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Healing from Attachment Injuries & Other Betrayals

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” – Ernest Hemingway

Have you experienced an incident in which your partner failed to respond to you at a moment of urgent need, which disproportionately has shaped your relationship from that point forward?

If so, you have experienced an attachment injury, a concept coined by relationship expert Sue Johnson, PhD creator of the EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) model.

While these are profoundly painful experiences, Johnson and other colleagues have also researched and created an empirically validated model for healing them!

In this blog, I will:

  • explain one of the most profoundly painful betrayals- “an attachment injury”
  • identify other types of betrayals and how relationships are susceptible to them
  • share research-based strategies that partners can utilize to heal from betrayal or a lack of sufficient trust to create an EVEN stronger bond and a more fulfilling relationship

What exactly is an attachment injury?

In a nutshell, it is a betrayal of trust or abandonment at a crucial time of need.

Examples of crucial times of need are:

  • medical/physical health crises (ex. cancer diagnosis, miscarriage, car accident, your child had a serious injury, etc.)

  • emotional crises (ex. You lost your job, your relative or pet got a serious illness or died, someone close to you betrayed you, etc.)

  • discrimination trauma (ex. Someone ignored, disrespected, threatened and/or abused you because of your identity, you were unfairly accused of misbehavior because of your identity, etc.)

  • exceptionally significant occasions (wedding day, award ceremony, your anniversary, other milestone events, etc.)

Sometimes the content of an attachment injury does not at all sound as urgent as the examples I gave above. EFT (Emotionally focused therapy) trainer, Lori Brubacher explains:

It is not the content of the event but rather the life-and-death sense of threat experienced during the event- in the absence of the other partner’s comforting response- that gives it the power to rupture an attachment bond.”

Some events may also not feel as terrifying as “life and death”, but they still fit in the category of “attachment injury” by meeting the criteria of Johnson’s definition:

An attachment injury is “a specific relational incident where one partner violates the expectation that s/he will offer comfort and caring in times of danger and distress.”

When an attachment injury occurs, the hurt partner tends to say to him/herself or unconsciously concludes:

NEVER AGAIN CAN I TRUST MY PARTNER.”

That event changed everything between us.”

I can no longer be vulnerable or express any emotional needs with my partner.”

Brubacher explains that attachment injuries redefine the relationship as insecure and shatter the attachment bond! They are so intense and in some cases traumatic that they block the normal “repair” process when couples have every day conflict or hurts.

Can Attachment Injuries be healed?

YES! In 2001, Johnson, Makinen and Millikin developed the “Attachment Injury Resolution Model” (AIRM), an empirically validated 8 step process that can be used in Stage 2 of EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy). The AIRM moves partners beyond forgiveness into rebuilding trust and intimacy. I will share more about this model in the final section of this blog.

Where do the “Big A’s” (affairs, addiction to substances, & abuse) fit in?

ALL three of the “Big A’s” fit the category of attachment injury because these types of betrayals go beyond not being there to comfort your partner in times of danger or distress since they actually cause the danger and distress.

One of the more confusing issues I would like to clear up is substance abuse.

I often hear partners who binge on substances “once in a while” (ex. every few weeks or months) express CONFUSION about the harmful impact of their use on their partner. This partner either genuinely has a blind spot or chooses to minimize their behavior because they don’t want to stop enjoying what they view is an innocent night out with friends or unwinding with some drinks or drugs in their own home. Over time, their continual turning away and ignoring their partner’s hurt erodes trust.

How substance abuse especially becomes an attachment injury is if a loved one was incoherent due to intoxication or not available (ex. Not responding to calls or texts) because they were using drugs or alcohol outside their home and their loved one could not reach them for support.

Regarding couples healing from addiction, check out my blog (about the most famous couple in recovery) called, “Couples in Recovery; Building a Secure Attachment”. Here is the link.

I will soon write a blog on healing from sexual affairs as well since this is the MOST well-known type of betrayal, but information about healing is still unknown for many couples in need.  

What are 10 other ways (besides sexual affairs) that partners unintentionally betray one another?

