The wound that many couples never recover from occurs when one of the partners is in distress and the other does not respond or help them. Their partners are not there for them when they need them most.
This kind of aloneness, abandonment, rejection or neglect can lead to the wounded person saying to themselves (often subconsciously), Never again. Never again will I ask for help or try to connect, instead I will build a wall around myself and strive to live a life of self-reliance.
If you ask a person going through strife in their relationship to name a time that exemplifies their trouble, they will reply with a situation where they were down/stressed/hurt and their partner made them feel alone and uncared for. I wrote about a time with my ex-boyfriend when I felt particularly abandoned. I couldn’t find my ID when we were in line for security at the airport and he made me feel very small in front of my children. I ended up finding my ID in another purse but he said out loud in front of everyone, he would have left me at the airport if I hadn’t found it. That memory is seared into my mind and heart.
Not usually a one-time incident
This kind of wound isn’t usually a one-time incident, although if the distress or trauma is great enough and a partner does not comfort them, a one-time incident could cause major damage to the relationship and the person’s security.
Most often, the hurt is caused over time with consistent lack of attentiveness or responsiveness.
After the honeymoon phase when the love chemicals diminish and reality kicks in, many couples go on autopilot. This is where we assume we know our significant other and can predict their responses. We stop being as curious about them. We minimize our efforts to please them because we think we’ve already earned their approval. We don’t have to turn toward them or look them in the eyes as much because they should know we love them. We don’t have to show it every second.
This is where the breakdown begins. Each little choice to not be present or attentive feels like a mini-rejection to our nervous systems. We implicitly feel disconnected. Intellectually, we tell ourselves, He’s busy minding the kids or She’s got a deadline at work or He’s really tired, but our primitive brain does not care how great our intellect is or how rational we are. Our primitive nervous system feels pain.
How do we avoid or alleviate that pain?
It’s impossible to be there for someone 24 hours a day. Most of us understand that. Our goals are to not make a habit of minimal attentiveness and to be there when our partner’s version of a really big crisis occurs.
Don’t go on autopilot. When you feel yourself reaching for your phone twenty times during your evening with your partner, take note. This does not feel good to your love and it truly does not do anything for your well-being either. Phones, work, social media, neighbors and even children do their best to distract us. The distractions create distance between you and your loved one.
Meditation and mindfulness practice help us work our presence muscles by teaching us how to get distracted and then gently return to what is important.
Staying present keeps us attuned to our loved one’s emotions and needs. It gives them the feeling of being ‘felt’. If someone listens attentively with their eyes, ears and heart, we feel our internal world is known and accepted. We let down our guard and become more receptive.
We all have wandering minds. It’s not a crime. What we do to maintain focus and presence makes all the difference. If we do nothing, chances are someone we care for feels alone or empty even when we are in the same room.
Keep that trust bank account built up
It is much easier to forgive or not even notice when someone slips up, if the majority of the time (aim for 80%), we feel we can count on our significant other. Stephen Covey of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, calls it a bank account of trust. If there is a pile of withdrawal slips — incidents of missing important events, drinking too much, spending too much time on technology, never having any deep or intimate conversations, etc.— our partners are on high alert just waiting for another let down. This is pain that ultimately is not sustainable. It affects our relationships and our health.
On the other hand, if there are many instances of reassurance and reliability, our partners relax and have a much easier time of being responsive to us. Security and safety generate openness and energy.
Avoid the big wound
Our ancestors faced death or great discomfort when their community or family cut them off. Our nervous system still fears being alone and unprotected. There is nothing more comforting than knowing someone is there, especially when a crisis or unmet need from the past pops up.
Get to know what distresses your love the most. Watch for their signs of sadness, fear or stress — can’t sleep, doesn’t eat, talks a lot, cries, etc.
Learn what soothes them. The soothing methods are different for everyone. Some appreciate calming touch. Some prefer time alone. Others need to talk through it. Again, the methods are as unique as the individual.
The most important thing is to pay attention. Help your partner keep their guard down. Make sure they are not left saying, Never again.
This may sound like a lot of work for someone with a more introverted nature. I guarantee time spent as a responsive partner, pays off tenfold in returned acts that fulfill our security needs.
Have you felt deeply let down? Have you been the reason for someone else’s big wound?
How have you coped?
If you would like to discuss more ways to heal from wounds and create security in relationships please contact me for coaching.