By Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC, Seattle Christian Counseling
References from Dr. Sue Johnson’s Hold Me Tight– Chap 5 Forgiving Injuries
When a loved one hurts you, you usually find a way to get past it and move on. Time is helpful because it weakens the pain you felt during the incident, helping you to forget how hurtful it actually was. But sometimes the pain is too sharp to be forgotten, so you build a wall between yourself and the loved one who hurt you and refuse to let them in again.
Dr. Sue Johnson refers to this as “relationship trauma” in the fifth conversation of her book Hold Me Tight. Relationship trauma is not like the run-of-the-mill injuries partners inflict on one another. “Traumas” are injuries caused by events when one spouse is in desperate need of comfort, support, or validation from the other and is dismissed. The dismissal of their needs is so powerful this event causes the wounded partner to build a wall between him or herself and their spouse, refusing to let them in or turn to them for emotional support like they used to. (166, 167)
When your partner rejects you
Laura and Clint have been married for six years when they begin marriage counseling. Clint says Laura has grown increasingly cold and distant over the last few years, but he has yet to figure out why. After a few sessions of working with them to have a whole conversation without one walking out of the room, the marriage counselor decides it’s time to ask Laura if she thinks she is keeping Clint at arm’s length.
“You would too if all someone had to say after you had a miscarriage was, ‘Well, you can always have another one,’ and then walked upstairs” she says.
For Laura, this was the relationship trauma that led to her committing to never trust Clint again. When she most needed her spouse to provide comfort and security, he didn’t. Johnson calls this the “Never Again” moment.
“Lack of an emotionally supportive response by a loved one at a moment of threat can color a whole relationship… It can eclipse hundreds of smaller positive events and, in one swipe, demolish the security of a love relationship… The mates who inflict these injuries are not being malicious or purposely insensitive. Indeed, they usually have the best of intentions. Most simply do not know how to tune in to their loved ones’ attachment needs and offer the comfort of their emotional presence.” (167, 169)
Although Clint had been an average spouse up until this point and after it, this singular, callous moment was enough to negate all that and send Laura barricading herself behind an emotional wall. This doesn’t necessarily mean Laura refuses from this point on to seek comfort in anyone; couples in Johnson’s book often still sought emotional validation in other family members and their friends. It’s only one person who has traumatized them, so they only reject that one person.
And, as Johnson’s book also demonstrates, most of these traumas are caused by someone who had absolutely no intention of causing as much harm as they did. When the counselor invites Clint to join the conversation, he says the reason he said that was because he had no idea what to say. He wanted her to know this wasn’t the end of them trying to have children. But Laura understood it to mean this wasn’t a big deal to him and that their children would be as interchangeable as mass-produced carburetors.
Healing emotional injuries
If all of this is sounding familiar, you need to sit down with your partner or get you both to some professional help immediately. If let unattended, these wounds fester into a wall between you, your spouse, and any meaningful growth for the relationship. If this is the situation you’re in, the only way you both can work toward resolution is by pursuing forgiveness and renewed trust. (171)
Both partners have work to do– the wounded partner needs to come out from behind their wall and relate to their spouse. The person who hurt them needs to acknowledge that (even if they don’t think so) what happened is a big deal for the wounded partner, and they are not in a position to be dismissive. “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:16 ESV)
A lot of times, people want to minimize their offenses by assuming the wounded party is blowing their actions out of proportion. “Be not wise in your own eyes…” (Proverbs 3:7 ESV) While this may be true in some cases, it may not be true for yours. And the arrangement of only taking your partner seriously when you think you should is not the model Christ sets for us. The Lord doesn’t just hear his children when it seems like it’s a big deal this time. “O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear.” (Psalm 10:17 ESV)
Six Steps to forgiveness
1. “The hurt partner needs to speak his or her pain as openly and simply as possible.” (173)
◦ You need to avoid going on the defensive and turning this into a laundry list of accusations against your partner.
◦ Be specific and detailed in your descriptions of the incident and your pain.
◦ How did this affect your sense of safety?
◦ During your moment of need, did you feel:
Deprived of comfort?
Deserted and alone?
Devalued by your partner when you needed to be reassured you and your feelings were important?
Did your partner change into a source of danger rather than a source of safety?
2. “The injuring partner stays emotionally present and acknowledges the wounded partner’s pain and his/her part in it. Until injured partners see that this pain has been truly recognized, they will not be able to let it go.” (175)
◦ The injuring partner may have retreated into shame and self-blame.
◦ We all make mistakes:
This may be because you were distracted, stuck in your own fear or anger, or missed the loved ones’ call for closeness.
◦ “It is important to remember that, even though the incident happened in the past, an injuring partner can change how it affects the future.” (175)
3. “Partners start reversing the ‘Never Again’ dictum.”
◦ Instead of staying committed to go it alone or find solace in loved ones other than their spouse, the injured partner begins moving from behind their wall to share their pain. (176)
4. “Injuring partners take ownership of how they inflicted this injury on their lover and express regret and remorse.” (176)
◦ This will not work if the apology is impersonal or defensive. That’s not an expression of regret but rather a dismissal of their partner’s pain. You have to show your lover’s pain has impacted you.
◦ Not just a statement of contrition, but an initiation to reconnect.
◦ Johnson describes the “perfect” apology as one that:
Makes it clear you feel and care about your partner’s pain.
You explicitly tell them their pain and anger are valid.
You are specific about what it was you did to hurt them.
You express shame (only if it’s genuine).
You reassure your partner you will support them during the healing process. (177)
5. “A ‘Hold Me Tight’ conversation can now take place, centering around the attachment injury.” (177)
◦ The wounded partner discusses what they need to get closure for their injury. Then, they and their partner talk about what the spouse can do to meet their needs– how can they respond differently than they did when the trauma occurred?
◦ “This shapes a new sense of emotional connection that acts an antidote to the terrifying isolation and separateness the incident precipitated.” (177)
6. “The couple now create a new story that captures the injuring event, how it happened, eroded trust and connection, and shaped (past antagonistic conversations).” (178)
◦ The story also needs to describe how they confronted the trauma and began to heal it.
◦ “Now, as a team, they can discuss how to help each other learn from and continue to heal this injury and prevent further injuries.” (178)
Now that you’d have some practice talking to your spouse about how they’ve hurt you, don’t continue to stuff your feelings when this happens in the future. As Luke 17 says, go to them and tell them how they’ve hurt you. Just as you would want to know what things to avoid saying or doing so you don’t upset your spouse, admonishing your partner when they offend you is helpful for them. Afterward, if they come to you with a heartfelt apology, forgive them. There’s no reason for you to hold something against someone that they want to make up for. “So watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him,” (Luke 12:3 NIV) Forgiving is hard. You feel like you’re saying, “What you did is OK,” when you forgive someone. You want to protect yourself by holding onto that hurt. And forgiveness does not come natural to our sinful flesh. Pray that God would fill you with his Holy Spirit and enable you to forgive as he forgives.
Help talking to your spouse with Christian Counseling
Tearing down walls in relationships and talking about deep emotional injuries is an enormous task. After all, difficulty communicating in your relationship is how this wall got built in the first place. Consider sitting down with a Christian marriage counselor to get some help healing your relationship with your partner. A couples counselor is equipped to help you and your partner come to a place where you can discuss what caused your relationship trauma and how you can heal. They’re also able to coach you toward improved communication that will help avoid crises such as this in the future.
Images cc: freedigitalphotos.com -“Couple In The Park Talking” by nuttakit
“At The Beach” by imagerymajestic
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