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  • Writer's picturesenja foster

The Attachment Wound

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

Experiencing a broken heart is a part of a person’s life journey and we experience it in many ways: caregivers can break a child’s heart when they don’t provide consistent emotional safety; friends might feel it when there is disappointment or abandonment; we sometimes experience empathetic mirroring when we observe the pain of another’s broken heart; and of course lovers, partners, and spouses can inspire the deepest of emotional wounds when a relationship comes to an end.

Lately, many of my clients seem to be experiencing break-ups or divorce and our conversations are centered on the shared experience of how to recover from the pain of a relationship’s ending. Fundamentally, heartbreak is the emotional and physical manifestation of the loss of a dream that is primal within all of us: to be cared for, accepted, loved, and protected.

The healing process from a breakup requires understanding and non-judgment of the emotions we experience, how we understand ourselves in the context of our strengths and challenges, increasing self-awareness and self-acceptance, learning about the patterns that didn’t serve the relationship, learning how to share who we are with others in a new way, finding trust again, and building up and receiving support from our communities. I realize that’s a lot to ask of someone who’s currently in a tremendous amount of pain.

The reality of relationship loss is the breaking of a sacred bond formed with our partner: it creates an internal war between our longing and core need for attachment, and, the stark reality that the attachment is broken. The result is that our emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual systems are traumatized and become unbalanced. We’re expected by our families, friends, coworkers, social groups and even ourselves, to quickly process this overloaded imbalance, heal our pain, and bounce back. We’re expected to do all this while simultaneously 'adulting' by taking care of ourselves, our children, and our life responsibilities--all at the fast pace of modern culture so we can “get over it.” Ouch.

Before we begin down a road of discovery towards increased self-awareness, healing, and empowerment, it’s important to take a breath and acknowledge the chapter that is now coming to a place of transformation and change, however much that change is either wanted or unwanted. We begin our unions with loving hopes, dreams, plans, and expectations. From our work colleagues to our friends, parents, children, and partners, we enter each relationship knowing at some level within us, it will end at some point down the road. One of the most beautiful aspects of the human condition is our willingness to be brave enough to bond with another person while holding the awareness we will lose them one day. Our consistent willingness to connect with another person demonstrates that the mental, emotional, and physical need to feel and give love is far greater than the pain of loss.

Oscar Wilde described this in his short story, The Nightingale and the Rose, in which a nightingale is so moved by a young man’s longing for his lover, the nightingale is willing to give her song and her life for the experience of love, even if only for a moment. While we don’t go to such extremes (please don’t), I imagine at times each of us has communicated or behaved in a way that felt like desperation, hopelessness, rage, grief, or fear in order to recapture the feeling we get from our partner when we feel cared for, valued, and loved. No one enters a marriage yelling or avoiding conversations when things get tense; in fact, when relationships get to this level of inflammation, the way we communicate when we don’t feel loved or nurtured has roots that extend far back before we ever met our partner.

We each perceive the attachment to our partner in a way that is unique to us and formed by our experiences growing up. Our families teach us what it means to communicate with and behave towards others, how we manage stress, how we contribute, how we ask for help, what we can expect from others, and what our roles are.

While we’re figuring this out, our caregivers also model for us how all of this takes place between two committed people. As we develop and begin to form our sense of self, we observe and take everything in like a sponge. What we observe in our caregivers becomes a critical component to our self-esteem, our confidence, whether we feel good enough, loveable, damaged, valued, and whether our beliefs, needs, values and wants are important to the people we care about.

Please consider this: a broken heart is not life, it is a life situation. As you process your relationship and unpack what is ending, think about the following questions. If you can see on paper some of the ways the patterns between you developed, it can help clarify your part in the break-up and the issues that were never yours to shoulder.

· What are some of your beliefs about how people should communicate and behave in a partnered relationship? (Think of the roles, duties, and responsibilities of both yourself and your partner)

· Think of how you each expressed yourself sexually, was it in harmony with how you see yourself? Was it in alignment with your beliefs about intimacy between partners?

· What was your relationship like? What were the pros and the cons when you think about how you communicated as well as how you behaved towards each other in both the good times and the bad?

· If you have a religious or spiritual faith, how does it define what a relationship is supposed to be? How does it view divorce?

· Take a moment and list the conflicts that happened between you and your partner. These are situations such as affairs, substance abuse, mental health, physical health, jealousy, addictions, etc. Consider your parents, grandparents, other family members: do you recognize similar events?

How we form an attachment bond to another human being is at the very heart and beginning of our experience when we enter this world and the attachment wounds we incur along the way can certainly bring us to our knees. How we heal from these wounds and nurture our heart allows us the grace and dignity of our emotional growth and informs our wisdom about how priceless our hearts truly are. I feel Rumi said it best: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.”

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