Attachment injuries in couples
What is an attachment injury? How can it impact you and your relationship? How can you overcome an injury if one has occurred in your relationship? These are some of the questions that we answer in this blog article on attachment injuries in couples.
The idea of an attachment injury may seem a little unclear for you, but it is important to understand because it is at the heart of many relationship problems. An attachment injury can happen when you feel betrayed or abandoned by your partner during a moment when you really need them, such as when experiencing a loss or a major life change. For example, if you reach out to your partner when you really need their support and they respond to you in a cold and uncaring manner, you may feel alone and in despair. When left unresolved, this major breach of trust can have dramatic effects on you and your relationship that can linger for days, months, or even years.
Sometimes when you feel vulnerable, you might fear your partner will not be there for you, other times you might be anxious about being rejected by them, fearing that you are inherently not lovable or not worthy of care. Although it can be difficult to manage these ebbs and flows of a romantic relationship, a good connexion and trust in your partner are key ingredients to strengthen your relationship with your partner (see also Romantic Attachment 101). Other times, though, something happens where it feels like your partner has betrayed you; they have abandoned you in a crucial moment of need and have left you utterly alone to confront the emotional “storm” that you are facing: “You weren’t there when I needed you most. I trusted you! How could you!”; this is the crux of an attachment injury.
This quote describes a typical experience with an attachment injury1 :
When I realized that she had betrayed me, it was like I had been cut off at my knees... But you know, it wasn’t just that she betrayed me... I mean, it’s bad enough that she betrayed me, but I had just lost my job, I was feeling pretty down on myself already, and she lied to me directly to my face and made me feel like I was crazy... and she never apologized, you know, not even once, she never reassured me that it wouldn’t happen again, she would just get really defensive... this is the part that I find really, really difficult... It was excruciatingly painful...
When it comes to an attachment injury, it is not about the details of what happened, it is about how the event negatively affects how safe you feel in your relationship. Suddenly, your trust in your partner is gone. This means it can change how you see yourself - as unlovable, your partner - as unreliable, and your relationship - as unsafe. From this point forward, a problematic dance can occur, where one partner may attack or criticize while the other becomes defensive or withdraws, and so on, and this can even lead to depressives and anxious symptoms. Also, if you are injured you might struggle with constant thoughts or images that are difficult to get rid of, avoid things that remind you of what happened, or experience intense fear that it will happen again.
If this speaks to you, do not be discouraged! It is possible to diminish the pain associated with the injury, and to trust your partner again. Keep in mind that couple therapy might be very helpful, as well as reading Conversation 5 from the book Hold Me Tight, by Sue Johnson2 .
The key element of this conversation is to encourage a sincere apology from your partner, which can lead to forgiveness and reconciliation. Here are some tips to help you:
- Acknowledge your hurt and express it openly. Share the painful impact of the injury with your partner honestly and simply. This will allow your partner to begin to understand the significance of the event for you. You may say: “It’s like you had gone away... It was silence, a big black hole. I felt so alone and abandoned”.
- Be open to hearing your partner’s perspective. Listen to your partner with empathy and understanding. Sometimes, and without excusing the behaviour, it can be jarring for your partner to learn how deeply they have hurt you. Your partner may share: “I guess I turned away when you needed me. I was numb, so I didn’t hear you... I do feel sad when I see you, when I see you getting upset, and see that you are still upset because of me...”. This will allow your partner to then take responsibility and express regret and remorse. As an example, your partner might say: “I feel really sad that you felt alone in this... I am so sorry...”.
- Take a risk! You may then be ready to ask for the comfort and caring that you needed at the time of the attachment injury. The support from your partner will then act as an antidote to the injury through renewed connection and trust.
For many different reasons, sometimes an attachment injury cannot be resolved, despite efforts from you and your partner, and support from others. This may lead to separation, especially if the problematic dance with your partner surrounding the injury persists and damages your integrity.
Attachment injuries are unacknowledged hurts; the elephant in the room that can erode trust and intimacy within your relationship if not resolved. Fortunately, there are ways to heal from an attachment injury and restore a healthy and happy relationship!
*N.B. An attachment injury does not reflect psychological, physical, sexual and/or financial violence. Please seek help if this is your situation. Here is a list of Canadian helplines that could be helpful.
To cite this article: Bolduc, R., Lonergan, M., & Lafontaine, M.-F. (2021, December 20). “How could you! You weren’t there when I needed you most”. TRACE Blog. https://natachagodbout.com/en/blog/how-could-you-you-werent-there-when-…;
Roxanne Bolduc is a licensed sexologist and psychotherapist, currently pursuing her PhD in sexology at UQAM under the supervision of Natacha Godbout. Her research interests are centered around romantic attachment, trauma, couple’s power dynamics and functioning. Roxanne was a recipient of Joseph-Armand-Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship for her doctoral research. She is also a lecturer at the department of sexology (UQAM).
Postdoctoral fellow in the Couple Research Lab at the University of Ottawa. Her research interests concern the evaluation and intervention of relationship traumas.
Director of the Couple Research Lab and Full Professor at the University of Ottawa. Her research and clinical interests concern couple functioning, among others.