Attachment Injuries Revisited

Posted on May 11, 2020


My wife and I were recently listening to an audiobook that was a biography of Paul Simon.  Since I can’t help but see relationships from a therapist’s viewpoint, I couldn’t help but reflect on the ongoing rift in the relationship between Paul and Art Garfunkel.  Before I go down that path, let me define my terms.

When working on relationships in therapy, we often work at healing attachment injuries.  Attachment injuries are those events that created points of pain in the relationship.  They are the things that make one say, “I can never trust you with my heart again” or “I will never let you hurt me like that again.”  Sometimes those attachment injuries come from big things like an affair.  Sometimes they are from more seemingly minor things.  It could be as simple as, “I asked you not to share something that was just between us and you told your friend.”  The impact is not based upon any absolute scale, but rather by whatever the impact was to the partner who felt they had been hurt.

The most obvious way to tell that something is an attachment injury that has not healed is that it keeps coming up when you have an argument.  If there was something that you did 10 years ago and whenever you have a disagreement, it comes back up, it’s probably an attachment injury.

Let’s take Paul & Artie for example.  Back when they were in high school, they had a brief recording career as “Tom & Jerry.”  There manager or producer suggests that Paul (“Jerry Landis”) make his own record.  Paul does.  He keeps this from Artie until it is discovered when the record is released.  They have an argument.  They later patch it up.

Twenty five years later (in their 40’s), they are doing a Simon and Garfunkel reunion tour and working on a new album together.  Artie is making it clear that we are not okay and finally jumps on Paul for the betrayal back in high school.  Paul defends, saying, “We were kids.”  The tour implodes and the album becomes a Paul Simon solo album (i.e. Hearts and Bones) without Artie.

A therapist hears that and thinks, “Attachment injury.  Artie has never healed from this.  He probably feels that Paul has never understood his pain and cared about how he felt betrayed.”  They can get along fine until something triggers that old wound.  A frequent bi-product of the attachment injury also is that for the injured party, “You have no room to complain about anything I do after what you did.”

So how do you heal from this?

The short answer is that the partner who feels they have been injured needs to experience empathy, compassion, understanding, and remorse from the betraying partner.  When I say betraying partner, if that is you, it doesn’t matter if you saw the incident as a violation of love and trust, it matters what it means to your partner.  This isn’t about falling on your sword, but about caring about your partner’s experience.

For the partner that has been injured, there are also things you can do to help with the healing.  First, we don’t repay evil for evil (Rom 12:17).  You may have been hurt, but trying to hurt your partner back or make his or her life miserable is not going to get you the healing you want.  Second, avoid criticism and contempt.  Criticizing your partner is not going to cause your partner to repent of whatever he or she did that wounded you so badly.  Third, what you can do is express your hurt and what this incident meant to you.

For the betraying partner, whether or not your partner expresses their pain constructively, you can still be the healer.  You want to avoid defensiveness, minimizing, and shame.  Defensiveness and minimizing will leave your partner feeling that their feelings have been invalidated and dismissed.  Shame will leave you each feeling alone in your pain.  Remember this is not about you being “bad,” it’s about your partner’s pain.  You love him or her, right?  You care when your partner is hurting, right?  Don’t make it about you.

The answer lies in empathy, compassion, and understanding.  Empathy requires that you get what it was like for your partner, you care about your partner’s feelings, and that your partner has the experience that you get it and you care.

This does require a reasonably strong sense of self.  If you are confident that you are acceptable, as you are, warts and all, it is easier to hear that you did something that wounded your partner without feeling crushed by feelings of shame.  Often defensiveness is a coping strategy when our sense of self feels threatened.  If accepting that I might have been at fault is too painful, I have to defend.

Another possible obstacle could be if you learned that admitting you were wrong is a sign of weakness.  This can be particularly potent if you grew up in a family where an unspoken rule was “never apologize or admit fault.”  I would submit to you that being able to apologize from a position of empathy is a very powerful relationship tool.  You can still have boundaries and needs in the relationship even if you have made mistakes.

Finally, perhaps you and your partner have a different understanding of the facts or you really did not do anything wrong.  Having empathy for your partner’s reality does not require that you abandon your own.  The mission is not to arrive at an agreed upon version of the facts, but to acknowledge and care about your partner’s experience.  If you approach this from a position of caring and understanding, you can create enough space to share your experience.  If you lead with your version of events, it will probably land as defensiveness.

If I can rewrite the script for Paul and Artie, it might start something more like this.

Artie: Paul, I keep having thoughts of when we were teenagers and you made the record without me and hid it from me when we were supposed to be a team.

Paul: Artie, that still really hurts after all these years, doesn’t it?  We were supposed to be a team, and I did do that behind your back.  I don’t know that I ever really apologized at the time.  I’m sorry I did that to you.  Are you feeling like that is undermining the trust in our relationship?…


That is the kind of conversation that leads to relationship healing.