Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Safety First in Marriage: Why it’s Necessary for Building Trust and Intimacy

16592637 - saving love marriage relationship 3d concept - heart on lifebuoyIf anyone asks my husband what I do for a living, he will say, “She makes people cry.”

While that’s an over-simplified misconception which he declares for shock value, there is a minuscule grain of truth in his response. That’s because I am generally trying to help couples have new emotional experiences with each other which build SAFETY and TRUST. When people express vulnerable emotions, and receive empathic responses in return, it’s a recipe for trustworthy intimacy. It’s safe. It promotes higher marital adjustment.

Research confirms that in close romantic relationships, support and caregiving elicits trust and security in relationships. Feeling nurtured and cared for is a critical component of stable, well-functioning intimate relationships. The world is stressful. If people have dependable partners to turn to for empathic support when life gets burdensome, they have increased well-being. In other words, the marriage can be a safe haven from the perils of the outside world.

In addition, it’s that type of safe environment that provides fertile ground for exploring and introducing novelty and play and passion…unpredictability within a predictable setting.

When I am supervising therapists in training, I am often asked whether a case is conducive to marriage therapy. My first question is usually, “Can you help them make the marriage safe enough so the partners can reliably reach for and receive emotional responsiveness.” Any barriers to that pattern of marital safety will keep the couple disconnected.

Here are some common elements that disrupt intimate safety in marriage:

  1. A partner reaches for support and gets a negative or neutral response instead. This could happen for different reasons. Sometimes partners miss emotional bids for support. Sometimes partners are ambiguous in their reaches for support. Some partners are uncomfortable with emotions and become paralyzed in the face of emotional need. The lack of empathic support may be intentional or unintentional, but will limit the possibility of future reaches and subsequent safe intimacy either way.
  2. A partner attempts to offer support but feels unsuccessful at having a soothing impact. This can also happen for a few reasons. If a partner expects emotional expression to stop and it doesn’t, he/she might perceive a lack of skills to comfort a partner, not realizing that sometimes comforting a partner might mean that the expression of emotional pain may continue. Sometimes, a partner offers comfort and it is openly rejected, which will also create withdrawal from future supportive actions.
  3. Ongoing ambivalence or equivocation. Partners who can’t make up their minds about whether they want to remain in the marriage and work on it or not, or who continually switch back and forth, are not safe. The unpredictability prevents any chance of risk for emotional intimacy.
  4. Addictions. People in addiction are generally turning to something outside of the marriage for comfort, and substances alter their behaviors in a way that makes them unpredictable, and therefore unsafe. A period of sobriety and predictability is required before any safe marital intimacy can develop.
  5. Affairs. Obviously, if your partner is turning to someone else, he/she is unsafe, and even emotional affairs will prevent emotional bonding within the marriage.
  6. Abuse. Abuse is scary and dangerous. Abusive partners often underestimate how dramatically they can destroy safety with one abusive episode.
  7. Past betrayals. A marriage can be made safe from past betrayals, but it’s much slower and more difficult. Also, if the betrayals are buried and ignored, they will still be present and will prevent closeness. They must be addressed in very specific ways to rebuild trust and safety.
  8. Threatening divorce. Sometimes partners threaten divorce as a way to send a strong message about how much they want change; however, threatening divorce is like holding a gun to a partner’s head and saying, “Make a move, and I’ll shoot.” People who threaten divorce often don’t realize how damaging it can be to overall safety.
  9. Turning to others for support. Sometimes if a spouse turns to outside family or friends, it can make the marital environment dangerous because it feels like the spouse is prioritizing those people higher. In other words, in a moment of high emotional need, the spouse may be more supportive of friends or family instead.
  10. Hostile emotions. Some people are so wounded that they have trouble expressing hurt, fear or other emotional pain because it’s too vulnerable, so the pain comes out as hostile anger. Anger is a distancing emotion. Even therapists have difficulty moving toward anger…it’s one of the hardest emotions for therapists in training to manage. Part of creating safety in marriage is helping partners regulate and express emotion in a way that they elicit empathic responses. Some people say, “Am I not entitled to my anger?” I answer, “Of course. You can have any emotion you want, and you may deserve to be angry; however, it’s an emotion that naturally pushes people away. It’s hard to be with. In fact, if I yelled at you right now, you would either leave or want to leave. You can choose anger, but you are decreasing your possibilities for gaining the understanding you really need.”
  11. Deception. Any. Lying or hiding is untrustworthy and can wipe out any previously accumulated safety in general, but if there is any history of deception or infidelity, it’s worse. I tell spouses, “It doesn’t matter how small the deception is…if you say you’re going to turn right and then you turn left, you immediately become as dangerous as when the betrayal was discovered. If you continue to lie, you will continue to place the marriage back at square one for healing, regardless of intent.
  12. Any unpredictable behavior. Even in predominantly safe marriages, anything too unexpected can throw partners off and make them question the relationship. This will vary according to relationship history and individual trust levels.

