Sometimes in a moment of feeling rejected, unseen or treated unfairly by our partners, we make a silent vow: “Never again.”
Never again will I allow myself to be so vulnerable.
Never again will I depend on you.
Never again will I let you so close to my heart.
Our vows may be barely at the edge of awareness. We may not use the exact words “Never again” but whatever form the vow takes, we draw a line in the sand. Seeking self-protection, we make a pact with ourselves. We cope with disappointment or feeling abandoned by mentally going away.
But we don’t tell our partners. And we may not realize the power of our decision until months or years later.
To be clear, I am not talking about relationships in which you are the recipient of destructive behavior such as emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. In relationships like that, vowing “Never again” is a sign of health. You need to make sure the abuse stops, either by the other person addressing their unhealthy patterns or by you leaving the relationship.
In my 25 years doing couples counseling, I have seen the power of “Never again” many times. A couple enters therapy with one or both partners checked out. Fights go unresolved. Passion has left the relationship. They turn away from each other, no longer a team.
Of course, many things can cause partners to turn away from each other. But sometimes as we explore the relationship in counseling one partner, at first hesitantly then perhaps tearfully, will bring up an event from years ago.
“Eight years ago my doctor thought I might have cancer,” one person recalls. “I was so afraid for weeks as they did test after test. But you seemed preoccupied with work.”
Another remembers, “My parents died within three months of each other. I felt so alone. But you seemed too busy to comfort me.”
A couple has a second child and the husband seems distant, not sharing the joy or the work, unlike he did with the firstborn. His wife feels confused and abandoned.
A woman has a miscarriage but her partner doesn’t want to talk about it, telling her it’s better to move on. She feels alone in her grief.
One partner’s job is suddenly in jeopardy. He wants support and encouragement but his partner seems critical and worried about money. He feels that nobody has his back.
Such events can trigger deep attachment wounds. We feel alone, misunderstood and afraid. We wonder: Why aren’t you there for me? Can I depend on you? Do I matter to you? Do you really love me?
We begin to view our partners differently. We may trust less. We notice the times they aren’t there for us more than the times they are.
Sometimes we try to communicate our feelings to our partners. But maybe they don’t understand or can’t hear us, so we give up. Other times, not a word is said. We hedge our bets, becoming less invested in the relationship.
Often in counseling when a partner communicates the pain from a long-ago hurt, we discover that the other partner had little or no idea of the depth of the wound.
The first step to turning around a “Never again” vow is to communicate with your partner. Explain what happened, what you felt and what you concluded.
This may be difficult. If you armored yourself after being hurt, opening up may lead you to feel vulnerable. But “Never-again” vows can undermine the foundation of your relationship. The fallout from such attachment wounds generally doesn’t just go away or get better on its own.
If you are telling your partner about an event that changed how you view the relationship, share as openly as you can. Your partner may initially seem surprised or even defensive, but let your partner know that you are speaking up to try to improve the relationship, not to make it worse. Also leave an opening for your partner to talk about what was going on in his or her life at the time.
If your partner is the one telling you about a past incident that hurt them, recognize how hard it may be for them to bring it up. If you notice yourself getting defensive, say that, and then try to remain open. Their speaking up can be seen as an effort to improve the relationship, not as an attack on you.
Honest communication can bring life back to your relationship. If needed, seek the help of a qualified therapist.
Communicating can reset your view of your partner, which may have become negatively biased over time. Exploring what happened can offer lessons on what each of you can do better next time. Healing can soften a “Never again” and open the door to “Let’s try again.”
Note: This blog is an updated version of a blog originally posted on my Narcissism Decoded site in 2017.
Copyright © Dan Neuharth PhD MFT