Transform Your Relationship, Step 5: Healing Relationship Wounds

Couple doing some exercise/running/jogging in the park.

What if you had information you could trust to help you transform the most important relationship in your life? Would you invest time and resources if you were sure it would pay off? In this series, we’ll share with you 10 steps to becoming happier, healthier, and stronger together based on Dr. Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT), the most successful and popular approach to couple’s therapy.

In previous steps, you have (1) built an alliance strong enough to face the patterns that come between you; (2) mapped your negative cycle; (3) explored and vulnerably shared deeper, internal feelings; and (4) developed a compassionate acceptance and ability to rise above your negative cycle. If you have successfully completed these steps, you are most likely feeling calmer, happier, and more secure in your relationship. And the best part is yet to come. By completing the remaining steps, you can have a level of connection and security that you may have never thought possible. These steps will develop your ability to reach for and receive the emotional support you both need to heal your wounds, calm your insecurities, and achieve greater confidence and strength as a couple and as individuals.

In this step, you will work together to heal any wounds that occurred earlier in your relationship, and that still cast a shadow on your ability to deeply trust each other.

Attachment injuries are traumatic

In close relationships, we inevitably hurt each other because we are exquisitely emotionally connected and important to each other, regardless of how independent we may try or want to be. People are likely to experience the most and the deepest hurt in life from their closest relationships. It’s not *whether* we hurt those closest to us, but *how we deal* with those hurts.

Attachment injuries are deep wounds that occur when our loved one isn’t there for us in a moment when we really need them. When we are in a position of vulnerability and our partner is not emotionally there to meet our needs for care and comfort, we may experience intense feelings of abandonment and rejection. We may have these reactions naturally and automatically, even when our partner’s reasons for not being there for us are innocent and understandable. Unfortunately, these attachment injuries can be traumatic, which means they may not heal with apologies or fade away with time.

Healing and forgiveness

Fortunately, there is a way to heal even the deepest wounds. Then forgiveness comes naturally. Once there is healing, there is no longer any need for forgiveness because there is no longer any hurt. Though they have the potential to cut us most deeply, partners also have the ability to be our strongest and most powerful healers.

The emotions and strategies we use to protect ourself are often in the way of healing. If we are the injured one, we may either not know how, or not feel safe enough, to show our hurt in a vulnerable way that pulls our partner in to comfort and support us. Instead, we may express our hurt in a way that pushes our partner away, or shuts them out.

When we are the one who has unintentionally hurt our partner, our protective strategies can get in the way of healing too. Generally we feel badly knowing we have hurt someone we love, and we may naturally protect our own bad feelings. We might try to make things better by defending or explaining our actions. We might numb out and ignore our own pain, in order to try to focus on caring for our partner’s pain. We might feel helpless to care for our partner’s pain, because we don’t really know what to do.

The secret to healing is for both partners to successfully risk moving away from protective strategies and open up to sharing and receiving in an emotionally vulnerable way. Because this requires emotional safety, it’s not possible to have this conversation before you compassionately understand and can raise above your negative cycles (see Transform Your Relationship, Step 4: Rising Together Above the Cycle). It’s also important to gain experience and confidence in this healing process first by practicing with smaller wounds, before tackling serious injuries between the two of you.

Practice first with hurts where there’s no possibility of blame

Follow the process below, then switch positions and go through the process again. It is often helpful for the more withdrawing partner to go first in the sharing role. Before tackling a serious injury between the two of you, practice this process with old wounds from childhood or previous relationships, where there’s no possibility of anger or blame between you. Repeat this process, switching roles back and forth, until both partners are comfortable with the sharing role, and both partners are comfortable with the witnessing role. Work your way up to healing more serious injuries.

Both partners start with internal reflection

Sharing partner: Recall a time when you were hurt, and take a moment to allow yourself to “go into” a specific scene, “reliving” specific moments. Hit the pause button and stay until you can feel the hurt that still remains there.

While reliving the scene of the past hurt, notice the context of the hurt. What did the other person say, do, or not say or do? Notice their body language and tone. Perhaps you notice where you feel the hurt from this moment in or around your body. What negative message is in this hurt? Whether it seems logical or not, does it feel as if the other person doesn’t care about you, or sees you as a disappointment, unworthy, or unimportant? Does the hurt inside you feel the other person is judging or rejecting you? Ignoring or dismissing your feelings? Betraying or using you in some way?