(According to marriage, divorce, and trust expert John Gottman, PhD, from his book,

What makes love last; How to build trust and avoid betrayal)

  1. Conditional Commitment:  You or your partner are keeping your eyes open for something “better.”
  2. A Nonsexual Affair: Consider any actions taken with someone other than your partner that you would be uncomfortable with them seeing. This is your signal that you are crossing the line.
  3. Lying: Being dishonest will erode the safety in your relationship. Whether it’s straight forward deceit or lies to avoid conflict, they can be toxic.
  4. Forming a Coalition Against the Partner: Whether it’s a parent or friend, ganging up on your partner will not be received well. The relationship can feel less collaborative and more “you against me.”
  5. *Absenteeism or Coldness: Failing to prioritize each other at a time of emotional needs can have a devastating impact. Whether failing to support during highly stressful events or consistently missing opportunities to turn towards each other during the rigors of life, both are destructive.
  6. Withdrawal of Sexual Interest: Though some couples report that a decrease in sex isn’t harmful to their satisfaction together, if it’s not addressed productively it can be wounding.
  7. Disrespect:  What encapsulates this for me is a quote by John Gottman… “A loving relationship is not about one person having the upper hand – it’s about holding hands.” This includes refusing to acknowledge hurting your partner and a lack of willingness to apologize to your partner.
  8. Unfairness: Going back on promises made on big life decisions is one of the biggest ways couples can feel slighted. Other common issues are around finances and housework.
  9. Selfishness: When one partner lives mostly in a “me” vs “we” paradigm; me-centered behaviors can negatively impact the relationship.
  10. Breaking Promises:  A pattern of disappointments around broken or unfulfilled promises can undermine trust between the couple. The person engaged in breaking promises can inadvertently send the message, “You don’t matter.”

Two more additional betrayals I will add are:

  • abuse (emotional- gaslighting, power and control, economic, verbal, physical, or sexual),

  • refusal to forgive or accept partner or let go of resentments (includes excessive criticism, moving out of your home and refusing to return, etc.) after your partner has done significant personal and relational growth work and demonstrating change.

Relationships are complex because there are many influential factors. Therefore, sometimes even if a partner goes to extreme lengths to show remorse, regret, and change, their loved one may choose to not re-engage in their relationship. Ideally the partner who put forth 100% effort to repair will still feel proud of their efforts in knowing they did everything they could, and hopefully the hurt party will be able to let go of any resentment so they too can fully heal.

What makes relationships susceptible to distrust and betrayal?

1. Couples don’t know the science of trust, ex. what builds trust in adult relationships.

Are you there for me?

While all couple therapy models underscore the importance of “being there” for your partner, EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) highlights this value and skill the most. Because EFT is built on attachment theory, it understands that when partners are not available or accessible during crucial times of need (similar to a child crying out for their parent), this can induce PRIMAL PANIC.

*In spite of its devastating impact, out of all of the betrayals above, the one that our American culture seems to focus the least on is “absenteeism and coldness”.

I connect Gottman’s view of absenteeism and coldness to Sue Johnson’s attachment injury concept. Both couple therapy experts have concluded from their multiple decades of research and experience the FULL gravity of the detrimental effects of a partner NOT “being there” for their loved one at a time of greatest need.

Gottman explains that the MOST important skill in building TRUST is ATTUNEMENT or turning toward your partner:

“Trust is built in very small moments…

which I call ‘sliding door’ moments, named after the movie because in any interaction with our partner, there’s the possibility of connection with our partner or turning away.”

Gottman continues, “When you choose to be there for your partner, you build trust! If you choose to only think of yourself, it’s a missed opportunity [of increasing your relationship’s ’emotional bank account’]. One such moment is not that important, but if you’re always choosing to turn away then trust erodes very gradually, very slowly.”

I share a couple personal “sliding door” moments in my blog about trust. And just to clarify, this skill of turning toward your partner or attunement requires the ability to “read” your partner’s emotions AND skillfully respond to them. In my blog on trust, I offer several resources you can utilize to improve your skills in both “reading” and responding to your partner.

2. Couples don’t know the conditions of betrayal that can put them at risk.

  • One example is when a partner feels lonely or invisible in potentially their most intimate relationship, like they don’t matter!
  • Another condition is when one or both partners don’t share vulnerabilities or their inner worlds with each other.
  • A third condition is hearing the message repeatedly by your partner that you are not enough and are always screwing up. Worse is when your partner implies your behavior is intentional.
  • Gottman explained Carol Rusbelt’s research on betrayal in this Youtube video, “How to Build Trust

The atom of betrayal is not just turning away from [your partner’s emotion], but also doing a ‘CL ALT’. I not only turn away from my partner, I also think to myself, ‘I can do better! Who needs this crap? I’m always dealing with her negativity.”

