The Silent Betrayals: Healing from “Attachment Injuries” in Relationships

Occasionally, it is the ostensibly “inconsequential” minutiae that erode confidence within a relationship.

A reader previously recounted how his affection waned over a trivial matter: He perennially believed there existed no profound principled issues until one day he disregarded my reiterated objections and absconded with a piece of furniture sans my endorsement. The cherished furnishing was unceremoniously whisked away from its abode.

This evokes an interview featuring psychotherapist Esther Perel, wherein she articulately expounded:

Within intimate bonds, betrayal extends beyond mere “infidelity”: apathy towards a partner’s requisites, breached vows, emotional and physical aggression… all constitute betrayals. Infidelity is merely one manifestation of harming one’s partner.

A juncture arises in relationships where one’s faith in another is irreparably altered, unraveling erstwhile perceptions of the relationship. If you have undergone such an ordeal, you may have sustained attachment wounds.

01 What constitutes an attachment injury?

When one is most in need, and you are conspicuously absent.

Attachment injury delineates the sensation of forsakenness and treachery experienced by individuals in proximate relationships during pivotal junctures necessitating support (Johnson, 1999; Millikin, 2001).

For instance, infidelity epitomizes the most overt form of betrayal. Alongside infidelity, attachment injury can materialize diversely:

For example, when one faces grave illness or the family confronts significant upheaval, they find no succor or solace from their partner; during momentous events like pregnancy or miscarriage, their partner’s solicitude and attention elude them.

It may even encompass seemingly trifling incidents overlooked by others: such as not receiving an embrace when needed, or the partner toiling late on their anniversary, failing to extend even a solitary call.

It is plausible that while one party remains oblivious, the other is already consumed by sorrow.

Some may inquire: if infidelity constitutes an attachment injury, and so does the absence of an embrace, how is this injury delineated? If, for instance, I am preoccupied with work and inadvertently neglect to bid my girlfriend goodnight, does that equate to infidelity?

The concept may be challenging to grasp. Let us examine several scenarios of “attachment injury” that transpire in familial therapy sessions (Johnson & Millikin, 2001):

Case 1: The spouse excluded from a family photograph

During a family portrait session, the wife inadvertently found herself omitted. This starkly altered her perception of the marital bond, fostering a sense of insignificance in her spouse’s eyes. Especially poignant was her situation as a recent immigrant with no acquaintances besides her husband.

Case 2: The missed embrace

A couple sought counseling, with the husband lamenting his wife’s reluctance to participate in activities. When, at the counselor’s behest, he sought a hug from his wife, she erupted, recounting an incident from 16 years prior:

It was a wintry afternoon, and he returned from work to find her ailing, despondent, tending to their three children. She implored him for a moment’s embrace, yet he departed to engage in a protracted phone conversation.

At that instant, the wife vowed never to seek solace from him again.

Case 3: The miscarriage ordeal

During Lisa’s miscarriage, she found herself isolated in the bathroom, engulfed by blood. Her husband, Bob, entered the room. She yearned for him to crouch beside her, to embrace and console her, to remain solely with her, eschewing external aid.

Yet, Bob remained aloof, departing to make a phone call, enlisting his sister’s assistance to transport them to the hospital. As she wept, he absented himself from the room.

Despite her sister and husband’s proximity, she felt utterly alone in her moment of loss, besieged by an acute dread of abandonment.

These instances of attachment injury underscore the primacy of the emotions evoked over the actual occurrences. The designation of a specific behavior as an “attachment injury” is contingent upon the subjective experience of the individual involved.

Feelings constitute the paramount verity. There exists no need for comparative gauges of anguish, nor are relationships delineated by absolutes of right or wrong. When one’s expectations of staunch support in intimate ties are unmet, and they find themselves abandoned and isolated in a relationship presumed to furnish security, the specter of “attachment injury” looms large.

02 What are the ramifications of attachment damage upon a relationship?

Indeed, attachment injury may ensue from the inadvertent missteps of one’s partner, yet it exacts tangible tolls upon both individuals and their union. Consider the potential repercussions:

Impact on individuals:

1. Subversion of relational perceptions and perceptions of the other party

Intimate attachments thrive on trust (Hazan et al., 1999). At the outset of a relationship, both parties harbor the conviction:

They will stand by me when I most need them.

The occurrence of an attachment injury shatters this conviction, eroding the foundational belief sustaining the bond.

One begins to withhold trust and vulnerability from their partner, experiencing profound distress when compelled to trust or rely upon them. As the adage goes: the gravest offense lies not in deception but in the erosion of trust.