I can’t over-estimate how important predictability is for marital safety. Even seemingly minor deviations from the norm can feel threatening. If a partner feels like a stranger somehow, the safety in the relationship comes into question.

Here’s an example of how quickly something small but unknown can feel threatening. My husband is one of the most predictable people on the planet. Our marriage is layered with his trademark fidelity and affirmations of interest in me as his spouse. However, I can still remember a moment back in 1992 (see, I remember the year) when I was instantaneously thrown off balance.

We had been finishing the basement in our first home, and while I was unpacking a box for his new basement office, I pulled out a CD I hadn’t seen before. It was the soundtrack from the movie, Beaches, which had been released in 1989. The CD wasn’t mine. I remember sitting there, staring at it, realizing that it must be my husband’s. “I’m married to a man who has a Bette Midler CD,” I thought, “and I didn’t even know this about him. How could I not know my husband likes Bette Midler enough to buy a CD?” To this day, I can remember the uneasy feeling it gave me. I marched up the stairs, CD in hand, and began peppering him with inquiries:

Me: Is this yours? (holding up the CD)

Him: (glancing up) Yeah, why?

Me: When did you buy it?

Him: I don’t remember…a few months ago, I guess.

Me: Why?

Him: Why what?

Me: Why did you buy it? (sounding like I needed a flashlight to accessorize my interrogation)

Him: Because I liked a song on it. (staring curiously at my descent down the rabbit hole)

Me: What song?

Him: The one about a hero.

Me: Wind Beneath My Wings?

Him: Yeah, that one.

Me: Since when?

Him: Since when what?

Me: Since when do you like that song?

Him: Umm….I don’t know…since I heard it…am I in trouble for something?

Me: I just had no idea that you liked that song enough to buy an entire CD. How did I not know that about you?

Him: Honey. I like the song. I bought the CD. I listened to it in the car. Is that a crime? Do I need your permission to buy a CD and listen to it?

Me: I don’t care that you bought the CD. I just don’t know why you didn’t even tell me you liked that song…enough to buy an actual CD.

Him: I didn’t even think about it. I’m not sure why this is upsetting to you. How many CDs have you purchased without telling me…and I haven’t complained? And why do I feel like I’m on trial?

Me: Yeah, but you KNOW that about me. You know I like music. You never buy CDs, and you never listen to anything but the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Him: OK, well, I bought one. Now you know. I’m still not sure why you’re freaking out.

Me: Because it’s like I’m married to a stranger. What else don’t I know?

See how quickly I got thrown off? I really did have a strong emotional reaction, because it was so outside of his norm to display any real preference for music. To be honest, music was a raw spot in our relationship. Our music tastes were more different than alike. If I’m being honest, it kind of hurt me that he didn’t share one of his preferences with me. It was as if a part of him was unknown, which made me wonder what else was unknown, even though he had a history of being so reliable. It sounds so silly, but if anyone was the wild card in our relationship, it was I. He was so predictable to me that even this small discovery felt disorienting.

I have had a handful of clients who, with no prompting from me, have shared nearly identical incidents in their own marriages, when they found music they didn’t know their spouses liked. They described the same feeling of wondering if there was more they didn’t know…all because they found out something about a spouse’s preference that was previously unknown. It’s just human nature that if something feels unpredictable in a romantic, intimate relationship, it can feel scary.

People who grew up without reliable, safe attachment figures can have a harder time trusting even predictable partners, because they don’t have models for safe attachment. Sometimes those people need explicit education about what safe, reliable responsiveness looks like, so they can recognize and appreciate it.

If you are struggling with emotional intimacy in your marriage, a good place to start is to ask your partner whether he/she feels safe in the marriage, and if not, ask what you can do that would help build safety.

In summary, the real answer to the question about what I do for a living is that I teach couples SAFETY FIRST.


A Safe Haven: An Attachment Theory Perspective on Support Seeking and Caregiving in Intimate Relationships (2000) by Collins, N. L & Feeney, B. C. in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(6), 1053-1073.

Emotional Skillfulness in Marriage: Intimacy as a Mediator of the Relationship Between Emotional Skillfulness and Marital Satisfaction (2005) by Cordova, J. V., Gee, C. B. & Warren, L. Z. in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(2), 218-235.

