image by Daria Nepriakhina
Relationship injuries can be something different for each of us. For some it is a sense of being abandoned in a difficult moment; or, it could be a feeling of being belittled, devalued by a partner, or even scared of a partner who you wished to see as your safe harbour.
Afterwards, spouses may describe the moment of a relationship injury as if an era ended: they told themselves not to trust their partners ever again, not to depend on them, not to care about them. The result is often a sense of disconnection, which partners try to remedy with nice gestures. But the real way to heal the emotional disconnection that comes through relationship injury is to face it, explore it with all the empathy and genuine interest you can muster, so you can heal it together.
Often it may not be events themselves, but how vulnerable and alone you or your partner felt at the moment that consolidates the relationship injury. A small example that comes to mind is a situation as described below.
Anne was feeling very unwell and was coming back home after a business trip. Simon, her partner knew that she would be coming by train late in the evening, and offered earlier that day to come and pick her up from the station. She was so looking forward to it – to being taken care of, safe with her partner being there for her.
She was so tired and fever was setting in. While still on the train, Anne tried to call Simon, but he never answered her phone call. She came back home by taxi and could not bring herself to greet her partner. He realised quickly something was not right and asked what was wrong.
After taking a deep breath Anne admitted that it felt like she was not important to him and it was awful to feel that. Seeing Anne being so cold towards him and listening to her, aroused a dreaded feeling of “messing up” for Simon and he usually reacted with defensive anger to block this feeling.
This time he managed to listen to Anne's words not as an attack on him, but as her sharing what it was like for her. He knew Anne well enough to know that it was not easy for her to show vulnerability. He hugged her, explained that he left his phone at work and assured her that she was always important to him. He also asked if there was anything he could do to make her feel cared for again. This was exactly what Anne needed to hear that evening.
Willingness to listen with an open heart
The first step is to ask and listen with a willingness to accept what your partner has to say about the event that created the emotional injury. To start the conversation, choose a time when both of you can be undisturbed. It can start with a question like this: “Can you tell me what was so important to you about that event? I want to understand. It keeps popping up in our conversations, and I never really understood what this situation meant to you?”
Take care to give your wounded other half time to say everything that they know about their pain, allowing for the full exploration of the injury. It is not an easy conversation. What can help you to stay present and responsive, is to trust that this is the way to make your relationship stronger.
Your spouse will be able to renew trust in you only if they sense that you really understood and took on their pain. On their side, it is not easy at all to open up and show the core of their pain to the person they feel caused it. Paradoxically, it may be even harder with someone who they love, and who they thought would be there as a source of comfort in difficult times, not as a source of hurt.
It is crucial that your partner opens up and talks about their pain as openly as possible, without veering into blaming, belittling you or making a case against you.
What can help to achieve this are questions they can ask themselves: “What did it feel like to me: did I feel lonely and deserted? Did I feel devalued at a time when I felt very unsure about myself and needed validation from my partner? Did I ask for comfort at a time of extreme need only to be faced with indifference by my partner? Was I so scared of my partner, that I was never again able to see them as my source of safety?”
It is worthy to approach this vulnerable path to healing only if you can hang in there, without becoming angry or overwhelmed with guilt or anxiety. You can remind yourself that being able to share the injury and listen to each other is a sign of care, not of approaching break-up. When we love each other mistakes are inevitable. What distinguishes couples who can heal together is their learned ability to revisit those difficult moments together.
Show that you get your partner's hurt
When your partner is talking, what matters is that you show them that you are getting their pain. If you love each other, this comes naturally: it hurts to see your partner hurting because of what you did. Only when you realise how your action hurt your partner, can they let go of the pain and start feeling safe with you again.
This will lead your partner towards opening up even more, so they can entrust to you all the depth of their grief, pain or loneliness they experienced in the moment of injury. Maybe this is the time when they will say: “I decided never to trust you again because it hurt so much to be betrayed.” Or: “I thought I will never want to depend on you again, anything to not go through this awful feeling of being left all by myself.”
The more you can show your partner that their pain has an impact on you and that you understand where they are coming from, the more restorative this conversation will be for both of you. Depending on the nature of the injury, your partner may need to go through it with you quite a few times.
Can you be there for them when they need you to listen and take in their hurt or confusion? Say and show that you are sorry to see the depth of pain you caused your partner. You may feel moved to say something like: “I am sorry for making you feel unloved, neglected, overlooked or devalued. I love you and I can't stand that this is how my action made you feel.”
Kamila Kaminska Reg. MBACP ICEEFT works with couples and individuals in her private practice in Newbury, Berkshire and online. Her special interests are relationship difficulties, perinatal counselling and helping people overcome anxiety. You can find out more via Kamila's website or feel free to get in touch via Twitter, FaceBook or email here