Rusbelt spent three decades studying the variable, “CL ALT”= comparison level for alternatives. Once you start thinking you can do better, you begin a cascade of not committing to the relationship, trashing your partner instead of cherishing your partner, building resentment rather than gratitude, … less dependency in getting your needs met, … and escalating conflict so it becomes an absorbing state…”

Is there hope for couples who have experienced… a shattering betrayal that changed everything in an instant or an erosion of trust?

Absolutely!

Below are examples of research-based effective repairs from least intensive to most: (regarding the level of personal effort and engagement and professional intervention)

_________________________________________________________________________________

Tools for couples to heal from attachment injury and other betrayals and rebuild trust and intimacy

1. Listen- really listen to your partner’s pain about mistrust and betrayal and be open and willing to change- if you want to stay married/partnered.

I have found this to be the MOST important tool for repair and healing because OUR PARTNER IS GENERALLY OUR BEST TEACHER for what’s working and what isn’t in our relationship.

There’s a wonderful saying, “You can be right or you can be married.” – Harville Hendrix

If I didn’t heed that advice and specifically my husband’s concern about feeling second fiddle to my work at year 3 of my own marriage, I wouldn’t have reached year 20 this past year!

Couples generally have conflicts and trust issues over~ use of alcohol and drugs, technology, porn, in-laws, work, money, kids, sex, emotional intimacy, etc. The content really doesn’t matter.

What will make or break your relationship is your willingness to LISTEN to your partner’s needs and desires and your openness and willingness to be do almost anything (you can set some boundaries as well) to make your partner feel safe, secure, loved and vibrant.

Try my “Couple Bubble” exercise. Here’s the link. (free video on my website)

This exercise will help you find out exactly what makes your partner feel safe, secure, loved, and vibrant AND what causes your partner to feel unsafe, insecure, unloved, and dull.

If you dismiss, minimize, ignore or mock your partner’s need, you are eroding the trust in your relationship and will likely be left out in the cold.

2. “A.R.E. you there for me?” ~ the ultimate question about trust

Show your partner you are there for them through A.R.E. (Accessibility, Responsiveness, and Engagement) behaviors!

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It’s never too late to learn how to have a healthy, more fulfilling relationship!

When couples cultivate these ingredients in their relationship, which guide them to be ATTUNED to one another, they are much more successful at building trust and safeguarding their relationship from betrayals. The examples below of these 3 ingredients are drawn from Johnson’s Hold me tight book and retreat.

Examples of accessibility:

  • I can get my partner’s attention easily.

  • My partner shows me that I come first with him/her.

  • I am not feeling lonely or shut out in this relationship

Examples of responsiveness:

  • If I need connection or comfort, s/he will be there for me.

  • If I need reassurance about how important I am to my partner, I can get it.

Examples of engagement:

  • I can confide in my partner about almost anything.

  • I know that my partner cares about my joys, hurts, and fears.

  • I feel safe enough to take emotional risks with my partner.

3. Conversation 5- “Forgiving Injuries” in the Hold Me Tight (HMT) book & retreat

This conversation is in the book Hold me tight (HMT) and also is held on the second day of the HMT couples workshop. Both the book and workshop guides partners through the 7 transforming conversations that were created from the brilliant research by Sue Johnson, PhD. The retreats are held in person around the world. Here is the link to an online version by Johnson.

*These conversations build upon one another to create more safety and a secure bond, so it is important that couples follow the sequence in the book or retreat.

This is just a preview of this powerfully healing conversation that has transformed my clients’ relationships and even my own marriage.

I’ve expanded this conversation to 6 steps for my clients. In a nutshell, they are:

1. Tell of a time you felt wounded by your loved one. (both partners will go through the steps)

2. The listener stays emotionally present. (listen from your heart)

3. The listener acknowledges the wounded partner’s pain and his/her part in it. (powerful step!)

4. The speaker tries to formulate the kind of conversation, apology and new connection you would have liked to occur.

5. The speaker identifies what they need right now to bring some closure to the injury (& the listener attempts to provide that).

6. You and your partner have a new story! Discuss how you can continue to learn and heal from this injury and prevent future ones.

If you and your partner are open and willing to listen (for understanding) to each other’s pain and have some tools in regulating (calming) yourself and your partner, you might give this conversation a try. You can always follow up with a therapist if needed or for deeper healing.