Photo credit: Copyright: koya79 / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Fatherhood, Mothers

Tips for Supporting a Spouse Whose Parent has Passed Away

funeral“I still feel betrayed that he wasn’t there for me when my mother died. I really needed him, and he abandoned me. I don’t know if I can forget that.” My client was explaining why she felt so disconnected from her husband. She acknowledged that they had created a pattern of increasing emotional distance throughout their marriage, but when her mother died and she really needed his support, he stayed emotionally distant. She felt more alone. “I mean, if he can’t even comfort me when I just lost my mother, why am I even married?”

Losing a parent to death is one of the most common loss transitions people experience, which is partly why it is often minimized by a spouse or the population at large. Though common, the loss still engenders increased risk for substance use, and various physical and mental health challenges. Because the marital relationship is so proximal to the intergenerational relationship, the marriage is almost always somehow impacted by the death of a parent.

The good news is that a marital relationship is an ideal context for a partner to support another during this difficult time, and is an opportunity for deepened emotional responsiveness and bonding.

However, it’s not uncommon for me to hear a spouse identify a parent’s death as a time point at which he/she felt abandoned and unsupported by a spouse. In my experience, this usually happens because the marriage is already distressed and disconnected to begin with, or the spouse doesn’t know how to help and can be confused by the intensity of emotion or feel helpless about how to be supportive.

Losing a parent commonly creates a time of high emotional need. The emotional need may be exacerbated by collateral stressors, such as caring for a remaining parent or dealing with a parent’s estate.

The high emotional need combined with a partner’s confusion about how to help can turn into withdrawal, which can leave the bereaved spouse feeling alone. It’s the perfect storm for an attachment injury, in which a spouse expects a partner to be supportive, but feels betrayed by absence or seeming nonchalance. The withdrawal is not always intentional but may be a PERCEIVED lack of support simply because the support partner is clueless about how intense the emotional need is. Bereaved partners aren’t always clear and explicit in their needs. In these events, a parent’s death can directly generate marital strain. The result may be diminished trust and marital quality.

In short, the death of a parent can elicit responses that either facilitate stronger emotional connection or trigger disappointment in empathic support.

If you haven’t lost a parent, you may not realize how devastating it can feel.

 I lost my mother very unexpectedly almost a decade ago. I was unprepared for the emotional upheaval. Even though I was in my early 40’s and knew my parents were aging, the stroke which led to her death took me completely by surprise. Sure, she had some health problems, but she looked great for her age, kept weight off easier than I did, and her mother had lived to age 90 with seemingly worse health issues. Besides that, my mother was fairly feisty—the type that you imagine putting up a fight with death, which in a way I guess she did via her 6-week coma.

I took it hard. The world felt dark. Everywhere I went, I would think, “How can these people just carry on normally when my world has fallen apart?” I felt sick. My mother was my most important support person next to my husband. I talked to her on the phone frequently. After she died, I kept reaching for the phone to process my emotional pain with the person with whom I usually processed it, only to realize she wasn’t there, sending me into another crying jag. Then, I would hear her pragmatic voice ringing in my head, “Well, don’t cry about it—you’re just going to give yourself a headache.” I really felt like I had nowhere to turn. My husband was as supportive as a husband could be, but he wasn’t my mom. Research indicates that an adult daughter losing a mother is often the most devastating loss when it comes to adults losing parents; of course, this would be expectedly moderated by the relationship quality of the parent/child relationship.

I had never experienced that combination of emotions before. It was any loss I ever had on steroids, and in fact, it seemed as if the loss rubbed the raw spots of any previous significant losses, so my sadness exponentially increased.

I had these textbook reactions for months:

