Couples, marriage

How Did We Get Here in our Marriage? When Past Pain Comes Alive in the Present and How to Fix it

33470896 - worried couple sitting on sofa arguing about billsDoug and Janice* were in an argument about the laundry.  Doug was looking for a pair of pants he had hoped had been washed when his wife threw in a load while he was at work.  His disappointment was perceived by his wife as criticism, and she thought of all the times her housework wasn’t up to his standards.  As the argument escalated, she finally yelled, “Well, I guess you should have divorced me and married Diane instead—I’ll bet she never lets any clothes get dirty at her house.  The two of you could have lived in your OCD paradise together where the laundry basket never gets full and where no one ever laughs!  That way, at least you wouldn’t be on my case all the time.”

Diane had been Doug’s co-worker during the second year of his marriage.  He had a 6-month emotional affair with her which was discovered by Janice while she was pregnant with their first child.  Janice found an exchange of emails in which they had both been talking about wishing they could leave their spouses for each other.  To top it all off, Janice remembered word for word what Doug had written to Diane about Janice’s substandard housekeeping skills.

Even though it was 15 years ago, it seemed to him like Janice brought her up every time they were in any type of argument.  He pushed back, “There you go again, changing the subject when you don’t want to take any responsibility for your own actions.  What does Diane have to do with anything?  Besides, you haven’t loved me from the moment we got married—why do you think I started a relationship with someone else in the first place?  How convenient for you that I made a mistake you can just beat me over the head with any time you want to justify rejecting me!”

When they recited the conflict to me, Doug said, “We have got to find a way to move past this.  Any time anything gets hard, she uses this woman as an excuse to punish me so she can do whatever she wants.  This has to stop!  I was 25 years old.  I can’t change the past, and nothing I have done ever since counts for anything.  I will go to my grave with her punishing me about it.  Honestly, sometimes I think it would have been easier if I had divorced her back then and married Diane.  At least I knew Diane loved me.  My wife has never really loved me and all she  wants to do is inflict suffering.”  She reacted with anger, “Are you kidding me?  All I want to do is inflict suffering?  Do you have any idea how much suffering you inflicted on me when you told another women you wished you could be married to her?”

This conversation was nothing I hadn’t heard in some variation thousands of times.  It was clear to me that both partners had generated a deep well of pain for each other during their 15-year marriage.  Janice had no idea how to heal after feeling so hurt and betrayed by her husband.  She felt like she could never completely trust him again.  As a result, she kept herself at a distance from him and threw herself into her children’s lives and kept busy with PTA and church responsibilities.  He felt helpless to ever make her trust him again, so he felt increasingly lonely and rejected.  As he grew more bitter, he did become more critical, which just reinforced to her that he was not safe and that he would never really accept or love her.

If you are having a moment of conflict in your marriage and suddenly you or your partner remembers or brings up something from the past, shifting the conversation entirely and leaving you helpless and hopeless in a sea of emotion, then you may have an unresolved attachment injury.  Attachment injuries happen when the attachment security in a relationship is damaged.  In short, they are moments when a partner shifts from being a safe ally to a dangerous threat.

In these moments, a spouse shifts from “I know my spouse and can count on him/her to have my back,” to “I have no idea who you are anymore, and I’m not sure you really care about me.”

An affair is an obvious attachment injury of betrayal, in which someone else is chosen above the spouse, and a pattern of deception has made the spouse dangerous and unpredictable.  Even though major injuries keep couples wounded and disconnected, I have found that depending on the circumstance and how people make meaning out of things, smaller injuries can happen in many different ways as well, leaving raw spots.  Here are some typical examples:

  1. A woman has a high level of emotional need for reassurance and comfort after having a miscarriage, but her husband acts indifferently because he has no idea how to help her and feels flooded himself by the emotion but has no tools to express it, so he walks away when she starts crying.
  2. A woman’s mother dies and she gets very depressed, and her husband minimizes the loss and says, “People have parents die.  It’s part of life.  They don’t let it stop them—why are you having such a hard time with it?”
  3. A husband is struggling with premature ejaculation and his wife tells him that he is the worst sexual partner she has ever had.
  4. A husband finds out that his wife has charged up $20,000 on credit cards she has been hiding from him.
  5. A husband tells his wife that maybe he wouldn’t struggle with erectile dysfunction if she had a breast augmentation.
  6. A wife tells her husband that she should have married his brother because he’s better looking and makes more money.

