What is a relationship injury?
A relationship injury is a hurt in an intimate relationship or marriage that is severe enough to adversely affect the relationship. It occurs when one partner feels neglected, abandoned, betrayed or that trust was breached at a critical moment when that partner was particularly vulnerable.
A relationship injury can also occur when one partner is unavailable, unable or unwilling to meet the emotional needs and expectations of the other for safety, comfort, care and accessibility at a time of significant distress. This can occur in parent-child relationships (no matter what age), couple relationships, close friendships, and sometimes in hierarchical work environments. I will confine this article to looking at relationship injuries in couple relationships.
When two people come together to become a couple, they create an emotional attachment or bond where there is an expectation that they will be cared for and feel safe, secure and supported. This secure bond is a connection where each partner can reach for the other in times of emotional distress.
Usually couples are able to maintain this secure bond by being attuned to each other’s needs and remaining accessible for soothing and comfort. However, in the event of significant emotional distress, if one partner is unavailable, unable or unwilling to remain accessible, it can damage the couple’s secure bond. This redefines the relationship as insecure which then becomes the new standard for dependability of the offending partner. And so the relationship bond remains injured.
In my Counselling room, I have witnessed many couple relationships suffering from relationship injuries and trauma. Sally and Jim, married for 3 years, were expecting the birth of their first child. This is Jim’s second marriage and he has 3 children from a previous marriage.
Sally’s experience during childbirth was traumatic. She had been in labour for over a day and was waiting to see her gynaecologist. Jim had left the hospital to get some rest at home. They had agreed that Sally would call Jim once she saw her doctor. Unfortunately Sally started haemorrhaging and it was decided she would have an emergency caesarean birth. Sally called Jim repeatedly but Jim remained asleep and arrived at the hospital hours after the birth. In Jim’s absence,the baby was delivered safely, but Sally was scared and felt alone and abandoned.
Jim believed he was not at fault as he had been there for over a day and overslept because he was exhausted. Jim said, ‘What’s the big deal? The baby is fine and so are you.’ Jim has apologised many times, but it has made no difference. Sally is constantly irritated and angry and picks faults at the way he cares for the infant. Sally maintains she can’t trust Jim to care for the baby adequately. Their child is now two years old, and the couple is experiencing constant fights and conflict with Sally claiming, ‘I can’t depend on Jim. He is constantly not present even when he is at home and I feel all alone in raising our child.’
Relationship injuries like this are inherently difficult to resolve without external help because the partner that is the source of the emotional pain is also the partner that we depend on for safety, comfort and security. The partner who has been hurt cannot trust the partner who was not there when needed. Sometimes the hurt partner simply cannot trust again due to the level of their pain, and the bond remains broken. And for the offending partner, the level of distress from the fighting and conflict that ensues makes it difficult, if not impossible, to then offer the reassurance or comfort that is most needed.
Have you experienced relationship injury?
Relationship injuries can occur in a variety of situations. Some are more obvious than others. The damaging incident can be as grave as an extramarital affair or as seemingly minor as being left out of an invitation to a family gathering. Situations where relationship injuries are most common include:
• Relationship betrayals, including sexual and emotional affairs, as well as other breaches of trust
• Absence of a partner during a time of major life changes, e.g., a miscarriage, death of a child or family member.
• Absence of a partner during a time of uncertainty, e.g., medical illness or loss of a job.
A partner’s absence may be physical or relational. Many couples report, ‘he or she was just not there for me when I needed him or her.’ Partners rely on each other for physical and emotional presence, and if one partner is unavailable feelings and fears of abandonment become primary so that the whole relationship can become unsafe. In highly distressed couples, relationship injuries are often described in life-or-death terms such as, 'You let me sink,’ or you left me for dead.' At the end of significant intimate relationships, men and women describes the intensity of the loss with, 'I imploded', 'I felt like an empty shell' or 'A part of me died'.
Dean and Suzie, a couple in their mid 30’s and married for 7 years, came to see me after Suzie stumbled upon messages on Dean’s Facebook page. Dean had flirted online with his work colleague, exchanging messages with sexual innuendo. Dean claimed that after Suzie was pregnant she was not as interested in sex or in him.