2. Erosion of self-esteem

The anguish wrought by the dissolution of erstwhile convictions prompts introspection, engendering self-doubt:

Am I unworthy of love?

3. Trauma-like ordeals

Emerging scholarship posits romantic betrayals as interpersonal traumas, with 30% to 60% of aggrieved individuals manifesting clinically significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety (Lonergan et al., 2020).

Injured partners may exhibit symptoms characteristic of PTSD: recurrent intrusive memories, avoidance behaviors, hyper-vigilance, rumination, and excessive defensiveness.

4. An avenue for personal growth

A study featuring in-depth interviews with four women who experienced attachment injuries (Cate Pelling, 2004) revealed that such events could catalyze self-awareness, prompting reflections on one’s contributions within relationships and fostering the cultivation of more nurturing external ties.

Impact on relationships:

Unchecked, attachment damage portends enduring adversities for the relationship:

Both parties become disinclined to invest emotionally, communication wanes, conflicts escalate, and the prospect of reinstating trust and intimacy dims (Johnson, 2004).

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) contends that relationships, post-attachment injury, often devolve into a negative interactional cycle characterized by “pursue-withdraw” dynamics:

The injured party frequently rehashes the incident as an indictment, while the other assumes a defensive stance, deflecting direct engagement.

The manner in which couples navigate attachment injuries profoundly shapes the trajectory of their relationship. Should the negative cycle persist, the restoration of trust and attachment becomes increasingly elusive.

03 How can attachment damage be ameliorated?

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) stands as a proven methodology for addressing attachment injury concerns. Studies attest that the majority of couples emerging from EFT experience heightened intimacy (Susan, 2006).

For those yet to engage in couples therapy, the following recommendations may prove beneficial:

If you find yourself as the injured party:

1. Eschew assuming the mantle of victimhood. Acknowledge the hurt inflicted and recognize your agency in ameliorating your well-being.

2. Identify negative interactional patterns and ponder whether they align with your desired outcomes. If not, delineate your aspirations.

3. Reinterpret the significance of the injury event. Beyond the pain, what insights or revelations does it afford? Does it unveil relational asymmetries or unmet needs?

4. Elect whether to pursue reconciliation or separation.

5. Cultivate fresh relational bonds by fostering emotional attunement and transparent communication.

If you occupy the role of the accused party:

1. Adopt a stance of listening before explaining. Attend to your partner’s anguish without preemptively interjecting or refuting. Endeavor to comprehend, despite the discomfort it may evoke.

2. Convey contrition to your partner. Affirm your concern for their sentiments through expressive gestures.

3. Assure your commitment to rectifying past transgressions and averting their recurrence.

4. Offer elucidation if your partner evinces receptiveness. Engaging in dialogue regarding your motivations can engender clarity and facilitate repair.

5. Guard against compounding hurt. Subsequent injuries inflict greater impediments to trust restoration. If the relationship holds significance, endeavor to preempt recurrence. After all, no one wishes to suffer repeated wounds.

According to Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), couples traversing therapy traverse eight stages:

1. The injured party recounts the attachment injury incident, often in a highly charged manner rife with recriminations. For instance, as in the earlier case, the wife’s eruption upon her husband’s attempted embrace.

2. The accused party assumes a defensive posture, either denying the incident, downplaying its severity, or evading discussion.

3. The injured party transitions from emotive outbursts to a calmer disposition, fostering emotional resonance and engaging in dialogues encapsulating their sentiments and unmet needs.

4. The accused party endeavors to comprehend the incident’s import to the injured party.

5. The injured party refrains from blame, instead articulating the emotional ramifications of the incident and exposing their vulnerabilities.

6. The injured party evinces empathy, remorse, and acknowledgment of their role in inflicting harm, affirming the validity of their partner’s emotions.

7. The injured party tentatively extends trust and reliance upon their partner, articulating their desire for solace and nurturance.

8. The injured party promptly receives the requisite response from their partner to redress the injury.

Within this process, stages 3 and 5 emerge as pivotal junctures in fostering repair. This transformative journey, termed “softening” in therapeutic parlance, embodies the injured party’s gradual emergence from emotional rigidity, enabling the disclosure of their underlying vulnerabilities and an embrace of vulnerability.

To conclude, let us reflect on a quotation from psychotherapist Esther Perel:

Can trust be rekindled following betrayal? Indeed.

However, reinstated trust diverges from its antecedent incarnation. It may embody a more mature variant, tethered to reality rather than predicated on blind faith.

It signifies a renewed capacity to tolerate uncertainty, to coexist with the unknowable, founded upon a deeper mutual understanding.

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