Significant betrayals can be traumatic in marriage and can generate strong emotions and flashbacks. Even smaller injuries can leave behind raw spots that can elicit emotional reactivity in the present.  If an injured partner gets emotionally overwhelmed and the offending partner can’t be reassuring, or if the injured partner can’t accept the other partner’s attempts, the relationship stays dangerous, or becomes even more dangerous.

If every argument devolves into past incidences, you might need to target those specific incidences for healing.  Here are some ways for a partner who injured another (even if it was unintentional) to start the healing process.

  1. Instead of getting defensive that your intent is misinterpreted and arguing about whether it is really an injury, shift to a perspective that if your spouse is still hurting over something, it really is a potential bonding opportunity. The expression of pain is a potentially connecting experience if handled well.
  2. Be prepared to feel shame if your partner talks about something you did to hurt/him or her.  Deal with the shame by describing that it’s painful to hear because of sorrow, shame or regret.  Process research shows that REPEATED expressions of shame and sorrow are key in healing.
  3. Recognize that repetition is one of the only ways to build up a solid foundation. If your partner needs reassurance a thousand times, see it like adding a brick to a secure foundation.  The need for repetition doesn’t mean you’re comforting incorrectly.
  4. If you think your partner should be over it, or if you thought your partner was over it, say something like, “Wow—if that is still coming up for you, it must have been more painful than I realized…can you tell me more about how and when you get triggered?”
  5. Express your sorrow and your desire to want to fix it, and even if you can’t fix it right away, affirm that you are present and want to show that you want things to be better. For example, “Is there anything I can do right now?  If not, I am so sorry and I want to help you heal any way I can.”
  6. Offer your own narrative for how you think/feel in a way that might prevent you from engaging in the same hurtful behavior. You can describe how you set boundaries differently, or what specifically you love about your partner, or how you see the relationship differently now.
  7. If your partner seems unresponsive, ask if what you are doing is helping or affirm that you will be available when he/she is ready. Like, “Does it help if I just sit next to you?  If you want me to go away, know that I’ll be in the next room or a phone call away if you need me.”

In general, looking for ways to prevent attachment injuries may be the most efficient.  Emotional responsiveness is the key.

When I had my 6th child, I got very anxious in the hospital thinking about going home to a house filled with 5 children, 4 of whom were very active boys.  My husband brought them to see me in the hospital and within 5 minutes of their climbing all over the place, opening and shutting every cupboard door and drawer, and flipping every possible switch in my hospital room, I hissed through gritted teeth, under my breath, “GET.  THEM.  OUT.  OF.  HERE.”  They were so overwhelming.  My husband remained his good-natured self and had them all give kisses and wave goodbye before he left.  I called him at 2 a.m., after my anxiety escalated thinking about going home and being mother to 6 young children under the age of 12–and again, it’s the combination of boys (and all their friends) that really did me in—four boys first was such a handful every single minute of every single day—just go observe a cub scout den meeting for 10 minutes.

I called him on the phone, and as soon as he answered, I whispered so the nurses couldn’t hear me, “Steve—I can’t come home.”  He whispered back, “Why, honey?”  I answered, “I can’t have 6 children.  I can’t do it.  It’s too much.”  He didn’t blow me off, criticize me for feeling afraid, or minimize my anxiety.  He comforted me with, “Honey, it’s ok.  You’ll be ok.  I’ll help you and we’ll get it figured out.”  He stayed on the phone with me for as long as I needed until I felt calmer and reassured.  Because he was so responsive, I didn’t have to be so anxious, because I knew if I needed him, he would be available to me.

Creating predictable responsiveness is the key to not just managing but healing past triggers.  If you find yourself getting triggered to past pain, know that it can be intentionally healed, and a secure foundation can become the story of the marriage.

*Names and details have been changed to protect privacy.  Any resemblance to a real couple is coincidental

photo credit: Copyright: stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo

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