Hans Beihl, Ph.D., Registered Psychologist #0972
When couples come for counseling, often one partner will start to talk about past hurts in the relationship in which the other partner failed to be supportive in a time of emotional need. The other partner will often feel blamed and question what the point is of dredging up past hurts again and again, since those events had happened long ago, and nothing can be done to change the past.
The puzzlement and frustration of the partner who feels blamed is understandable. It is true that the past cannot be changed and that merely rehashing the old event and arguing about what “really” happened is not constructive. It is also true that blaming never helps bring two people closer together. So what is the point of talking about past hurts in therapy? Why is it so important? In what follows, I will try to explain. I will begin by first presenting a scenario involving two friends.
Alice and Maggie were very close friends. They often confided in each other. They enjoyed doing things together. They trusted each other. They both also worked in the same office. One day a promotion opportunity came along, and both applied for the new position. Maggie ended up being promoted. Alice not only did not get the position, but she was fired from her job on the very same day Maggie was promoted. Not long after Alice learned that Maggie had revealed to management a secret that Alice had told her. Ten years ago, while working for another company, Alice had stolen a laptop. Her employer fired her. She was young and foolish in those days. She had deeply regretted what she had done, and vowed to turn her life around. In the years that followed she rebuilt her reputation. She became a respected and valued employee at the company where she and Maggie worked—until Maggie stabbed her in the back.
Alice was extremely angry and hurt that Maggie had broken their trust, and the two stopped communicating. Alice wanted nothing more to do with her, and even two years later the mere sound of Maggie’s name would bring on a painful twisting knot inside Alice.
What is needed for Alice to let go of her deep hurt and trust Maggie again? What would it take to repair their relationship? Or is it broken forever?
Several years later Maggie knocked on Alice’s door. She pleaded with Alice, “Please, before you slam the door on me, I need to tell you something.” Maggie poured out her feelings, telling Alice how awful she has felt for years about what she had done. As she talked, tears rolled down her face. She told Alice that not a day went by that she did not think about the damage she caused. She told Alice that she had been too ashamed to come to her because she felt like a traitor. As Maggie talked, Alice could really sense that Maggie deeply understood the hurt she had caused Alice. It was not just words coming out of Maggie’s mouth. What moved Alice the most was Maggie’s sincere emotional expression of remorse. As Maggie opened up her heart, Alice sensed that Maggie truly felt her hurt. And only then was Alice able to start letting go of the hurt. Only then could Alice start to feel that maybe she could trust Maggie again.
So let’s get back to the couple who comes for therapy. When one partner starts to talk about a past emotional injury, he or she is talking about a wound that will not heal on its own. If left unrepaired, the wound stands in the way of closeness. It gets in the way of your ability to trust your partner. It gets in the way of making yourself vulnerable and believing that you can really depend on your partner.
If your partner has never shown that he or she deeply feels your emotional pain, the pain will remain alive. No logical conversation will fix the hurt. There needs to be an emotional repair of what happened. In order to heal the wound, you need to be able to feel that your partner really cares and feels the hurt that was caused. You may need to open your own heart and share your pain to help your partner understand the impact of the hurt. It is only when your partner is able to communicate how deeply sorry he or she is for what was said or done, that you can start to let go of the hurt, and trust again. Only then can you begin to believe that your partner will be there for you in the future. Only then can your emotional injury begin to heal, and the way toward renewed closeness be opened.
Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) with its emphasis on how partners experience each other emotionally is particularly suited for helping couples to work through emotional injuries so that they can enjoy closeness in their relationship again.