Witnessing partner: Start by reflecting internally on the feelings or thoughts coming up for you around being invited to witness your partner’s hurt. Check any impulses to “do” anything to make the process easier or to protect your partner or yourself. Put aside any impulse to “do” something, including the impulse to gain a certain level of understanding or analyze what your partner will share. Your role is simply to be a presence that feels openness, curiosity, and compassion toward whatever your partner might share. Though this is simple in theory, it’s common to have many feelings and thoughts that interfere with being a witnessing presence. Notice what’s there for you, and see if you can become calm, curious, and open.

Getting to a place where healing can occur

Sharing partner: When you are both ready, share the context or “headline version” of the hurt with your partner. Try keeping it simple, sharing only the key details, without lengthy explanation.

Witnessing partner: If you were responsible for your partner’s hurt, go ahead and share the context or “headline version” of what was happening for you at the time your partner was hurt, that led to your actions or inactions that hurt your partner. Keep it simple, without lengthy explanation. You are providing a context for your partner to understand, not a defense.

Both partners now pause to reflect internally, scanning your mind and body.

Witnessing partner: Check to see how open and curious you feel toward whatever pain around this event the sharing partner might still have. Let your partner know how open and curious you feel right now. If instead you feel on edge, overwhelmed, pressured, distracted, worried, or anything else, it’s important to share these feelings and not proceed further until you can be calm, curious, and open.

Sharing partner: Check to see how safe and comfortable you feel about opening up and sharing your more vulnerable feelings around the hurt, including your physical sensations, negative words or phrases you say to yourself around the hurt, and rawer, more vulnerable emotions such as fear, sadness, and shame. If you are afraid to open up and share more, it’s important to share your fears with your partner. Only share more deeply when you feel your partner understands your fears and you feel ready to go further.

Sharing and witnessing

Continue only when you are both emotionally ready to proceed.

Sharing partner: “Open up” to share the deeper, more vulnerable aspects of the hurt. Emotions may or may not want to come up and be expressed through the body—the tears, fear, and feelings of shame inside the hurt may come up. Allow your partner to see the emotion on your face and in your body, and let your partner know if you would like them to hold and comfort you. Describe for your partner any internal body sensations you might be feeling, and any negative thoughts or images you are experiencing.

Witnessing partner: Remain open, curious, and present to whatever your partner is sharing. Resist the temptation to jump in and fix or stop the partner’s emotional experience. Tune in and listen deeply, in order to understand and experience the feelings of hurt *with* your partner, so that your partner does not now need to feel alone with these feelings. Be open to your own internal emotions as your partner shares. You might feel that a frozen, emotional wall feels somewhat softer. You might feel sadness in your eyes, pain in your heart, guilt, shame, or other emotions or sensations. You might feel happy and joyful that your partner is trusting you and letting you in. You might have many internal reactions—not just one.

When the sharing partner is ready, the witnessing partner shares what they have been feeling inside as they were witnessing, for example, compassion, sadness, shame, anger toward others who have hurt their partner, or fear of messing up. The witnessing partner also shares what it feels like to be trusted and “let in” this deeply. Finally, the witnessing partner shares their openness to hearing more, if the sharing partner has more they would like to share.

Sharing partner: As your partner shares what they were feeling as you let them “in,” help them by letting them know what of their sharing feels good to you. It is important that you let your partner know what else you need in this moment—what they could do, say, or help you feel right here, right now—to help you heal this wound. You might need to let out more pain and sadness for your partner to witness and comfort. You might need some reassurance that your pain is legitimate, that your partner understands this pain. You might need your partner to hold and comfort you. Find what you need by tuning deeply into the pain that is still in your body and being curious about what it needs.

Take in the good of what you are accomplishing together

Sharing partner: When you are ready, go back to the scene of the hurt, and notice if it has become less hurtful or less intense. Share any positive changes you notice in the wound.
Both partners now share what it was like to do this together. What feels good about this? What was hard about this? Were there any parts that felt natural or easy? Parts that felt forced or contrived? Were there any parts that were scary? You are likely to feel closer, more connected, and more hopeful after having this conversation. Notice any of these positive feelings, and be sure to share them.

Often, attachment injuries, especially serious ones, don’t heal from a single healing conversation. Come back to this conversation as many times as needed, until the injury feels transformed with compassion, healing, and connection, and no longer hurts.