  1. Disorientation and confusion. I felt scattered, like I couldn’t make sense out of anything. I kept feeling like I was in a dream. I had incoherent thoughts.
  2. Inability to focus. This was so interesting to me because I’m a pianist and an organist—I know how to achieve singular focus; but, my thoughts just raced and I was unusually distractible.
  3. Intense sadness and teariness, which could be triggered at any time.
  4. Depression and social withdrawal. I had no desire to do anything. I had to drag myself to work and hosting play group at my house when it was my turn felt—HARD.
  5. Fatigue. With the depression was a physical AND mental fatigue.
  6. Heaviness. Some people might think this should go with depression and/or fatigue, but it was different—I just felt smothering physical heaviness and emotional heaviness.
  7. Guilt and regret. In my case, I felt terrible because I didn’t talk to my mom on the phone right after she had a stroke before she slipped into a coma, because I thought the doctors would fix it since she got to the hospital early. I didn’t want to bug her until she felt better. Except, she slid into her coma and never came back. People self-flagellate over what they “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” done.
  8. Anger. This was also surprising because I usually feel collaborative with physicians and could reason myself through emotions. I was angry at the doctors who prescribed a medication that facilitated her death; I felt uncommon rage in the hospital when the neurosurgeon seemed cold and cavalier. I can’t remember wanting to punch someone in the face before. I knew it was irrational; I knew he was just doing his job and that we were just one more family with someone in a coma, but it felt cruel to me that to him we were just another number, and his explanation for the likely outcome was so callous and emotionless. I felt dismissed and unseen and insignificant. I said nothing, but I smoldered inside. I mentally rehearsed what I wanted to say, which was, “With some of the money you’re making profiting from my lifetime tragedy, why don’t you register for a course on gaining some #$%#@ compassion, you arrogant, insensitive #$%@?!” (Sorry if that sounds harsh, but that’s how strong the emotions were).
  9. Physical pain in my chest. I felt like an elephant was standing on my chest, making it hard for me to breathe. I would try to run and end up walking because I couldn’t get enough air—and I was a runner, so this was unusual. I can remember struggling to take deep breaths, like when I was 9 months pregnant.
  10. Loss of appetite. I had to force myself to eat. I had no appetite for months.
  11. Sleep disruption. I had difficulty with ruminating when I went to bed at night.

Most of my clients have reported experiencing some or all of these reactions. I don’t generally love using the stages of grief as a guideline for grieving because it’s so unpredictable. People expect grieving to follow a linear path through the stages when grief is actually complex and unique to each individual, so it can look like anything. At times, partners using these grief stages as a guideline ineffectively judge their spouses for not grieving in the “expected” pattern.

Things for non-bereaved spouses to understand are:

  1. Intense and shifting emotions are the norm. As described above, people routinely have an unprecedented mixture of emotions, varying in intensity.
  2. Pain. Pain. Pain. I felt diffuse pain emotionally and physically. The only relief I could get was when I was working or running. I started running for 2-3 hours a day, because running pain felt better than grieving pain. I lost so much weight that people started asking if I was sick or had cancer.
  3. Triggers can be anywhere at any time. I remember bursting into tears while cleaning out my daughter’s closet and finding a blessing dress my mother made using leftover fabric from making my wedding dress. Ditto on the Halloween costumes she had sewn for her and sweaters she had knit for me.
  4. Holidays and seasons can be especially hard. My mom descended into a coma on Easter and was buried the day before Mother’s Day. Every year, those holidays are laced with the pain of her highlighted absence.
  5. The living but bereaved parent may also be less accessible. My father, a man I had never seen depressed, became a shell of himself. I would call him to talk and hang up and cry to my husband, “That’s not my father. I’ve lost them both. Both my parents are gone.” He just wanted to be with her and was trying to cope himself.
  6. Parents usually fill a unique role that can’t be replaced by another individual. Research shows that a daughter losing a mother can be particularly painful. I only had one mother, and no one else filled that role, including my beloved father.
  7. The loss can trigger other loss issues. It seemed like every relational or personal loss of mine came bubbling to the surface. I had a chain reaction of grief-related memories, catapulting me deeper into despair. The best way to explain it is that I felt like I was drowning in a sea of grief and had no way to come up for air.
  8. Fear and anxiety can increase. In essence, the world can feel like a scarier place with more uncertainty. Security is diminished.
  9. If the relationship was strained, grief can be more complex and difficult. After my mom died, I attended a training with marriage expert, John Gottman, who explained that he was crying after his father’s death and his friend said, “My father died and I didn’t shed a tear.” His point was that crying is one sign that the relationship was cherished, and if the relationship is damaged, grieving is more challenging.
  10. The relationship with the living parent may change. This can heighten unpredictability.
  11. The loss can elicit new feelings about one’s mortality and life’s meaning. This change may affect behaviors.
  12. If the loss is the second of two parents, feelings of loneliness can be unprecedented. I don’t know how to explain the feeling when my father also died because I hadn’t experienced it before, but it was definitely tinged with existential dread and an awareness that the only two people who really loved me unconditionally were gone.
  13. Positive events can have triggers. Any time something good happened in my life, like my son going to India on a church mission, a son giving the valedictory address at graduation, a son being the all-state musician in his category, a son gaining admittance to dental school, my PhD graduation, etc. those events were all negatively colored with the sadness of my parents’ absences. Any time something good happened to me, I would think, “The only two people who might really care about this are gone, so who cares?”
  14. Gender can have an impact. Fathers and mothers often serve separate functions and can impact different gendered children in different ways.
  15. Wives may be more emotionally responsive to husbands than vice versa and wives more frequently turn to others for support. In other words, husbands can usually get support from spouses, but wives often don’t, creating emotional injury in the marriage.
  16. Everyone experiences loss differently. Don’t have expectations nor compare. EVER.
  17. A spouse who hasn’t lost parents to death or who experienced grieving differently may be very confused (and scared) at how deep the emotions can be for the bereaved.
  18. If a parent died unexpectedly, it can be experienced more intensely than a situation in which the death was expected or unsurprising. I felt far worse when my mom died unexpectedly than when I knew my father had 9 days to live, even though that was still painful. I could plan and prepare.
  19. It’s a myth that grieving ends. Most of the time, grieving decreases in intensity over time but doesn’t disappear completely. There can be lifetime sporadic triggers. 
  20. In general, the world at large doesn’t support grieving people. The repeated message is, “Stop doing that around me–you’re making me uncomfortable.” That’s another reason it’s so important to have a spouse’s support.

