At Porch Light Counseling, our practice is rooted in attachment theory, the understanding that early relationships shape us and influence how we operate in our adult relationships. We learn from a young age if our environment is safe, if we can trust others, and if our needs will be met. Earlier this year, Heather wrote a beautiful blog about secure attachment and necessary components of fostering strong relationships. Today, I am sharing information about what happens when a relationship experiences an attachment injury, and the security previously felt is suddenly absent.
Attachment injuries can occur in a moment or over a period of time. When I work with couples, I can often identify an attachment injury when I hear one partner say, “that happened so long ago, I don’t know why you’re still thinking about that. Can’t you just let it go?” Attachment injuries call into question many or all of the earlier moments of attachment in the relationship, leading a partner to believe that everything they thought they knew about their partner and relationship must have been wrong. Relationship traumas are disorienting. They are emotional betrayals that completely change the way a partner thinks about their relationship.
Here are some examples of attachment injuries I have heard about in my practice working with couples who have young children:
a traumatic birth experience in which the person giving birth perceives the supporting partner as detached, not present, or in denial about the intensity of the birth experience
emotional or physical infidelity
significant detachment by one partner during a major life transition (for example, a partner working 80 hours per week during the first several months of their baby’s life and leaving the primary caretaker on their own)
times of significant illness, either chronic or acute, during which one partner feels like they are “on their own” or their partner is not taking care of them
a situation in which one partner perceives the other as being inaccessible, unresponsive, or unsafe
- a long possible list of other situations for which this statement applies: “I needed you so much, and you were not there for me.”
People who have experienced an attachment injury in a relationship can likely relate to this quickly. You may even have a visceral reaction to reading the examples above, and remember what it felt like in the moment you believed your partner was not there in the way you trusted they were. It’s the feeling in your belly like you’re falling, a numb sensation, maybe feeling like you’re not even in your body. Like this can’t be your life, because all of a sudden it looks so different than it did before. And you’re alone.
Attachment injuries are amplified in situations where there has been insecure attachment patterns, or concerns that the relationship bond isn’t stable—for example, sometimes a partner has serious worries that the other partner may eventually cheat on them, even if there has not been evidence to support this. If it indeed happens, the attachment injury is worse due to the anxiety already present in the relationship and the anticipation of the event. When this occurs, the anxious emotion is reinforced and the injured partner may begin to believe they are at fault for the pain they are feeling.
In situations of attachment injury, I deeply believe having a therapist who is knowledgeable about attachment theory is critical to fully healing wounds. When partners experience attachment injuries, they can get stuck in reiterating the same points (without the comfort of their partner really understanding what they’re saying) and create even more frustration and further distance. We get caught in a cycle that is very clearly not working. A therapist who utilizes an attachment framework will help her clients understand the negative emotional cycle that is occurring in order to help create a new pattern. The therapist supports both partners in expressing their feelings and needs as well as learning to respond to the needs of their partner. Working with an attachment therapist also provides the opportunity for clients to be seen and heard in a way they might not be with their partners, which makes the therapeutic process itself a component of healing. When clients are committed to openness and vulnerability in the therapy room and in their relationship, attachment injuries can be healed, changing the course of a relationship to create a new foundation of deep connection and love.
Elizabeth Gillette, LCSW is a therapist specializing in supporting couples who are adjusting to parenthood and learning how to navigate their relationship with children.