Sometimes in marriage counseling we encounter couples that overcome their demon dialogues, create a new dance of intimacy, and rewrite the story of their relationship. Yet, just when it appears they will move to a deeper level of connection one partner brings up a seminal incident that they just can’t seem to “let go”. Susan Johnson describes these hard to let go moments as “relationship traumas” and states that many times they include one partner feeling a profound sense of abandonment. It may include an overwhelmed husband isolating in his bedroom just after learning about his wife’s cancer diagnosis. Or maybe it involved a wife’s difficulty in showing empathy for the death of her husbands father.
Susan Johnson offers six steps to forgiveness in these difficult situations
The hurt partner speaks his/her hurt
The hurt partner describes the wound without attacking the other. The partner may use words like “I felt…alone, abandoned”. This communication is not about the details of the incident but the feelings and experience of the one hurt. The pain, which in the past had been covered with anger and criticism, is now revealed in honesty and vulnerability.
The injuring partner is present and acknowledges the hurt
The injuring partner remains emotionally present as the hurt partner shares their experience. The injuring partner now more fully understands how their actions hurt the other. This new understanding leads to an acknowledgment of hurt and creates the safety needed to move forward.
Partners Risk Vulnerability
Both partners soften towards the other moving from the defensiveness of “you will never hurt me again” to “I think I can trust you now”. The new position of trust and openness allows for both partners to express emotion surrounding the incident leading to deeper understanding and connection.
Injuring partners take ownership of their mistake
The injuring partner is now able to take full responsibility for how their actions impacted the hurting partner. This probably includes a heartfelt apology. The injuring partner is able to communicate deep regret, empathy, validation, and a commitment to “being there” in the future.
Partners discuss their needs now
The next step is for partners to communicate with one another what they need in the present. This will most likely include presence, touch, responsiveness, awareness, and connection.
The new story
The couple is now ready to create a new story surrounding the incident. The new story describes how the incident damaged trust in the relationship. It also highlights what led to the demon dialogues. But, the resolution of the story is shaped by how the couple confronted the pain of the incident and was able to heal through the process of openness, vulnerability, risk, and connection.