We all know the scene: a couple begins discussing a current challenge for them and are quickly down the rabbit hole of past injuries. “Why do you keep bringing that up?”
Jenny and Michelle have had a tumultuous relationship. They met right after college, fell in love quickly, and married after a year. They soon moved for Jenny’s work, which was possible because Michelle had told Jenny her own work was mobile. However, Jenny soon discovered that Michelle had hidden things from her during their courtship, and lied about her work and financial history. These breaches led to a crisis and divorce.
When Jenny and Michelle came to therapy, they had reconciled and were in a hurry to return to their earlier romantic feelings. However, in session, their discussion inevitably returns to the original injury. When they look to me in frustration, I ask if the original wound was ever repaired, and the room falls quiet. “Well, what am I supposed to do?” Michelle asks. “It was ten years ago!” Jenny says.
We know from our studies in PACT that injuries must be tended to quickly so they do not enter into procedural memory. Strong eye contact, physical touch, and the right words can soothe many hurts and create a connection. Error correction is one of the strongest means of building connection: we demonstrate our willingness to be vulnerable to our partner, we show our partner that he or she is more important to us than being right, and we put the health of the relationship above all else.
However, we often form relationships without having learned what it means to adequately repair an injury. As a result, many couples carry built-up hurts, both big (affairs and large betrayals) and small (repeated slights). It is common for couples to have unattended injuries in a relationship, without any idea how to mend them successfully. Couples often avoid dealing directly with these wounds because of shame and regret for their mistakes or fear of old pain resurfacing. When triggered, old hurts—both within the couple and from their early life—pop back up, and couples often retreat into exasperation and hopelessness. The PACT therapist’s job is to confront the injuries the couple wants to avoid; only by leveraging the pain can true repair occur.
Reenacting hurtful conversations in extremely slow motion helps couples see how these injuries have become stored in the automatic brain. Viewing injuries as stored, and responses to them as automatic begins to reduce shame and defensiveness, opening the door to curiosity and compassion. Continued practice with declarations, using face-to-face attention and careful recognition of changes in each partner, promotes inquiry into whatever is driving the reaction. Learning to lead with relief facilitates a sense of safety and trust.
As Jenny and Michelle return over and over to the incidences of dishonesty, secrecy, and attack that marred their early relationship, gradual change occurs. Michelle is slowly getting better at dropping the explanations when she sees the hurt that comes out as flashes of anger and accusation. She says, “I’m so sorry for all the secrets I kept from you, Jenny. I know it hurt you. I am sorry. I love you.” And Jenny is learning to drop the escalations and insults she used to get Michelle’s attention and instead to take in her apologies without shame. She says, “Thank you. I know you didn’t mean it. I’m sorry for not making more space for you to tell me in your own way. I’m sorry for being judgmental about your ways of doing things. I love you.”
With practice, protecting the self from feelings of inadequacy and shame becomes secondary to providing whatever a partner needs to feel safe in the relationship. In return, receiving such care allows the injured one to drop the attack: he or she no longer needs to shame his or her partner again for the old injury. Both partners can receive care and provide soothing in return. Over time, this mutuality of care leads to healing ghosts of injuries past, and to a much stronger connection in the present.