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Attachment Injuries

Feeling hurt by someone we love is very common. No matter how good a relationship is, there are moments when we feel rejected or abandoned by those close to us. In most cases, we either repair or forget without damage to the connection. However, some wounds are difficult to fix because they happen in moments of extreme need and vulnerability.

In emotionally focused therapy we use the term attachment injuries to refer to wounds that cause emotional disconnection and consequently threaten the survival of the relationship. After an attachment injury, we cannot trust that our loved one will be there for us in a time of need. We are not sure we can count on him or her.

As a couple’s therapist, I have seen many examples of attachment injury. In one case, a woman named Rosalina carried such a wound from her husband Alfonso for more than 30 years. It happened a short time after they married. She worked as a teacher in a city in the countryside of Colombia named Pijao while he studied computer science in the capital of Colombia, Bogotá. They were making this sacrifice of living in different places so that he could finish his studies.

In a time when there was neither internet nor cell phones, they wrote letters and called each other once a week so that they could keep their connection alive. Suddenly, Alfonso stopped writing or calling her. Rosalina became insecure about what might be happening to Alfonso. A lot of negative thoughts came to her mind. Maybe he was sick or might even have died. However, the worst thought that came to her mind is that he might have found another woman and decided to divorce her. She kept on writing to him and pleading with him to write to her with no answer.

Rosalina decided to make a surprise visit to Alfonso in Bogotá to find out what was happening to him. Alfonso shared a house with other students from his university. When she arrived, she found him with a woman and three children. It was a surprise not only to Rosalina, but also to the other woman who didn’t know that Alfonso was married. When he saw Rosalina, he became upset at her and he scolded her for having come to see him.

Rosalina was overwhelmed with sadness and hurt. She also became outraged to see his reaction. She wondered how he could be angry at her for having come to see him when he was the one who had stopped contacting her and had betrayed her.

Rosalina went back to Pijao with a broken heart. The sadness was so intense that she had difficulty focusing on her work. She had constant flashbacks of Alfonso with the other woman and her three children and his angry reaction to seeing her.

More than 30 years later, Rosalina started individual therapy with me because she was suffering from depression. In her first session, she talked about Alfonso the entire time. I suggested that she have a couple's therapy. She invited Alfonso, who agreed to come with her.

Couples have difficulty healing from attachment injuries because they are unable to have vulnerable conversations in which they open their hearts to each other. While the victim of the injury focuses on attacking the partner, he or she either excuses himself or blames the victim. The victim keeps on talking to their partner to see if he or she will finally take ownership of what they did and validate the victim’s feelings. After many failed attempts to heal, the victim may end up feeling hopeless and giving up. This causes emotional distance that prevents the couple from connecting to each other.

When there’s an attachment injury, the partner who hurts the other does everything they can to avoid talking about the problem. On the other hand, the other one pursues the conversation with the intent of healing. Unfortunately, talking about it causes the guilty partner to feel overwhelmed with shame. Having to deal with their partner’s feelings of hurt and anger is extremely painful to them.

Unable to deal with Rosalina’s anger and feeling guilty for having betrayed her, Alfonso avoided every attempt she made to talk to him about the issue. He argued that the reason she could not forget the betrayal was because she didn’t want to. Her suffering was her own choice because she didn’t want to let it go. Consequently, Rosalina’s attempts to talk about the issue only led her to feel unseen and misunderstood. She knew that she couldn’t heal from the attachment injury without Alfonso’s help. At the same time, she also didn’t know how to talk to him in a way that he could understand how she felt.

It’s very common for partners who hurt their loved ones to think that they can forgive on their will. This not only causes victims to feel unvalidated but also makes their hurt bigger.

When I asked Alfonso to express his remorse for having hurt Rosalina, he was reluctant. He said that if he tried to talk about the betrayal with Rosalina, the conversation would not go well because Rosalina would react with anger and an argument would ensue. His reluctance was based on reality since every conversation attempted by Rosalina had caused them to feel more disconnected from each other.

Despite his resistance, I helped Alfonso to talk about the betrayal and express his sorrow for hurting Rosalina. Knowing Alfonso’s difficulty in expressing his feelings, I asked him purposefully how he felt when he saw how hurt Rosalina felt for his betrayal and for having discounted her feelings for more than 30 years.

The couple had two successful conversations about the betrayal in which both of them expressed their feelings to each other in a vulnerable way. On the 19th therapy session, I asked Rosalina about her depression. She said that she was not depressed anymore. In their next session, the couple said that they had stopped arguing with each other and Rosalina wasn’t angry at Alfonso anymore. Rosalina finally forgave Alfonso when he was able to validate her feelings and take ownership of what he had done.

Rosalina and Alfonso’s story shows how couples' attachment injuries can prevent partners from seeing their loved ones as a safe haven. When a partner cannot trust the other anymore to be there for them in times of need, emotional disconnection is inevitable.

On the other hand, Rosalina and Alfonso’s story attests to the fact that attachment injuries can be healed through vulnerable conversations in which partners show their hearts to each other. Effective communication in which partners talk about their feelings can help them to improve their mental health and overcome psychological disorders. In the story above, Rosalina had carried her depression for more than 30 years and it was lifted when she and Alfonso could open up to each other.

If you realize that your relationship has been affected by an attachment injury, don’t wait too long to seek help. If you and your loved one learn that your attempts to heal end up in more hurt and disconnection, seek the help of a therapist who specializes in helping attachment injuries. You and your loved one deserve to be happy.


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