There is a common relational myth that used to float around about how “women marry their fathers and men marry their mothers”. It’s true that many of us unconsciously gravitate towards partners who embody traits and behaviours that feel familiar and therefore comforting (or controllable), whether they be healthy and effective behaviours or not.
Something that *IS* a truism in human behaviour is that we form relationships according to the invisible models we carry forward from our earliest experiences, usually based on what we observe and internalize from our parents’ or adult caregivers’ relationships. These models then show up in our own adult relationships as unconscious influences that can sometimes work against us as much as for us. If we feel like we were emotionally neglected by a parent, for example, we might find ourselves in adult relationship, seeking someone who reminds us of that parent, and trying to prove through that similar-seeming relationship that we ARE worthy of the love we didn’t get the first time around, or that we ARE capable of attracting and holding onto attention from a similar kind of personality. When we use adult relationships to heal early attachment injuries, for example, we’re appropriating an inappropriate platform to act out or address some very unfinished emotional business that often has far less to do withe this current relationship than it does with a degree of accrued pain that predates it.
So what, exactly, is an attachment injury?
“By definition an Attachment Injury (AI) is a relational trauma – an event [that] shatters the attachment bond between intimates. One partner violates the expectation that the other will offer comfort and caring at a time of urgent need. This pivotal event redefines the relationship as unsafe and untrustworthy from that moment on.
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. However, when couples cannot walk the path towards repairing a broken bond and rebuilding trust, they spiral into a distancing dance. Failure to respond to a hurtful event, whether seemingly large (as when an affair with one’s best friend is discovered) or seemingly small (such as when a call for help is ignored) – remains as a pivotal moment that redefines the relationship as unsafe and untrustworthy.”
–Lorrie Brubacher, originally published as a “Toolbox” article in the ICEEFT EFT Community News, Spring 2015; sourced from Carolina EFT
This kind of relational hurt happens all the time, from slights we seem to brush off to catastrophic betrayals such as adultery. John Gottman writes at length about how he determines couples’ success or failure rates based on how well the couple handles these repair attempts and connection bids. But when the repairs and connection bids fail, one or both parties may internalize the disconnect in the relationship as an attachment injury: something that can hurt a great deal in the moment, and if it is perceived as part of a larger pattern, becomes something that at best creates a divisive wedge in the couple, and at worst becomes outright corrosive and destructive when the unacknowledged pain becomes too great to manage and we become reactive and volatile, emotionally or physically.
Something we see with frightening regularity when working with adult attachment issues in clients’ current relationships, is that the holding or nursing of unacknowledged hurts is a pattern that goes much further back in the individual or couple history. Kids who grow up in homes where they perceive parents don’t hear or make time for the child’s experiences, grow up to become adults who don’t know how to express their emotional pains, or already carry the belief that they don’t want to burden a partner with their experiences, so they bottle things up inside. But instead of creating the closeness and vulnerable intimacy most of us crave, or claim to crave, in romantic partnerships, the lack of vulnerability, the lack of trusting partners to hear and assist us, creates only further isolation.
Putting aside the weird and awkward Oedipal/Electra issues that Greek mythology teaches us about killing one parent and marrying the other, most of us don’t LITERALLY go looking to marry a parent. But it’s surprising how many of us fall into familiar patterns of relationship as if *THIS TIME*, we’ll be able to fix the things that hurt us, that we couldn’t address effectively, the last time. This is something I have long suspected (even longer than I’ve been a therapist) underlies the trend in people to “have a type” of person they get involved with; familiarity seems comforting, and we feel we know how to interact safely with “this type” or “that type” of person. (We’ll leave aside for a moment the classic definition of “insanity”, namely doing the same thing over and over and over with the hard-held belief that this time something will somehow magically be different; I digress.)
Sometimes these attachment injuries don’t have to go all the way back to our families of origin (though our patterns of decision making around reactions and responses to these hurts often do). For example, couples dealing with an infidelity may find that the partner who has been cheated on has difficulty “letting go and just moving on with fixing the relationship”. In looking at the situation that enabled the infidelity to occur, we look at the patterns of connection in the couple prior to that point to look for places where the connections have been secure, and where the attachments may have been injured and unaddressed, or inadequately repaired. I often find that if the “injured” half of the couple cannot identify a set of success criteria that would allow them to safely make the statement, “I trust that this will never happen again”, the inability to choose trust is often tied to a series of unaddressed hurts through the relationship history that, on a MUCH BIGGER scope than just the infidelity itself might suggest, prevent the injured party from being able to safely resume the attachment. So it’s not just the one betrayal we need to repair in session, but rather a successive pattern of attachment injuries that probably exists on both sides of the relational rift.
When these patterns of attachment injuries come into any new relationship with us from previous experiences, it’s like bringing the ghosts and skeletons of all our previous relationship hurts along in among all our other baggage. When we are reluctant to openly trust new partners “because I’ve been hurt before”, that’s an example of how we allow our previous attachment injuries to haunt us into our present relationships. When we bring entire laundry lists of hurts and grievances into the latest fight with our partner over not taking the garbage out, that’s another example of how our unaddressed attachment injuries become much bigger than the current trigger (and why we as therapists often reiterate to our clients that “the thing you’re fighting about isn’t really the thing you’re fighting about”).
Emotionally-focused techniques often help clients struggling with attachment injuries find ways of articulating the things that hurt, and the impact of those experiences, as well as helping clients who struggle to remain present with a partner’s emotional Stuff without either taking it personally or being overwhelmed by it. We work to unravel the belief that fixing relationship hurts and attachment injuries is about setting a series of Herculean tasks your partner must perform in order to be deemed worthy of you choosing to return your trust to them, and less about being able to enter some emotionally painful space and have that pain heard and acknowledged, appropriately and effectively, by all parties involved. Sometimes there are change behaviours to negotiate, but often couples in this path find that recovery and repair become less about the actions, and more about the listening and reception of the emotional experiences, that goes further toward addressing the fundamental pain of the disconnection.