The flirting occurred when Suzie was 3 months pregnant with their first child and ended soon after. Dean said, ‘It was harmless flirting and meant nothing plus I had no intentions of taking it to the next step’. Suzie was hurt and yelled angrily, ‘How could you do this to me when I was pregnant?’ as she sat there newly pregnant and expecting their second baby. Dean yelled back, ‘Why do you have to keep bringing this up? Nothing happened! And that was 6 years ago!’
Dean’s flirting had damaged the nature of the relationship and was continuing to influence the way the relationship was defined in the present. It had become an enormous issue because Suzie had experienced traumatic abandonment and betrayal at a particularly vulnerable time. Suzie, now pregnant with their second child, brings up the incident again and again in an attempt to get reassurance that Dean will be there for her. Dean thinks Suzie is punishing him so he withdraws from what he sees as fighting and conflict, which then further confirms Suzie’s feelings of abandonment.
About half of relationship injuries are due to infidelities. Infidelities can include social media affairs and emotional but non-sexual friendships. To the injured partner, it is the meaning of the infidelity rather than the details that matter. Sometimes, a short flirtation can be more damaging than a longer one. It all depends on when it happened, how the couple handled it, and whether the unfaithful partner lied about it.
What can shatter a relationship depends on the people and the vulnerabilities involved. Partners that have experienced prior unresolved relationship injuries or trauma, either from past close relationships with parents, ex partners or significant others are more susceptible to experiencing relationship injuries again. If you have been or are in a high conflict relationship you are more exposed to relationship injuries.
Some relationship injuries happen without the offender knowing it. Often the offending partner doesn't even remember the incident. The offending partner apologises and thinks the rift has been healed. But for the injured person, the incident has not been either forgotten or forgiven. These injuries can go unspoken in a relationship even though their impact affects a couple’s level of closeness and their secure bond. A common sign of relationship injury is when a couple fights about the same issue over and over again with little or no resolution.
If you feel emotional distance and loss of intimacy or if you feel you cannot depend on your partner, you may have suffered a relationship injury.
How to heal a relationship injury
When an event or incident occurs that triggers the wound or injury, there is an opportunity to carefully bring the entire event gently into the present so that it can be dealt with. Usually these opportunities are missed. The injured partner blames the offending partner for the hurt. The offending partner then feels unfairly accused. And that same old fight is on again. It’s time to try a different approach.
If you are the injured partner, you need to calmly but clearly express the hurt and what impact it is having on you. Go over every detail that you feel necessary. Remember, you are doing this so your partner can meet your need for comfort and reassurance, so blaming will not be useful. Don’t lash out in anger. Instead express how you feel, in a vulnerable way, to let your partner know how the incident or injury has impacted you. Then ask for the help you need to trust and rely on your partner again.
The offending partner needs to take a healing attitude and remain calm, humble, soft spoken and contrite during the conversation. Listen to your partner and let him/her know that you really want to understand and help heal the injury. Acknowledge your partner’s pain and suffering. Apologize sincerely for how this has hurt him/her. Remember the focus is on your partner’s healing, not on you or your feelings. The more you are thinking about your issues, the less helpful it will be to your partner.
Remember, the apology must match the size of the injury. We don't cure infections with paracetamol. We don't cure traumatic relationship injuries with a quick and pitiful ‘I'm sorry, I should not have done that - now get over it.’ Remember also that healing takes time. Some or all of the above may have to be repeated. Be patient—do it again. Allow time to heal.
Some relationship injuries are harder to heal than others and external help is needed. Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT) is a clinically proven therapy designed to treat relationship injuries and traumatic incidents in couple relationships. EFT’s effectiveness has been validated by over 20 years of empirical research. It creates stronger relationship bonds and higher levels of trust and intimacy that are sustainable.
For some, unattended relationship injuries can bring an end to the relationship. And you may find yourself 'stuck' or unable to move on, even after much encouragement from family and friends. You may also experience repetitive thoughts, going over the details of what happened and regretting your actions. If this is you, start by knowing that you are not alone and you are also not going 'crazy'. We can help to get you unstuck and heal your injuries.
If your relationship is suffering from injury or trauma, do not let it linger any longer. It will not simply just go away. Contact us now for professional help.