Breaches of Trust in Critical Moments
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | May 3, 2021
Attachment injuries occur from abandonment and breaches of trust during critical emotional moments. We can heal. We can love again.
Relationships provide security, joy and purpose. They also contribute to distress and madness. Healthy intimate connections favorably provide joys that outweigh the struggles. Life is unpredictable. We may believe we discovered the secure base, the refuge from the trauma filled and unpredictable world, yet, occasionally, our trust can be shattered and souls injured. Those we trust the most may fail, abandoning us in critical moments. Many of these disastrous encounters are defined in psychology as attachment injuries. Attachment injuries hurt but can heal.
Attachment Injury occurs when a person perceives abandonment, betrayal, or breach of trust in a critical moment of need from a significant attachment figure.
Attachment Injury from Reoccurring Events
Some severe betrayals, such as sexual or emotional infidelity, wound attachment with a single and often fatal blow. However, serious violations of trust are not the only perils that weaken and destroy attachment bonds. Menacing negative interaction styles expose a partners lack of reliability. Small moments of abandonment prophesy that support and empathy during critical moments may not be available.
A partners inconsistent support, creates anxiety. The foundational trust that is necessary for security is missing. Neglectful pasts leaves important questions such as "will my partner be there for me?" unanswered. When partners routinely fail to support during critical moments, relationship trust is wounded and attachment injured.
See Emotional Intimacy for more on this topic
Attachment Injury and Emotional Trauma
Injuries to attachment have a powerful sting. When expected emotional support flounders, leaving one alone to process weighty emotions during key moments, the wound of abandonment cuts deep, leaving lasting damage. These emotional disturbances puncture our soul, spark incessant ruminations, and disrupt sleep.
Once gouged and bleeding, hopeful dreams of security are shattered against the bare walls of aloneness. Avoidance and numbing become welcome guests in these lonely halls. "Following traumatic abandonment, the injured partner may exhibit symptoms characteristic of posttraumatic stress disorder" (Makinen & Johnson. 2006, p. 1055).
Often, it is not the triggering event that creates the injury. We all occasionally make errors. The attachment injury occurs from an attachment figures' lack of presence following injury. The injured feel "helpless, isolated, and being caught in the experience (Gander, Buchheim, et. al., 2020 p. 84).
Attachment injuries often result from a duel attack on trust; the offender triggers the emotions, then pulls back, displaying lack of compassion, seemingly uncaring about the injury or the need to repair the bond. The injured stumble into devastating storms of heighted arousal alone. Fear of abandonment and rejection swirl and smash their stability. While the person trusted to protect and comfort remains curiously and callously emotionally absent.
Children subject to these injurious exposures "might be particularly challenged to develop feelings of self-coherence, self-continuity, and relatedness to others" (Luyten and Fonagy, 2019). Memories of pain color future adult relationships.
See Memories and Emotions for more on this topic
Attachment theory emphasizes the human need to belong. We have a drive to make and maintain affectional bonds with significant others. Judy A. Makinen and Susan M. Johnson explain in a 2006 paper that a secure attachment in couples is "an active, affectionate, reciprocal relationship in which partners derive and provide closeness, comfort, and security" (p. 1055).
Attachment bonds create "a profound psychological and physiological interdependence" (Makinen and Johnson, 2006). Damaging events to these attachments have a frightful impact on our well being.
See Belongingness for more on this topic
John Bowlby wrote that "a feature of attachment behaviour... is the intensity of the emotion that accompanies it..." Bowlby continues to explain that if the attachment goes well, "there is joy and a sense of security. If it is threatened, there is jealousy, anxiety, and anger. If broken, there is grief and depression" (1988, location 136).
Attachments heighten both positive and negative emotions.
Healing from Attachment Injuries
Dr. Susan Johnson, a clinical psychologist and distinguished research professor at Alliant International University in San Diego wrote, "the only way out of these attachment injuries is to confront them and heal them together. Preferably immediately" (2008, location 2206).
Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) identifies key markers essential for measuring progress during therapy. These key markers are presented in the attachment injury resolution model.
Attachment Injury Resolution Model
Attachment Injury Marker
Differentiation of Effect
Forgiveness and Reconciliation
The Attachment Injury Resolution Model, like all models, has limitations. Steps overlap with fuzzy boundaries, growth vacillates back and forth, and misdiagnosis of behaviors and thoughts dirty assessments.
Models serve a purpose, giving therapists and researchers a measuring stick to assess and provide better treatments. Those outside the professional field can also find some guidance and help from well researched and designed models.
Ultimately, the goal of healing the injury is to open the wounded heart so it can love again. The cautious movement back into interdependence isn't an easy step. We remember pain vividly. The memories of the hurt live on both in conscious memories and implicit emotional coding.
See Good Dependence; Bad Dependence for more on this topic
Trudy Govier explains in her wonderful book on trust that, "what is changed after forgiveness is not the facts or the memory of the facts, but the emotional tone of the memory, which no longer arouses anger, hatred, resentment, or a desire for revenge" (1998, p. 186). We want attachment injuries to provide wisdom and protect against repeated abuses; however, we do not want painful memories to haunt and destroy possibilities of new and wonderful attachments.
Govier continues, "after forgiveness, the past and its injuries remain, but we do not feel about them in the same way; we are no longer angry and resentful and have lost any inclination to cultivate hatred or seek out revenge" (p. 186).
"It’s the most beautiful thing in the world to see someone come back from a place of fear, distrust, and isolation to a place of trust, connection, and self-empowerment!"
We Can Heal
Beyond the insightful research on this painful topic is the reassuring message that attachment injuries can heal. We can love and be loved again. Sometimes this is achieved within the same relationships; other times in the supportive arms of someone else.
I'm no stranger to relationship pain. I also know the warmth and joys of intimacy following the numbing blows of emotional abandonment. As long as there is trust, interdependent relationships, and free agency, hurt is a real possibility. We should understand the risk, work to build autonomous foundations, and then, enjoy the beauty of connection.
Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Basic Books; Reprint edition
Gander, M., Buchheim, A., Bock, A., Steppan, M., Sevecke, K., & Goth, K. (2020). Unresolved Attachment Mediates the Relationship Between Childhood Trauma and Impaired Personality Functioning in Adolescence. Journal of Personality Disorders, 34(SupplementB), 84-103.
Govier, T. (1998) Dilemmas of Trust. McGill-Queen's University Press; 1st edition
Johnson, S. (2008) Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Little, Brown Spark; 1st edition
Luyten, P., Fonagy, P. (2019). Mentalizing and Trauma. In A. Bateman & P. Fonagy (Eds.), Handbook of Mentalizing in Mental Health Practice.
Makinen, J., & Johnson, S. (2006). Resolving Attachment Injuries in Couples Using Emotionally Focused Therapy: Steps Toward Forgiveness and Reconciliation. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(6), 1055-1064.