We've all experienced being hurt by someone we love. It's inevitable. Even when two people have a connected, secure and healthy relationship, they will end up hurting one another at some point. We're human. That's just the way it is. When couples come to see me for therapy, it's often due to an experience or pattern of experiences that caused one or both of the partners to feel hurt. The couple decides to come to therapy because they are having a difficult time resolving this hurt. They need some help in order to feel safe with each other again.
When working with couples, I want to understand the nature and significance of the hurt before moving toward resolution. How bad is it? How deep is the impact? First, we must understand the two levels of hurt: relational hurts and attachment injuries.
Relational Hurts (Hurt Feelings)
Couples who are secure in their relationship can usually navigate relational hurts on their own. Some examples of relational hurts might be forgotten anniversaries, reactive insults, or blow-up fights that sneak into relationships. For couples who feel they can depend and rely on each other in times of need, relational hurts are pretty simple to navigate. Attuned couples do this by sharing their hurt feelings with each other, hearing and empathizing with the hurt of their partner, and they provide comfort and reassurance. Partners can then move forward in the relationship with trust, security, and safety despite the hurtful experience. This is a natural and expected experience for healthy relationships.
I can often tell when a hurt falls into the category of a relational hurt. In our sessions, couples may share feelings of sadness, anger, hurt, and pain in response to an experience. But when I ask them if they feel their partner loves and cares for them, they can quickly answer “yes.” For them, even though the hurt happened, it hasn’t significantly changed the way they view each other or the relationship.
Attachment injuries are trickier. These injuries require a lot more care, consideration, and guidance, sometimes from a couples counselor.
When couples are trying to respond to attachment injuries as if they are merely a relational hurt, they can stay stuck. Without recognizing the significance and impact of the injury, they can go down a long road of frustration and more hurt. An injured partner can feel even more hurt that the other person is not responding in ways that provide healing. The hurt deepens, becomes more complex, and can create great distress in the relationship.
Dr. Sue Johnson defines an attachment injury as “a feeling of betrayal or abandonment during a critical time of need.” When an attachment injury happens, a partner may view their relationship as changed or they may view their partner in a different way. An affair is a good example of an attachment injury. Infidelity often causes a partner to view a previously safe relationship as unsafe. While they used to view their partner as trustworthy, they now wonder, “Can I ever trust this person again?”
There are also more subtle attachment injuries. One example to consider is that of a wife, grieving the loss of her mother, crying in her bedroom. The wife observes her husband walk by on his phone, consumed in a work call. He sees her in tears but, because he was so focused on his work, he never returns to check on her. In that moment, the wife decides she is not important to him and she must go through this pain alone. In that moment, everything changes in how she views the relationship and how she views her husband. She was in need and he wasn’t there.
There are three ways to determine if a hurt is an attachment injury. First, partners report they have apologized, but their hurt partner keeps bringing up the hurtful experience. In addition, the hurt partner may report feeling as though they relive the hurtful experience when they think or talk about it. They can still feel the pain, almost as if it just happened. Finally, couples report a significant, defining shift in the relationship felt by one or both partners that can be traced back to a specific time or incident. If any of these things are happening in your relationship, there may be an attachment injury.
If you believe you are dealing with an attachment injury in your relationship, here are some helpful things to think about: