates that she felt completely abandoned by her husband at the time, and was forced to deal with something very painful on her own. At that point, she felt that Mark did not really care about her and decided to never again turn to him for support. She explained that she had tried to bring up her hurt and anger about this incident for several years; however, she found that Mark tended to justify and rationalize his actions (“It was a very busy time for me at work – why can’t you get that and get over it?”), thereby minimizing her feelings whenever she would discuss it. This left Rachel feeling even less understood and abandoned. She states that this incident, along with the subsequent inability to resolve it, caused her to withdraw from Mark and led to the gradual disconnection between the two of them over time.
The incident described above is typical in the “wear and tear” it can cause on a relationship. Many couples expect that if there has never been an affair, physical abuse, or substance abuse in the relationship, there is no real relationship wound to repair. Sadly, this is often not the case. Dr. Sue Johnson, the pioneer of emotionally focused couples therapy, indicates that the type of incident (described above) is called an “attachment injury.” She indicates that a healthy dependence (not clinginess or neediness) is essential for a good relationship. A healthy dependence means that one’s spouse is there for both the good and the difficult moments, and will reach out to offer some kind of comfort or support during the difficult times. In a healthy relationship, this reaching out of support is enormously comforting to the spouse in need and allows for a “coming together” in dealing with the challenging event; this, in turn, leads to greater emotional closeness and trust in the relationship. However, when this does not occur, the “injured” spouse is left with a deep hurt or wound, as was the case for Rachel in the example above. Thereafter, a significant distance between the spouses frequently develops.
Attachment injuries usually occur in response to a significant life event, such as the death of a parent, a serious illness or diagnosis (e.g., cancer), the loss of a child, one spouse experiencing depression, or the loss of one’s job. What constitutes an attachment injury is the seriousness of the event for the person affected and the inability of their spouse to be there in a supportive way. An attachment injury in itself is not lethal to a relationship if it can be discussed and resolved after its occurrence. However, an attachment injury becomes a significant relationship “wound” when there is an inability to resolve the injury. In this case, the “injured” person tries to discuss their hurt or disappointment with their spouse and experiences further abandonment and isolation when their spouse minimizes the incident (e.g. “You are making this into a big deal”) or justifies their behaviour without ever understanding why it was a big deal for the other person.
Typically, attachment injuries are not intentionally inflicted and can be caused by the most caring and loving of spouses. Sometimes, these injuries occur because one person may not realize the significance of the event for the other or because the person feels anxious about not knowing how to support their spouse, and winds up doing nothing. Other times, one individual may be preoccupied with their own life stressors (e.g. work or children) and not have the energy to attend to their spouse.
The good news is that attachment injuries can be “repaired.” The key is to recognize that they don’t tend to go away on their own and can cause significant damage to the relationship when they remain indefinitely “buried.” What is needed is an open discussion of the event and a gradual shared understanding of what happened for each party. For example, it would be important for Rachel to share her hurt and disappointment that Mark wasn’t there ─ not in an attacking way, but in a way that lets him understand what the emotional impact was for her and how her sense of security or closeness in the relationship was impacted. Equally important would be for Mark to listen, in a non-defensive, non-justifying manner, to try to understand Rachel’s pain and what the miscarriage, and his not being there, was like for her. It would also be important, for Mark to share what had happened for him at the time (e.g. ” I was so scared and devastated about what happened, I didn’t know what to say to you.”) and for him to share his genuine regret that he could not be there in the way that Rachel needed. Gradually, with this kind of dialogue, Rachel can feel heard and understood once again, and can begin to forgive Mark and gradually let down her “walls.” With this issue finally “healed,” the “ghosts of the past” can be let go and a new sense of closeness and security can finally be achieved.
Note: If these dialogues seem too difficult to undertake, it is important for the couple to seek couple’s therapy to be able to more fully resolve the issues in a safe environment.