How to Recover from 'Relationship Trauma'
You can’t get over it.
Your partner promises he won’t go out for drinks alone with that flirtatious colleague while he’s away on a conference. That night you text and call him, again and again, and no answer. Finally, when he picks up, you can hear he’s out somewhere and he admits that yes, he’s out for drinks with her, “but really,” he says, “it’s no big deal.”
Or maybe you pick up your wife’s cell phone and see a text message. It says, Can’t stop thinking of you and last night, J. And you know it’s not your wife’s sister who she said she was out with last night, and you get that sick feeling, and when you look up she’s staring at you with an expression of shock and guilt.
Or your doctor finds a lump in your breast and is sending you for tests. You’re scared, overwhelmed, and start crying as soon as you get home, hoping your husband will hold you. Instead, he’s tired from work and says “you’re being overdramatic, as always, and I just can’t handle it right now.”
Whatever kind of betrayal – your partner breaking a promise, or cheating, or abandoning you – it can be devastating. You may feel helpless or fearful, alone, or out of control. This is a relationship trauma. This goes beyond the typical everyday hurt we inflict on each other in a relationship. This knocks you down and you wonder if you can get back up.
And that’s the thing: everyday hurts go away with time, but traumatic wounds don’t heal on their own. They can’t be ignored, or brushed aside, or dismissed with quick apologies. We often hear from the injuring party that it was ages ago. How can she still be upset? Or, I’ve said sorry so many times, what more can I do?
There is a way forward -- through real apology and forgiveness.
Emotion-focused therapy (thanks to Dr. Les Greenberg and Dr. Sue Johnson) teaches us that if you've suffered a traumatic relationship injury, consider these steps:
1. Tell your partner very clearly how this behavior hurt you. Ask yourself: At a time of urgent need, did I feel abandoned and alone? Or devalued? Or did my partner become a source of danger, rather than safety?
Your partner needs to understand the that this injury had for you -- what exactly made it so painful or traumatic. It may be from a childhood wound or insecurity (i.e. Your father used to call you “overdramatic”) or a matter of timing (i.e. Your wife had an affair while you were grieving the loss of your father) or an issue of values (i.e. Keeping your word is a fundamental value), or something specific to you.
2. Listen to your partner acknowledge your pain and his or her role in it. As Dr. Johnson states in her book, Hold Me Tight, “Until injured partners see that this pain has been truly recognized, they will not be able to let it go.” This requires your partner to step it up and take accountability.
What you need to hear is a heartfelt apology -- one that comes with regret and remorse. You need to see that your partner has suffered too, not from your anger, but from the weight of his or her own actions. If you believe your partner deeply regrets his actions, knows he was wrong, and even feels he violated his own personal standards, you will feel more trusting and open to forgiveness.
3. Be willing to forgive. Remember real forgiveness is not excusing, condoning, pardoning, or forgetting. It is holding the other accountable, acknowledging your role in what happened (or your reaction to what happened), and giving up any grudges or need for revenge.
4. Let your partner know what else you need from him or her to bring closure to
the trauma. Ask directly for your needs -- the ones that were overlooked -- to now be met. The focus is on restoring trust and security. You may even want to set out rituals for reassurance (i.e. When either of us asks for a hug, we give it without judgment, or Your spouse promises to text or call very regularly when she goes out).
Beware the pitfalls! The main reason couples are not able to find resolution is when the injuring partner becomes defensive or deflects responsibility:
Pressuring a partner to “get over it”, or telling her it was long ago.
Competing with the injured partner over who is more hurt.
Failing to recognize the hurt that’s been inflicted.
Assuming a victim role, or becoming hopeless.
Offering a token apology.
Blaming the injured partner.
You may have spent months or years suffering from this wound, even building up a wall to protect yourself. So remember these steps take time, especially bringing closure. But there is a way forward. You can finally, with real forgiveness, get over it.