Healing Attachment Injuries in Marriage
Disclaimer: This blog post is a bit longer than usual because of the importance of this topic! If you make it to the end of the post, you will find it well worth your time.
The Honeymoon Period in Marriage
Most romances start out with a honeymoon period which lasts anywhere between “a few months to two years” (1). This is the period of time when couples feel a deep connection and mainly think positively about one another and the shared romantic connection. Sure, there are tough moments, but the positive experiences and loving emotions outweigh the negative. Because of this, the tough times don’t last long and the bond can be repaired without a tremendous amount of effort.
Neurologists have found that endorphins are released in the brain during the honeymoon phase due to the experience of emotional closeness and the novelty of new experiences together (1). This period of time serves the purpose of building a strong foundation of connection for the couple. After the “honeymoon wears off”, the couple finds themselves not as forgiving or resilient after an argument or a relational disconnect. The tough times bring more distance to the relationship until the couple finds themselves in negative sentiment override (NSO) rather than positive sentiment override (PSO) (2). The Gottman Approach describes negative sentiment override as “residual emotions from every interaction (e.g., words, gestures, facial expression, or body language) accumulate[ing] over time, becoming a new dimension of the relationship that derails the objectivity of the current interactions” (2). It is common to feel defeated, overwhelmed and confused when this happens and NSO takes over. Partners may find themselves asking questions like, “Where did my husband/wife go and who is this person left in their place? What happened to the love we once felt and the bond we once shared? Have we fallen out of love? Did I marry the wrong person? Are we incompatible? Are our differences irreconcilable? Will we ever be happy again or should we just get divorced?”
In his book, Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas (3) details the concept that marriage is about much more than just romantic feelings. He posits in the book that marriage has a much greater purpose of producing character and maturity in each individual. In summary, the bond of the honeymoon period provides a strong foundation for the proverbial storms that will inevitably hit the marital relationship. When the storms/difficulties arise, it doesn’t have to be shocking or unexpected! All marriages experience their own unique and complicated set of storms. Thomas quips that we need not explain our marriage as being “difficult” because all marriages are. We can simply say that we are married and other married individuals will understand the depth of the complexity. Of course, some difficulties are more intense or painful than others especially when addiction or mental illness is present. However, all couples face hardships. In order for relationships to survive, the complexities must be overcome.
A strong connection between spouses is called an attachment bond. Part 1 of this blog series describes in detail the attachment bond in marriage. In any relationship where this type of bond exists, there is an opportunity for that bond to be wounded. According to Hart and Morris (4), “strangers don’t cause attachment wounds because there is no bond to threaten.” Types of attachment injuries vary from important times in life when your spouse wasn’t “there for you” (i.e., missing an important event or failing to empathize during a time of grief) to times when your spouse did something that was hurtful and damaging to the relationship (i.e., extramarital affairs or lying to cover an addiction). “Attachment wounds change the way partners view one another, their relationship, and their future together” (4). This is why, over time, the once starry-eyed soulmates become strangers or business partners living in the same home and feeling completely isolated and distant from one another.
Healing Attachment Injuries in Marriage
Attachment “injuries need to be dealt with quickly and decisively” (4). When these wounds aren’t dealt with, they become like landmines resurfacing over and over again in the life of the marriage (4). It is all too common for clients in marital therapy to mention how overwhelmed they are with past hurts remaining unresolved. The offending partner would love to just move on, start new, and forget the past, while the offended partner is traumatized by the unresolved damage done to the relationship by their spouse. The pillars of trust and commitment have been eroded due to lack of repair.
