Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

When Your Partner Wasn't There For You

November 17, 2002

One vital dimension of marriage is that it provides the sense of security we need to face the major problems of life. It is like having someone in your corner when life gets overwhelming - someone you can turn to for comfort and support.

The quality of marriage in today’s society is becoming magnified because of the loss of community and family supports. Being lonely and alone is more dangerous to mortality than smoking. A dependable source of intimacy is an essential buffer for dealing with stress and trauma.

People count on their spouse to care, soothe and comfort them, especially during times of crisis. It is part of the bargain of marriage. Even if there are differences and conflicts in a marriage, what makes the relationship secure is the ability of the couple to stay connected emotionally and to be able to retreat to one another’s arms for comfort and care.

Attachment bond violation. What happens if this secure bond is violated in a way that a spouse is left alone when he or she is most helpless and desperate? The violation is experienced as a betrayal of trust or abandonment at crucial moment of need. An injury has been inflicted. It is a wound to their marital bond.

These times of crisis are different for different people. It could be a time of financial ruin, job loss, physical danger, physical illness, birth, death, or miscarriage. The worst example however is infidelity. Instead of being a safe haven for comfort, the offending spouse becomes a source of fear and danger.

"You weren’t there for me. You left me alone. My hurt didn’t matter to you. You didn’t care. Never again will you do that to me."

Educational Psychologist Susan Johnson of Ottawa, Canada, recently published a book, "Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy with Trauma Survivors," which deals with this problem. She says the abandonment or betrayal is seen as a defining moment in the lack of dependability of the offending partner. Tragically, at a time of great vulnerability and when presence and comfort was most essential, their partner was missing in action - or in the case of an affair or money fraud, the one delivering blows instead of comfort.

In some cases, this last traumatic episode becomes the symbolic loss of trust that accumulated because of a repeated history of similar letdowns.

No resolution. If apologies or reassurances are given, they aren’t good enough or they are not believed. The injured spouse can’t let it go. The traumatic incident takes on a disproportionate influence on their relationship from that time forward. Reminders of the traumatic event trigger emotion with fresh and renewed intensity. Sometimes the wounded partner retreats into a state of being numb and shuts down.

If the offending spouse responds to the hurt by discounting, denying, dismissing or simply not "getting it", it is a double wound. This intense defensive reaction is extremely provocative to the injured partner. Repeated conversations about the "event" confirm the inner experience of disappointment and hopelessness for each partner.

The offending event becomes the subject of constant bickering, hostility and a part of an inflexible attack/defend cycle of the "here we go again" variety. The aversive interactions between them cause marital partners to withdraw into despair, alienation and aching loneliness. Even if the hurtful event is not openly discussed, it is still there producing tension and emotional isolation.

Resolving relationship injuries. The antidote to violations of the security and safety of the relationship is a willingness to take a risk to confide one’s inner hurt and to have it received compassionately and non-defensively.

The offending spouse needs to be strong enough to emerge from his or her state of withdrawal or defensiveness and become engaged and then stay engaged while their injured partner describes the impact of the offence and its significance.

Confiding in each other. As he or she is being truly listened to, the injured partner’s anger often evolves into hurt, helplessness, fear and shame. The hurt partner shares grief at the loss of connection and trust the offence caused. By really listening and understanding their partner’s pain, it helps the offender truly connect and empathize with the harm that was caused.

The offending partner needs to takes responsibility for the event, and acknowledges the pain and hurt he or she caused, expressing concern, sorrow, remorse and regret along with promises of the future safety of the relationship. This is followed by an expression of his or her own grief and loss in the relationship since their bond was weakened. The process of mutual confiding with emotional openness and intensity pulls each other back into the relationship.

Physical closeness. Confiding to each other needs to be accompanied by touch, affection and physically holding each other. Both partners take emotional risks in either reaching out compassionately or by asking for comfort, reassurance and caring. The caring way this is done acts as an antidote for the lack of comfort in the original incident.

It is a beautiful, sacred moment when couples reaffirm their commitment to stand by each other again. It is like a marriage vow being said again with two broken hearts coming together truly knowing what it now means to be loyal and trustworthy. They now have a rekindled hope that they can find comfort in the shelter of each other’s arms.