When emotional wounding occurs, our wounds pull for attention so that (ideally) healing can take place. Healing frees us from the pain of our past betrayals, releasing us from the epicenter of our pain, indignation and resentment.
Frequently the attention we seek is from another person—where there is pain there is often a desire to have someone else witness and, if possible, tend to our anguish. You might seek out a friend or family member or even a professional in the hope that this person can create some kind of emotional road-map out of what ails you. And central to this road-map is the caring and compassionate presence offered by another—the power of feeling connected to and understood by someone cannot be overstated.
Research supports what so many of you already know about relationships: Compassion, concern and connection are inherently healing. Emotional connection-understanding is a balm that soothes us—our emotional injuries become more manageable in the presence of loving-kindness. On the other hand, isolation and/or chronic relationship conflict leave us vulnerable to a wide range of physical and emotional suffering.
Relationship Help: We’re All Potential Healers
Over the course of a marriage/relationship, couples repeatedly offer these healing properties to each other, whether they realize it or not. Emotional healing (big and small) is a natural consequence of a loving, meaningful connection, and despite the gloomy divorce rate, there are many marriages and relationships where such a loving connection is the norm. This connection sustains us in ways we cannot imagine.
This isn’t to suggest that couples should actively play therapist for each other. Paradoxically, this would lead to the opposite effect desired. Couples must learn to trust and be open to the magical qualities of love that can lift us when life seems set on pulling us under.
But as anyone in a long-term relationship will tell you, the pathways to love are not always straightforward…
When the Healer Is the Wounder
What if the healing you seek needs to come from the very person who deeply wounded you?
This is one of the greatest relationship challenges we all face: Needing help and understanding from the same person who caused our emotional pain. Couples frequently come face-to-face with this very real dilemma; the ability to navigate this challenge can go a long way in keeping your relationship on track.
This dynamic (where the potential healer is also the wounder) occurs when there has been a significant betrayal or a series of smaller emotional injuries that have accumulated without any resolution. In these instances, the person who “caused” the wounding must:
- Take responsibility for his/her actions that were experienced as hurtful by the other in order for the process of healing to start;
- Help the wounded partner/spouse understand why these hurtful behaviors occurred in the first place (without blaming the wounded person for what has occurred—“You pushed me to act that way!” is not a message of responsibility);
- Eliminate your behaviors that have led to other-wounding (and demonstrate that this change is real and enduring—time is often needed for the wounded partner to believe that real change has occurred);
- Begin to act in ways that begin to address your partner’s distress—note that you are going beyond stopping the behaviors that have caused your partner pain; here you are adding something that will hopefully offer solace and ultimately healing. Hint: this will probably involve patience, selfless empathy and being emotionally present.
But it’s not always that straightforward…
Relationships are an intricate web of mutual impact and influence, action and reaction. Consider this entangled scenario, for instance:
You withdraw emotionally because of something your partner said or did that you found upsetting. It turns out that his/her coldness and insensitivity was a reaction to a comment you made the night before that left him/her feeling insecure about your commitment to the relationship. Upon reflection, you feel that your comment was totally misunderstood by him/her and that there was no intention to be hurtful. Your partner reacts by stating that you are invalidating his/her feelings and that what you consider to be his/her mis-perception is based upon a pattern of insensitivity and denial of this pattern… And so on.
In the above example, who is the wounded and who is the wounder?
Both parties feel justified in their position, misunderstood and hurt by each other, and both can probably make a compelling case for feeling somehow unjustly treated by the other (and usually both can quickly recount a history of hurtful relationship mishaps).
And to complicate matters even further, what frequently occurs in these instances is that both spouses/partners are waiting for the other to take responsibility for the relationship injustices that have occurred. The result? A stalemate (or power struggle) crystallizes as each waits for the other’s admission of guilt/insensitivity, and if these dangerous stalemates are not addressed, a cold distance can take over and pull the couple even further apart. In these instances, someone has to step up and say, “The relationship is too important to the both of us to let this continue to spiral out of control…”
When you elevate the marriage or relationship to a higher status that needs protecting, it becomes easier to say, “Hey, I know I’m also responsible for the problem.” And once one partner takes authentic responsibility for his/her part in co-creating what isn’t working, it’s much easier for the other partner to soften and say something like, “Well, I haven’t been an angel in all this either… I’ve said some mean things too.” The question becomes: Who’s going to go first? Who is willing to put her/his hurt and anger aside in order to acknowledge his/her part in what isn’t working?
Are you willing? Or will pride stand in the way?
Finally, you shouldn’t expect that your partner will immediately own up to his/her shortcomings once you’ve done so. This should not be your motive for taking responsibility, since this will always backfire and just lead to further relationship problems and misunderstandings. Own the wounding you’ve caused, not because you expect your partner to follow suit, but because your relationship will be stronger as a result.
When was the last time you gave your marriage or relationship a thorough checkup?
You are not alone if you never have and that is why I’ve created the Relationship Checkup For Couples. For more information about what this workbook can do for you, click Relationship Checkup.
Dr. Rich Nicastro