It is vital that couples learn ways to work through, heal, and grow from painful experiences in marriage. The goal is to grow together and deepen the connection so both individuals can live out a fulfilling life together for many more decades. A wide variety of marriage therapies focus on attachment injury repair. These therapies include but are not limited to: Emotionally Focused Therapy (Dr. Sue Johnson), The Gottman Method (Drs. John and Julie Gottman), Restoration Therapy (Terry Hargrave) and the Life Model/Thrive Training (Dr. James Wilder/Chris and Jen Coursey). While I have been trained and put to use all of these therapies in my counseling with couples, I find the Life Model/Thrive Training to be especially effective for breakthroughs in terms of healing attachment injuries.
There are so many helpful ideas for repairing and building strong bonds in the Life Model/Thrive Training, but for sake of brevity, I will break down one of those concepts called main pain/main heart characteristics. Coursey teaches this concept in his book Transforming Fellowship. He explains that “pain that is not fully processed stays with us the rest of our lives, [but] there is more going on [within a person] than the pain [they] feel” (5). The notion is that, within each of us, there is a true identity versus a wounded identity. Our true identity is rooted in loving, compassionate, courageous, and selfless ways of being, while our wounded identity is self-protective which comes across harsh and selfish. The goal in a marriage relationship is to see your spouse through the lens of their true identity even when they are not acting like their best self.
We can do this when we realize that the pain is causing our spouse to act outside of their true identity. A firm encouragement or loving confrontation, when spoken skillfully and through a true heart of seeing the best in our spouse, can bring our partner back to their truest sense of self and do much to repair the bond. While this seems like a simple concept, the execution of this experience is not simple. I talk with couples about the idea of putting their own emotional response on hold, and “toggling,” or pendulating, into the emotional world of their spouse in order to speak identity to them. Once that happens, the partners can restore the bond and work through the conflict in a way that brings resolve and satisfaction. This type of interaction can only be done when a certain level of maturity is present or a dependency on God exists to aid in the presence of maturity gaps. You can read more about maturity and maturity gaps in one of my previous blog series entitled Psychological Maturity: Part 1, 2 and 3.
Mature Love in Marriage
Thomas states that “any mature, spiritually sensitive view of marriage must be built on the foundation of mature love rather than romanticism” (3). There is a place for the rush of excitement in the beginning stages of a relationship as it builds a strength of foundation for the storms to come. Mature marital love is founded on an ability and willingness to do the following:
- Love someone else as much as you love yourself – Mark 12:31 (6).
- Esteem yourself so that another can love and esteem you (7).
- Intentionally learn and practice skills to apply to the complexities of your specific marriage relationship.
These three concepts are simple, yet depending on your unique life experiences, there are a variety of complications that arise. I often tell couples in counseling that if both of them are willing to do whatever it takes, they can make their marriage work! It definitely takes a lot of intentional effort, but it is well worth it, not just because of the long-term connection with a trusted other, but also because of the maturity and depth developed for each individual. We become stronger as we allow ourselves to grow through adversity. Those who take these opportunities find that this is truly what life is all about.
Our practice offers customized marriage intensives and a Marriage Attachment Healing Conference for couples who wish to begin learning and practicing attachment healing skills in a more intensive format. Find out more about the upcoming Marriage Attachment Healing Conference (February 11 and 12, 2022) here. Finally, be sure to return for my final blog post in this series entitled, The Marital Bond, Part 3: A Perspective on Healthy Sexual Intimacy.
- Tessina, T. B. (2018). Dr. Romance’s Guide to Finding Love Today. Muffinhaven Press.
- Rajendrakumar, Jinashree. (2022. Jan). “Blame, Resentment and Negative Sentiment Override.” Retrieved from: https://www.gottman.com/blog/blame-resentment-and-negative-sentiment-override/.
- Thomas, Gary. (2000). Sacred Marriage. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
- Hart, A.D., Hart Morris, S. (2003). Safe Haven Marriage. Nashville: W Publishing Group.
- Coursey, C. M. (2016). Transforming Fellowship: 19 Brain Skills That Build Joyful Community. East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House, Inc.
- Christian Standard Bible. (2017). Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers.
- Mellody, Pia. (2003). The Intimacy Factor. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.