Raw spots. Those annoying sores that take extra time to heal because you keep bumping them, catching them on something, or worse, picking at them. As a result, these wounds that should have healed quickly and easily, continue to be rubbed raw, left painful and bleeding and taking forever to resolve.
The Past Informs the Present
Just like physical raw spots, we have emotional raw spots too. When our emotional raw spots get rubbed or poked, they can result in friction and pain in our relationships.
Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotion Focused Therapy for couples, defines raw spots as the “hypersensitivity formed by moments in a person’s past or current relationship when an attachment need has been repeatedly neglected, ignored, or dismissed, resulting in a person’s feeling [of being] emotionally deprived or deserted” (1). The following are two examples:
John used to stay out late drinking at night ignoring Jan’s texts and calls. Even after being sober for two years, Jan’s emotional raw spot of feeling deserted triggers her into panic if John doesn’t respond quickly to her texts or is late after work. This causes her to lash out with accusations, triggering John’s own raw spot of feeling like a failure.
Marty is a soft-spoken man, like his dad, but his mom was verbally abusive and angry. Now, when his wife raises her voice at him, he feels deprived of love and respect, causing him to shut down and withdraw. This in turn causes Mary to feel deserted and she lashes out even more in order to gain a response.
The Cycle of Hurt
The look. The tone of voice. The turning away when offered a hug — it happens in a nanosecond. Suddenly a warm, fun exchange gives way to icy solitude within a marriage.
For example, our spouse may be sharing about a difficult day with the kids, and although our partner’s response comes with supportive words, we sense a skeptical look and tone that conveys, Really, it can’t be that hard?! And what felt in the moment like bonding and sharing, now leaves the feeling of being dismissed and neglected. It’s an instant trigger of emotions in our body. It causes our face to change. We turn away and the pain rubs open a wound deep in the pit of our stomach. Awful feelings rush to the surface: He thinks I’m stupid, that what I do doesn’t matter. I’m not significant.
But then, we talk it out, we get over it, move on and life gets back to normal. We think the incident has been resolved, but it hasn’t been. That same raw spot will get rubbed again in the future from a different triggering event, causing emotional bleeding again. And the pattern repeats.
Until we heal.
Step One: Identify the Raw Spots
Dr. Sue Johnson says healing begins with identifying your raw spots and tuning-in to the attachment cues that sound the alarm (2). Attachment cues can be positive or negative. Positive cues make us feel loved, bonded, and safe. Negative cues threaten our sense of safety and security by causing us to feel abandoned by our loved one in that moment, or deprived of an emotional need we’re seeking from them. Raw spots tend to elicit a fight or flight response due to impending danger in our relationship. This fight or flight can then lead to anger, fear, shame, or sadness.
Our physical response differs, depending on the feeling:
- Anger makes us want to fight back.
- Fear says to flee or freeze.
- Shame wants us to hide.
- Sadness tells us to give up or give in.
We may experience all of these emotions at once, or experience them in progression. We start with anger, move to shame, then fear, and finally resign with sadness.
After you’ve experienced a flood of emotion, ask yourself these questions:
- What did your partner do or say that triggered a negative emotion in that moment?
- What negative emotion did you feel when you were triggered?
- Where did you feel it in your body?
- What did you want to do in that moment?
Often our bodies respond before our brains can cognitively process what just happened. So noticing our bodies’ cues can offer important insight into what we’re feeling emotionally. Before we can share what’s happening with our spouse, we need to understand it ourselves! Dr. Johnson offers this suggestion to help us (3).
- In this incident, the trigger for my raw feeling was ______________ (what they did or said).
- On the surface, I probably showed __________ (initial reaction, could be defensiveness, anger, withdrawal, etc.).
- But deep down, I just felt _______________ (one or more of the deeper emotions of sadness, shame, fear, hurt, etc.), because I felt ______________(identify an attachment cue such as neglected, disrespected, abandoned, dismissed, deprived of having a need met, etc.).
- And then I reacted by ____________ (how I responded).
Step Two: Sharing With Vulnerability
Once we can identify our raw spots and the attachment cue that feels endangered, we can begin to share it in a soft and vulnerable way with our spouse, rather than out of anger and hurt.
Here’s an example: In this incident, the trigger for my raw feeling was when you told me I was being silly for worrying about a problem at work. On the surface, I probably showed anger. But deep down, I just felt shame and fear that you thought I couldn’t handle a problem. Then, I reacted by saying something unkind about you.
As a psychologist, I’ve witnessed how this process can heal years, even decades, of wounds in relationships. When the person we look to for our deepest attachment and emotional needs is able to tune-in to our basic emotions and then offers comfort and understanding, it changes everything! When we express our needs to them, our wounds and raw spots begin to heal and in turn the warning alarm from unmet attachment needs calms down. Not only have I witnessed it, I’ve also experienced it in my own marriage.
After learning this concept and using it in my counselling practice, I decided to try it on my husband. The poor guy is my guinea pig for a lot of therapy ideas! We were on vacation, and over dinner one night I asked him if I had wounded him in any way during our 30+ years of marriage. He can always sense when a deeper conversation is coming, so he replied, “No, but I have a feeling you do.” We laughed, because of course I had just set him up. But he’s a great sport and was willing to go there with me.
It was from 30 years ago after the birth of our fourth child. We had six-year-old twins, a four-year-old, and a new baby. After a difficult pregnancy of him caring for our three children while I spent six weeks on bedrest in the hospital, I was sick with a terrible cold. I had no one to help me, and I really needed him to stay home with me. But instead, he enlisted the help of a sweet, older woman who came in for a few hours a day. I felt completely abandoned at what felt like the worst time of my life.
Over the years, I’d tried to put this feeling of abandonment behind me and move on. But there were still times when I felt deep pain over his abandonment. During arguments, the raw spot of feeling deserted got rubbed and I’d feel it deeply, again. Although we talked about it, I’d never felt that he truly understood how painful it was for me. I felt like his perspective was different.
This time… in the restaurant (using the above method)…
- I shared at a deeper level what it was like for me.
- I shared how I felt abandoned at such a difficult time.
- I shared that this left me feeling that he didn’t truly care about my pain.
This time… he heard me, really heard me.
This time… rather than trying to defend or explain himself, he joined me in my pain, and I knew he got it.
This time his apology wasn’t perfunctory in an attempt to make the ‘problem’ go away, but it was truly heart-felt and sincere. And I knew it.
The change has been incredible for me. And for us. Almost immediately, the intensity of that abandonment wound subsided. For the first time, I felt that I could finally let it go. And now, my abandonment alarm doesn’t sound as much or at all these days. I now feel closer and safer with him.
Questions to Consider
A marriage consists of two imperfect humans and because of our deep love for each other, it’s natural and certain that we will wound each other. In light of this, here are questions to consider:
- Has your spouse wounded you in a way that keeps your emotional raw spots bleeding?
- Have you tried hard to get over it, but it leaks out occasionally?
- Is there a time you felt abandoned, unloved, disrespected, unprotected, or shamed?
The good news is that God can (and wants to) heal us, so that our raw spot(s) don’t continually get inflamed. Healing starts with tuning into what happens and what triggers our emotional wounds. Then we can pray about how to share in a loving, soft, and vulnerable way with our spouse. Furthermore, enlisting the guidance and support of a professional can be helpful to navigate our feelings and triggers, learning to share them in deeper, healthy, and healing ways.
All of the above is a process and yes, it takes work. But I promise, it is so worth it.