How to help—what does empathic support look like?

  1. Focus on comfort, not on fixing it. Just being with a partner matters, and comfort doesn’t require words.
  2. Reassure your spouse that you are there for them REPEATEDLY for as long as they need.
  3. Share your own positive memories about your spouse’s parent. My husband’s favorite memory of my mom was watching her march out to the street (all 110 pounds of her) to singlehandedly take on a construction crew for the way they were managing the project just beyond her driveway. His laughing about it cheered me momentarily. He continually brought up positive memories of her, which felt validating, like he was on my team.
  4. Ask your spouse about their favorite memories and what they learned from the deceased parent.
  5. Ask your spouse how they would like to honor the parent’s memory.
  6. Be aware that if you haven’t lost a parent, it is likely that you are underestimating the loss. As supportive as my own husband is, I still don’t think he has a clue what it feels like to lose a parent.
  7. Expect repetition. Your spouse may need to talk about the same things over and over to gain new meaning and integrate the loss.
  8. Suggest and support grieving rituals. Small, predictable ways to honor a deceased parent can be helpful–visiting gravesites, having a certain time of the day to share memories–really anything with predictable space for expressing grief.

What does empathic support NOT look like?

  1. Avoidance. Some partners keep their distance from the emotions.
  2. Walking away from tears or strong expressions of sadness.
  3. Preaching doctrines of the after-life to discourage grief. Even if I believed that my parents existed beyond mortality, I still missed their presence and felt the absence palpably.
  4. Criticizing your partner for not grieving fast enough or for not being functional fast enough, like “Everyone goes through this—shouldn’t you be feeling better by now?”
  5. Minimizing or telling your partner why he/she shouldn’t be that upset, like “You didn’t even get along with your dad most of the time. Why are you so upset?”
  6. Comparing, like, “I wasn’t this upset when my mom died, what is wrong with you?” Every loss is different.
  7. Getting angry or frustrated that a spouse is having a grieving episode AGAIN.

Over all, supporting a spouse whose parent has passed away can be a way to achieve more emotional security in a marriage. In fact, with the death of parents comes the opportunity to attach more enduringly to a spouse.

The last conversation I had with my father was one in which I believe he intentionally turned me toward my husband. My father knew I had a mercurial tendency toward brooding and discontent. “What am I going to do without you, dad?” I sobbed. The last thing he said to me was, “I want you to remember that you have everything you need to be happy. You have a husband who loves you. You have a beautiful family. Be happy. You’re so beautiful when you smile.” Hearing those last six words, which he had repeated to me hundreds of times in my lifetime, made me cry harder. Even as I read this, the memory is bringing up tears. I have tried so hard to be more appreciative of my relationships, which can be one way of honoring my father’s legacy.

When I’m flooded with this now familiar sadness, I can approach my husband with a quaking voice, “I miss my dad,” and my husband will give me a hug and say, “I’m sorry, honey. I miss your dad, too. He was a uniquely great man.” He’ll be responsive even though I’ve approached him a myriad of times.

And that kind of predictability in comfort is how it’s done.


The Dance of Closeness-Distance in Couple Relationships After the Death of a Parent (2006) by Rosenblatt, P. C. & Barner, J. R. in Omega, 53(4), 277-293.

The Influence of Intergenerational Relationships on Marital Quality Following the Death of a Parent in Adulthood (2014) by Stokes, J. E. in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33(1), 3-22.

Photo credit: Copyright: kzenon / 123RF Stock Photo

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

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