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Couples and attachment are the subject of the research of Dr. John Bowlby, MD, and Sue Johnson, PhD.

Dr. John Bowlby, an English psychiatrist, pioneered research into the importance of secure attachment between mother or primary caregiver and baby. Dr. Sue Johnson has extended these ideas to love relationships between couples. She describes couples and attachment as critical to the success of a relationship. Securely attached couples can answer these two questions in the affirmative:

Do you have my back?

Can I count on you and trust you?

Facing a Trauma Together or Alone

When these questions cannot be answered positively the relationship will encounter difficulties. A significant event such as a betrayal, a lie or an emotional or physical affair are termed relationship traumas.

Sue Johnson outlines a number of steps that can be used to bring the relationship back to a secure bond. It is important to realize that the event that causes the trauma need not be one of the magnitude of an affair.

In Dr. Johnson’s book “Hold Me Tight” she describes a situation where the wife has come home after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Instead of holding and comforting her, her husband goes upstairs alone. At such a difficult moment she feels alone and abandoned. In therapy, they explore this moment and discover that he went upstairs to avoid breaking down in front of his wife.

Many people feel that relationship injuries will go away with time. However, unresolved traumas do not heal. “The helplessness and fear they engendered almost indelible: they set off our survival instincts.” (Sue Johnson chapter 7)

Six Steps to Forgiveness (a summary for chapter 7 of Sue Johnson’s “Hold me Tight”.)

  1. The hurt partner has to speak his or her pain as plainly and clearly as possible. It is best to focus on feelings, shattered hopes or dreams rather than facts.

2. The injuring partner stays emotionally present and acknowledges the wounded partner’s pain. The partner tries to enter the world of the hurt person.

3. Partners can begin to rewrite their script. The injured partner can begin to move away from their feelings such as “I can never trust or believe again.”

4. Injuring partners now take ownership of how they inflicted the injury on their lover and express true remorse.

5. Injured partners can express their needs going forward. In this way, their partner can learn how to behave differently in the future.

6. The couple can move forward with new understanding. The relationship trauma can be woven into a new tapestry of the relationship. The couple can thus feel that they have come through this trauma together.

Trust and Commitment

In Dr. John Gottman’s research on couples, he describes a number of components necessary for a couple’s success in their relationship. These are highlighted in “The Sound Relationship House” The walls of the house are Trust and Commitment. It is trust and commitment that are lost in relationship traumas.

In another blog post I will share some examples of successfully mending attachment injuries in couples I’ve worked with.

Suggested readings:

Hold me Tight – Dr. Sue Johnson.

Seven Principles to Make Marriage Work – Dr. John Gottman

What Makes Love Last – Dr. John Gottman