Shawn found out that his wife, Sheila, was chatting and texting a coworker. They had talked about it. She agreed to stop contacting this person and also told that person to stop contacting her. She quit her job and found employment at another company. It has been three years and Shawn still has anxiety when Sheila goes out without him. He gets agitated whenever he sees her phone and wants to know who she is texting or if she has gotten any texts. He needs to know what she does with her time at work. He will often question her, gets irritable and short tempered when she leaves the room, goes out with a friend, or is on the computer. Sheila is getting more frustrated with how much pressure she feels from Shawn to reassure him that there isn’t another guy, and gets that hopeless feeling with how difficult it is for him to trust her. She can’t help from feeling that she has lost all control to convince her husband that she is not cheating on him. She can’t understand why he doesn’t believe that after what happened three years ago that she has learned her lesson, and would never do that again. She feels so distant and out of touch from Shawn right now due to his vigilant behavior towards her and the negative way that he is viewing her.
I have seen many couples in counseling sessions like Shawn and Sheila, who have struggled with a wound in the relationship that continues to haunt them because it really has penetrated their core. It follows them for years and it can feel debilitating. This “wound or hurt,” usually takes the form of a betrayal or abandonment. The betrayal can take the form of an affair, being secretive about money, not being forthcoming about an activity or hobby, withholding information about oneself before the relationship, or not being honest about one’s age, amongst others. Abandonment in the relationship can be not showing up to support a partner during a medical crisis, suddenly breaking up and then getting back together, or disappearing for a period of time. The impact that this has on the wounded partner is huge. He or she is left with a deep hurt inside. They don’t know why this has happened and if it will happen again. The wounded partner might feel that it is their fault, something might be wrong with them, or else why would this happen? There is anxiety about getting hurt again so they have to be “on guard.” There is a need to make sense of the situation, that way, if the relationship is taking a turn for the worse, at least they might know what to look for so this wound won’t reoccur.
As the wounded partner becomes more reactive due to this insecurity he or she is experiencing, the partner that had done the wounding starts to feel more blamed, criticized, judged, and even shamed. This partner is feeling like “I am doing everything I can to reassure him/her and it still isn’t working.” They can then feel helpless, hopeless, and not know what to do. It is at this point the couple feels really stuck, at an impasse, and they can then either argue or withdraw. They both need to feel and be heard but it is so hard to do when there is this momentum towards distance. Couples therapy, gives the space to slow this process down so both partners can find it in themselves to make that effort to not be defensive and to really express their pain, frustration, and hurt. At the same time they can hear how their partner feels. They can then move forward with the healing process of the relationship wound and rebuild their bond and connection. This process can even help make the relationship, the connection and bond even stronger than it was before the wound.