When couples have these profound moments of empathy and compassion, trust can be restored to a level that the hurt party is willing to risk being vulnerable again and have a “Hold Me Tight” conversation (conversation 4). A Hold Me Tight conversation involves partners expressing their deepest fears and longings, which is essential for a couples’ emotional bond to strengthen and incredibly rewarding!

A personal story~ A transformative, healing repair

Many years ago, my husband and I were participating in a “Hold Me Tight” couples retreat.

During our “Forgiving Injuries” conversation, we were instructed to take turns telling each other of a time when we felt emotionally wounded by our partner. Then, as the listener, we were coached to acknowledge our partner’s pain and our part in it. The research shows that until the speaker sees that her/his pain has been truly recognized, they will not be able to let it go.

When it was my turn to share of a time I felt wounded, my husband could not have provided a more sincere apology that showed his regret and remorse. It was not just in his words, but also the tone of his voice and the look on his face. He completely stepped inside my shoes and wept. It was an extraordinary breakthrough for our relationship. My previous attempts (prior to the retreat) for him to understand my hurt were ineffective. At that moment during the retreat, he fully had my heart and my back.

When family members have these profound moments of empathy and compassion, trust can be restored and their emotional bond can grow stronger than ever.

4. A.I.R.M. – Attachment Injury Resolution Model (with a couple therapist)

If your relationship is on thin ice or barely hanging on by a thread, this professionally facilitated process with a couple’s therapist is likely the right intervention for your relationship.

The AIRM process is an empirically validated model that can take place in the second stage of the EFT process. It is similar to Conversation 5 in the Hold Me Tight book and retreat, and it goes deeper.

For the AIRM process, couples do not need to read the HMT book or go to a retreat. As long as you are working with an EFT trained therapist, you can be supported and guided through this transformative model! I have outlined it below to take away some of the mystery or anxiety for couples who desire healing, but are unfamiliar with couples therapy and would like to have a sense of the process.

A.I.R.M. is an 8 Step Repair Process. Here are the steps in a nutshell in EFT’s 3 stages: (source: AIRM Training by Lorrie Brubacher and Lillian Buchanan)

Stage 1~ Cycle De-escalation related to the injury

1. Injured partner articulates injury & impact

2. Offending partner may engage in reactive responses (ex. Defensiveness)

3. Injured partner integrates narrative and emotion and accesses attachments fears and longings

4. Offending partner understands significance of the event and acknowledges the partner’s pain and suffering.

Stage 2~ Forgiveness & Reconciliation

5. Injured partner moves toward a more integrated articulation of the injury and ties it to attachment bond

6. Offending partner empathically engages, acknowledges responsibility and expresses empathy, regret and/or remorse

Stage 3~ Consolidation

7. Injured partner asks for reparative comfort and caring

8. Bonding event is an antidote to the traumatic experience.

After couples work through all three stages, their relationship can become a “safe haven” again. The AIRM process goes beyond forgiveness and letting go of resentment.

When an attachment injury is resolved, the injured partner is willing to risk again by putting their “heart” in their loved one’s hands because they now trust that their partner will be there for them. This deep level of authenticity and intimacy strengthens a couple’s bond.

For more tools, check out my free video, “How to Build (& Rebuild) Trust and Heal from Betrayal”.

In closing~

Why is this topic of attachment injuries (and other betrayals) so important?

Attachment injuries are a type of betrayal RARELY talked about in our culture, and yet according to a landmark study by Ted Huston of the University of Texas,

When marriages fail, it is not increasing conflict that is the cause. It is decreasing affection and emotional responsiveness.”

Our American culture focuses much more on dramatic conflict and titillating stories of affairs. Yet, according to Esther Perel, an expert on working with couples who have experienced an affair,

Most couples stay together after an affair.”

Of course, not all of these couples heal and grow from such a devastating betrayal. The point is more about the trauma of your partner not being there for you at a time of greatest need and how that can unravel your relationship even more than an affair- if not healed.

We are so fortunate today to have relationship researchers and experts, including John Gottman and Sue Johnson who know what causes betrayal, what builds trust, and most hopeful what heals distrust and betrayal when we unintentionally hurt the ones we love the most.

Healing and even transformation into a more fulfilling relationship is possible!

If you are struggling with the devastation of betrayal and need help rebuilding trust, I am here to support you, your loved one, and your relationship.

Contact Lana Isaacson, LCSW, CAC III today at 720.432.5262, [email protected] or schedule your session or free consultation here.