By Susan Winter Fledderus
I’ve been spending some time twice a week at a physiotherapy office, working on a muscle injury that hasn’t healed on its own. After several months of it not getting better by itself, I decided to do something about it. In addition to the work done by the physiotherapist, I have daily stretches and strengthening exercises to do on my own at home.
I was motivated, in part, by reading about the importance of dealing with injuries and inflammation in the body, and not letting them become chronic. I learned this too late for a shoulder injury from a pick-up soccer game about 10 years ago that still bugs me. It seemed too minor to get treatment for at the time, but I’m regretting that now. That nagging discomfort and annoying weakness has made me more determined to not let my current injury become chronic.
It got me thinking more about the relationship injuries that we experience as well. In our close relationships, we inevitably miss cues, forget something important to our partners, or otherwise hurt them. And inevitably, we also get hurt.
Some relationship injuries are relatively minor and are easily repaired with a tuned-in acknowledgement and apology. In the healthiest relationships, this happens quickly and easily, resulting in emotional safety and closeness being restored.
Other hurts, the bigger betrayals or abandonment injuries, or the chronic neglect that wears thin the relationship connection, don’t heal on their own.
And unaddressed acute relationship injuries can become chronic over time, just like physical ones. When a past injury of abandonment has not been fully repaired, every current experience that even lightly touches that area hurts. That’s why showing up 10 minutes late can sometimes evoke such a big angry response from a partner—it hurts them because it rubs the tender, painful unhealed underlying injury.
Similarly, patterns of repetitive minor injuries, when not addressed, also develop raw spots in relationships—chronic injuries that become more sensitive and reactive over time. If we learn that we can never count on our partner to be there for us on time, we begin to doubt their care for us and our importance to them, undermining the emotional connection and safety in the relationship.
In my work as a couple therapist, I sometimes have couples coming in to deal with acute injuries. Whether it is a family crisis that partners become divided over or a recently discovered affair, couples who quickly seek to address these relationship injuries have a great chance of not only healing the injury, but becoming stronger and less prone to future injuries.
I also have couples coming in reporting that they have been struggling for years. Often, as they work to settle the current distress and conflict, they uncover a previous injury or two that have never been fully addressed. By doing so in couple therapy, they work to heal the chronic “inflammation” in their relationship and recover their previous closeness and connection.
Dr. Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT) provides an effective treatment plan for doing this work. She outlines specific processes for addressing raw spots and for forgiving and repairing past injuries. For couples interested in pursuing this on their own, her book Hold Me Tight, and Hold Me Tight® workshops are excellent resources.
John Gottman, another expert on couple relationships, has found that couples tend to delay seeking help, waiting on average 6 years after noticing problems in their relationship before seeking therapy. That is a lot of time to be suffering a chronic relationship injury. And how much better might it have been for couples if they get treatment quickly—before any injury becomes chronic.
The good news is that research has shown EFT couple therapy—which treats both acute and chronic relationship issues—to be effective for couples about 75% of the time. For more reflections about success in couple therapy, and how to get the best chance for a positive outcome, check out this article about Couples Therapy from Psychology Today. Couple therapy, like physiotherapy, is effective for so many who are dealing with injuries.
I’ve been working with my physiotherapist and doing my exercises for just over two weeks, and I’m already seeing some significant improvement. And having success in dealing with my current injury is getting me motivated to see if there is still something I can do about my chronic one. Maybe I’ll ask my physiotherapist if he can work on my old shoulder injury too. It seems a shame to not get help for it when treatment is available.
Susan Winter Fledderus is a Clinical Therapist with Shalem Mental Health Network
“Hold Me Tight®” is a registered trademark to Sue Johnson.