I'm A Psychoanalyst & This Is How Couples Truly Move On From A Painful Fight
It's not as simple as someone just saying the words "I'm sorry."
That which isn't seen cannot change. Many couples try to handle relationship injuries by sweeping them under the rug. This is a big mistake. When avoidance or neglect become a strategy, you get a seriously lumpy rug. And when we are harboring hurt, or waiting for hurt to happen again, it's only a matter of time before what is under the rug rolls out.
Some couples succeed in compartmentalizing relationship hurts and traumas, but this can often mean an estranged relationship. Relationship ruptures inspire feelings of helplessness and danger, and when danger is present, we don't feel safe to be vulnerable. When we don't feel safe to be vulnerable with our partner, our connection is compromised.
Unresolved relationship trauma does not heal without a process of forgiveness and amends. When hurt occurs between couples, they need a special kind of healing process that cultivates forgiveness and reestablishes the willingness to trust again.
The first goal for partners in the process of reconnection is the forgiveness part. Many people think about forgiveness as a moral issue, but it can help to reconstruct and reimagine forgiveness as a relational process. In addition to letting go of resentment and forgiving your partner, we also have to be willing to trust again. Trust reestablished is the ultimate goal.
With that in mind, if you and a partner are struggling to move past a difficult fight or relationship injury, consider the following steps for re-establishing a secure connection, drawn from the work of clinical psychologist Sue Johnson, Ed.D., who developed the modality known as Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy. (Note: Often the safety and structure of this type of healing needs the support of a therapist to help the couple navigate reconnection.)
Step 1: The hurt partner needs to speak their pain clearly, simply, and openly.
Coach yourself to follow a simple outline by stating, "When you did X, I felt Y, and my feeling of safety feels compromised in this way."
Did you feel alone? Dismissed? Devalued? Stay as neutral and objective in your language as you can. Remove shame, blame, and criticism by focusing on your feelings and experience.
Step 2: The injuring partner stays emotionally present and acknowledges their part in the wounded partner's pain.
Until the injured partner truly can truly feel that their partner has recognized the pain that they have caused, they will not be able to let go. They will continue to bring up the wound until they feel some sense of repair. This is an intuitive biological and social contract. Why should I invite you close again, until I know I will be safe?
If you are the injuring partner, follow these guides: Breathe, feel the support of your body, remember that opening yourself to your partner's pain doesn't mean that you have to agree with their perspective—but it does mean you are invested in their perspective.
Step 3: Undo the "never again" promises you made to yourself or one another.
Often after a relationship trauma we vow to ourselves, and sometimes our partner, "I will never trust you again" or "I will never share my deepest yearnings/fears/needs with you again."
The injured partner can offer what they vowed. For example, "The story I told myself after this event is that you're too fragile to be with my pain, and so I vowed to never share my deeper feelings with you."
If it feels authentic and true, the injuring partner should then respond with a positive affirmation: "I never want you to feel alone with the painful feelings you are having. I hate that you felt that I couldn't comfort you."
Step 4: Injuring partners now take ownership of the way in which they injured their partner and express regret and remorse.
This absolutely cannot take the form of an impersonal or defensive apology. It is imperative that the partner that has caused the hurt enter into a state of empathy and, as best as they can, feel into the pain they have caused. We have to demonstrate that our partner's pain has an impact on us.
This might sound like, "I really let you down…" or "I really wasn't there for you, and I can see how much that hurts you…" Use validating language here such as, "It makes sense to me how hurt you are by my actions." A true apology is not an act to move past; it is an invitation to reconnect.
Step 5: Ask for and offer a gesture of repair.
The injured partner should identify what they need right now to heal the wound. They then ask for these needs to be met in the future in a way that is different from the original incident. This might sound like, "I needed you to hold me then and tell me you are there for me. I need that right now." (Then the injuring partner will embrace their partner and say, "I am here for you.")
In EFT therapy this is called an "enactment." It is a secure attachment experience aimed at rebuilding safety.
Step 6: Create a new story, one that involves the repair and the safety.
You might start right away by saying, "Remember that time there was so much hurt between us and then we processed it and reconnected? That felt so good!" This might include a daily ritual of a hug and an expression of, "I'm here for you."
You and your partner are artists, and your relationship can be the most glorious masterpiece of your life. You can both bring your individual creativity and perspectives to collaborate on how you can weave a story of hurt into a story of connection.