Good relationships help us feel confident, secure, more successful, and even healthier. But even in good relationships, partners can unintentionally hurt each other. Sometimes, a seemingly small event can traumatize your relationship and create rift between partners.
Often, the event looks small from the outside. In the same way, the person who accidentally injured their partner is not even aware that they hurt the other person.
Unfortunately, however it happened, the result can be catastrophic.
Relationship traumas can pull lovers apart. Each tries to protect themselves from further hurt by hiding behind emotional walls, becoming lonelier and less connected by the day.
Small but hurtful events in a relationship are very common during life transitions: pregnancy, losing a job, children leaving the house, dealing with a medical diagnosis or condition, the death of a parent, etc.
Ultimately, in times of transition, which are often times of great anxiety and fear, if your partner doesn’t respond with empathy and comfort, it can have the power to shatter trust and change your relationship.
Take Marta, for example. She was alone at the doctor’s office that morning when she learned that the lump in her breast was in fact cancer. When she got home, eyes brimming with tears, she told her husband.
She was afraid, so full of emotion she was on the point of collapse. But he barely touched her arm before rushing off to a “big meeting.” His response in that moment changed their relationship forever.
Why small events have so much power to traumatize your relationship
A romantic partner is your first line of support in the face of life’s challenging moments.
For that reason, some of the most powerful moments in a relationship happen when you are afraid or hurting. You look to your partner to comfort and support you. If, in your moment of need, your partner doesn’t respond, your relationship no longer feels secure.
Your bond of trust is broken. After that moment, your relationship changes.
As Dr. Sue Johnson says, incidents like this are like “a sudden snap,” and have the potential to shatter not only trust but the entire relationship (Johnson, 2014).
It’s your response in these moments of intense distress and need that will either strengthen or weaken your bond with your partner. What’s more, these moments influence the quality of your relationship disproportionately more than other types of shared experiences (Simpson & Rholes, 1994).
When one partner is not emotionally or physically present for the other in their time of need, it can traumatize your relationship in a way that redefines it.
The hurt of that moment remains alive in the body and mind of the injured partner.
If you can talk about it, you can repair it. (An event might traumatize your relationship, but it doesn’t have to break it).
Despite the power of these small moments, they don’t have to end the relationship. It’s common that we will hurt each other in relationships. We all make mistakes.
Here’s the key: If you can talk about the incident, you can repair it.
“In a safe secure bond hurts happen and hurts are repaired. Injured partners reach safely to share their pain. Offending partners tune into injured partners’ pain and reach back to them in an attuned way that shows they truly feel the painful impact of the event. Emotionally attuned reaching and responding restores the bond.” (Johnson, 2008)
In fact, working through the hurt together can actually bring you closer.
When couples get stuck
The problem arises when you and your partner can’t talk about the events that traumatize your relationship.
Let’s illustrate a common example: the offending partner feels angry, defensive, and ashamed. They don’t want to talk about it. On the other side, the injured partner is also defensive, and they’re critical of the offending partner.
For example, the injured partner blames the other: “You hurt me. You left me alone.”
The offending partner defends themselves: “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t think it would make you feel bad.” Or the offending partner stops talking altogether.
Not feeling heard, the injured partner gets louder.
Now, every attempt to talk turns into fight. Maybe one partner holes up in a room alone. Maybe one partner explodes and storms off.
After a while, the couple stops communicating. Both partners end up hurt and unable to talk about the incident that pulled them apart.
“We were never able to talk how it broke me.” “He doesn’t know.” “When she left, it was like I was all alone from that moment on.”
No one is comforting anyone here, and neither can find healing individually or for the relationship.
But why does it hurt so much?
To clarify, the hurt in these moments comes not from the initial stressor itself, but from your partner’s response or lack of response.
When these moments traumatize a relationship, it can create the equivalent to a physical sensation of pain. Researchers have found that the experience of social rejection, like that you experienced when your partner didn’t respond to your distress, shares the same “neural circuitry” as physical pain. (Eisenberger, 2012)
How to heal when incidents traumatize your relationship
You can repair your relationship by talking about the incident and your pain. Repair can happen only when everything is out in the open. Then the offending partner will be able to see how and how deeply what they did hurt you.
That means you, the injured partner, has to take that risk. Be vulnerable. Talk about your pain.
In response, the offending partner has to demonstrate empathy. In this way, their response communicates they understand the enormity of your pain.
Effectively, you need to relive a moment of reaching out and see that your partner will be there to respond this time. (Brubacher, 2018)
If you discover that it’s safe to be vulnerable like this with your partner, you will be willing to take more risks. In this process, you will rebuild the trust that was broken.
EFT is a research-proven method to help couples repair their relationships
After an event that traumatizes a relationship, couples often need help addressing the hurt.
Counselors trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) can guide you through a “healing injuries conversation.” In this conversation, you and your partner will reach out and respond, address the incident that pulled you apart, and learn to be vulnerable and empathetic.
Since the healing and repair process is bigger, more difficult, and scarier than simply “saying sorry,” it can be helpful to have a knowledgeable, empathetic counselor there to accompany you.
What to expect with successful couples therapy
EFT has been shown to help couples repair their relationships after traumatizing incidents (Halchuk et al., 2010; Makinen & Johnson, 2006). In successful couples therapy, the injured partner relearns to take emotional risks, and the offending partner responds empathetically.
Healing conversations may sound like:
“In that moment, I felt…” “I need you to…” “I see that really hurt you. I’m so sorry. I really want to be there for you.”
Partners who work through the incident in therapy develop a stronger bond and are able to redefine their relationship in a positive light.
About Dr. Irena
Dr. Irena is a licensed psychologist and certified Emotionally Focused therapist. She EFT to help couples heal after incidents that have traumatized their relationships. She offers online therapy for women and couples in Houston, the Woodlands, and New York City.
If you would like to schedule a session, email Dr. Irena for a free 10-minute video consultation: firstname.lastname@example.org or call (281)-267-1742.
Brubacher, L. (2018). Attachment Injury Resolution Model in Emotionally Focused Therapy. In J. L. L. e. al. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy: Springer International Publishing AG.
Eisenberger, N. I. (2012). The neural bases of social pain: Evidence for shared representations with physical pain. Psychosomatic medicine, 74(2), 126-135. https://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0b013e3182464dd1
Halchuk, R. E., Makinen, J. A., & Johnson, S. M. (2010). Resolving Attachment Injuries in Couples Using Emotionally Focused Therapy: A Three-Year Follow-Up. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 9(1), 31-47.
Johnson, S. (2008). Hold Me Tight. Little, Brown Spark.
Johnson, S. (2014). Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships. Little, Brown Spark.
Makinen, J. A., & Johnson, S. M. (2006). Resolving attachment injuries in couples using emotionally focused therapy: Steps toward forgiveness and reconciliation. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(6), 1055-1064.
Simpson, J. A., & Rholes, W. S. (1994). Stress and Secure Base Relationships in Adulthood. In Advances in Personal Relationships (Vol. 5, pp. 181-204). Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd.