Relational Hurt or Attachment Injury? How to Tell the Difference

Pensive person with long curly hair sits in a cafe while partner looks down and away, reading newspaper. If you have ever been in a relationship, you have experienced hurt. It is inevitable. Even when two people have a connected, secure, and healthy relationship, they will experience hurt at some point. When couples come to therapy, it is often due to an experience or pattern of experiences that created hurt for one or both partners. They decide to pursue therapy because they are having a hard time resolving this hurt in order to feel safe with each other again.

When working with couples, I seek to understand the nature and significance of the hurt before moving toward resolution. How bad is it? How deep is the impact? First, we must understand the two levels of hurt: relational hurts and attachment injuries.

Relational Hurts

Secure couples can often navigate relational hurts on their own. Things like forgotten anniversaries, reactive insults, or blow-up fights can sneak into relationships. For secure couples (couples who feel they can depend and rely on each other in times of need), relational hurts are fairly easy to navigate. Partners can share their hurt feelings with each other, hear and empathize with the hurt of their loved one, and provide comfort and reassurance. Partners can move forward in the relationship with trust, security, and safety despite the hurtful experience. This is a natural and expected experience for healthy relationships.

I can often tell when a hurt falls into the category of a relational hurt. In our sessions, couples may share feelings of sadness, anger, hurt, and pain in response to an experience. However, when I ask them if they feel their partner loves and cares for them, they can quickly answer “yes.” For them, even though the hurt happened, it hasn’t significantly changed the way they view each other or the relationship.

Attachment Injuries

Attachment injuries are trickier. They require much more care, consideration, and often more guidance, sometimes from a couples counselor. When couples are trying to respond to attachment injuries as if they are merely a relational hurt, they can stay stuck. Without recognizing the significance and impact of the injury, they can go down a long road of frustration and more hurt. An injured partner can feel even more hurt that the other person is not responding in ways that provide healing. The hurt deepens, becomes more complex, and can create great distress in the relationship.

Dr. Sue Johnson defines an attachment injury as “a feeling of betrayal or abandonment during a critical time of need.” When an attachment injury has occurred, a partner may view their relationship as changed or they may view their partner in a different way. An affair is a good example of an attachment injury. Infidelity often causes a partner to view a previously safe relationship as unsafe. While they used to view their partner as trustworthy, they now wonder, “Can I ever trust this person again?”

Attachment injuries are trickier. They require much more care, consideration, and often more guidance, sometimes from a couples counselor.

There are also more subtle attachment injuries. Consider the example of a wife, grieving the loss of her mother, crying in her bedroom. She sees her husband walk by on his phone, consumed in a work call. He sees her in tears but, after getting so caught up in his work, never returns to check on her. In that moment, she decides she is not important to him and she must go through this pain alone. In that moment, everything changes in how she views the relationship and how she views her husband. She was in need and he wasn’t there.

There are three key ways to determine if a hurt is an attachment injury. First, partners report they have apologized, but their hurt partner keeps bringing up the hurtful experience. Additionally, the hurt partner may report feeling as though they relive the hurtful experience when they think or talk about it. They can still feel the pain, almost as if it just happened. Finally, couples report a significant, defining shift in the relationship felt by one or both partners that can be traced back to a specific time or incident. If any of these things are happening in your relationship, there may be an attachment injury.

If you believe you are dealing with an attachment injury in your relationship, here are some potentially helpful things to think about:

  • Try to understand the significance of the injury for yourself or your partner. How did the experience impact how you see yourself or how you see each other? How did it change how you or your partner view the relationship?
  • What happens when you or your partner recall the hurtful experience? What do you feel? What do you think about? What images or memories do you have? What physical sensations do you feel (i.e., knots in the stomach, heart racing, shortness of breath)?
  • What do you or your partner need from each other in those moments? Physical comfort such as a hug or embrace? Emotional comfort such as reassurance, understanding, and validation? Or just to be heard?

Often, couples benefit from therapy to help them navigate the process of healing after an attachment injury. When a couple learns how to find comfort in each other for the pain and hurt resulting from an attachment injury, healing and true reconnection are possible.

References:

  1. Johnson, S. (2013). Love sense: The revolutionary new science of romantic relationships. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
  2. Johnson, S., Makinen, J., & Millikin, J. (2001). Attachment Injuries in Couple Relationships: A New Perspective on Impasses in Couples Therapy. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 27(2), 145-155.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lori Epting, LPC, therapist in Charlotte, North Carolina

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Kris esau

    Kris esau

    April 6th, 2018 at 7:49 AM

    We’ve learned after 26 years… My husband had an affair 26 years ago and that’s when therapy started… He’s taking a break from therapy relapsed several times, thrown me under the bus, got a counselor convinced that I was the bad guy and he was the victim, we’ve lost a church because my husband blamed me for his addiction, we now know that he is a disengaged and disorganized avoidant has sex addiction has also been diagnosed DID…. we have several specialist that we are currently seeing… And until he really opens up and trust me I feel like we’re always going to be at a standstill or stalled at the level of his Trust… And because I was raised by my dad who is an undiagnosed manic depressive / sociopath… And my mom is a diagnosed bipolar / borderline… I’m actually continuing to learn all the time about how I have been trauma bonded and therefore my co-dependence has PTSD at its core and there’s so many levels to my loyalty… We’ve read I think some of the best books out there but I don’t know what I don’t know yet, any insights

  • Susan Broadwell, MA, PsyD

    Susan Broadwell, MA, PsyD

    April 10th, 2018 at 12:52 PM

    I empathize with all you’ve been through. It’s a lot. Have you considered inviting God into this situation? There are many therapeutic approaches and it sounds like you’ve tried some. Maybe quite a few? Most problems in life have a spiritual component and a respective solution. If therapy is not progressing it can be that the answer is spiritual. Unfortunately, many in the field do not understand this, but in some cases it is the only true solution or way that healing will occur. My best to you both.

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