Healing from painful memories of past hurt is necessary for health and wellbeing.
(This article was originally published on 10/11/2012 and updated on 1/26/2021)
I really love the work of Steven Stosny, PhD and I think that much of what he says can be helpful to people in committed relationships as well as those who have been hurt by infidelity. This post will address his ideas for emotional healing from painful memories.
While searching for a quote recently, I got sidetracked and started reading a few of his other posts on the Psychology Today site. I came across the following article that deals with the importance and function of painful memories. However, we need to be aware that our automatic defense system can create false alarms and ultimately undermine the healing process.
Emotional Healing and the Automatic Defense System
Memories of past hurt are necessary for health and wellbeing. They keep us safe in the present and future, by activating an automatic defense system.
It’s easier to see the function of painful memories and the automatic defense system in physical pain. Having burned your finger on a stove makes you more careful when you feel the heat; stepping on a nail last week makes you look before you leap today.
Though more complicated, the function of emotionally painful memories is the same as the physically painful. Recalling betrayal is likely to make you more cautious about whom you trust; remembering the pain of past failures will usually motivate more learning, effort, and attention in future enterprise.
The mammalian brain is remarkable in its ability to perform risk-benefit analyses. It is able to balance memory of pain with the potential reward of a given behavior in the present, as long as the focus is on the present. Unlike other animals, humans often subvert this process by ruminating about the past as if the function of memory and imagination were independent of the present. This leads to vain attempts to solve the problems of the past instead of those we face in the present and future and paves the way for making the same mistakes over and over.
Repairing Hurtful Relationships
The automatic defense system works most efficiently on infrequent hurts with specific memory triggers. When it comes to emotional pain in ongoing relationships, the memory triggers are vast, general, and imprecise. Intimate relationships carry continual reminders of past hurts with generalized memory triggers like tone of voice, body language, or facial expressions.
For example, bumping your knee on a chair or banging your finger while hanging a picture can produce the same tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions as past outbursts of threatening anger, rejection, punishing withdrawal of affection, or abuse. A sullen look after a hard day at work or a typical response to the home team losing a key game can look like the stonewalling and emotional isolation of the past. A distracted or preoccupied demeanor from a spouse who has strayed can trigger the pain of infidelity. In short, the automatic defense system is prone to false alarms and can easily prevent healing and cause more hurt.
If you continue to be hurt in your relationship and are sure that the automatic defense system is not precipitating the hurt, the clear message of your pain is to remove yourself from its source.
Unfortunately, leaving a hurtful relationship will not be enough to disarm the automatic defense system. As a matter of fact, it is likely to become more sensitive as its activation-cues grow less frequent. The amazing adaptability of the human psyche produces one of the cruel ironies about overcoming past hurt. The more frequent and intense the hurt was, the greater your tolerance of it – that’s how the bad becomes bearable. As hurtful incidents decline in frequency and intensity, you actually become more sensitive to them, meaning that far less stimulus hurts far more. You begin to react to the faintest possibility of hurt as if it were highly probable.
Here’s a typical example. You have no doubt lived through painful experience at some time in your life and coped with it remarkably well. Yet almost as soon as it passed you probably mumbled something like, “I could never go through that again!” You became more vigilant for – and intolerant of – anything that remotely resembled the hurtful experience. A tragic example of this phenomenon occurs in suicide. Clinicians have long known that the most dangerous time in a person’s severe depression is when it begins to lift. The newly energized and hopeful victim feels unable to endure the possibility of relapse and is likely to take drastic action at the first significant, albeit temporary, downturn in mood.
Whether you choose to stay in an improving relationship or to leave it, your automatic defense system will likely undermine your relationships in the future – including those with children – unless it is reconditioned.
Research shows that imagination and memory are opposite sides of the same coin, almost impossible to distinguish with any certainty and highly dependent on current physical and emotional states. Healing is never tied to the past; it is a matter of willful focus in the present.
Emotional healing occurs when the brain associates painful memories with restorative images. Repeating the association over and over conditions the painful memories to stimulate the restorative images automatically, in lieu of the automatic defense system.
Typical grief over loss of a loved one is an example of how this process occurs naturally for most people. Memories of the deceased are acutely painful in the beginning of the grief process; they keep you focused on loss and inhibit premature reinvestment of value in others. Over time, you begin to focus on positive experiences with the deceased – what you’ve gained rather than what you’ve lost – and it becomes pleasurable to think about the loved one. Restorative images of love, meaning, purpose, and appreciation have reconditioned your focus from loss to value-orientation. At that point you are free to invest value more fully in other people and in other areas of your life. (Dr. Stosny’s Blog on Psychology Today)
What about healing from painful memories of infidelity?
One of the most important takeaways from this article for me was when Stosny says: “Emotional healing occurs when the brain associates painful memories with restorative images.”
It’s understandable how a person can do this somewhat more easily with respect to a loss of a loved one for instance, as Stosny describes above. How many of us have felt the intense pain of losing a loved one, but then several months later the pain has been replaced by loving, happy memories?
It is so much more difficult in my opinion when we’re talking about healing from painful memories associated with infidelity. Most of us tend to associate these memories with nothing but more pain, emotional turmoil and feelings of betrayal. It’s really tough to find any restorative images!
I think that it just takes time to be able to produce these helpful images. As time passes and though still painful, the intensity of the pain and hurt from the affair starts to subside and it becomes easier to go beyond that pain to focus on things that are more positive and therefore more restorative. It also helps tremendously to have a spouse who has done as much as possible to help you heal along the way.
Dealing With Obsessive Thoughts, Triggers and Memories of the Affair
Arm yourself with a variety of techniques, practical strategies and knowledge to help you to manage those intrusive thoughts, triggers and memories of your partner’s affair.
In our situation, I’ve been able to look beyond the affair to an extent and see that we now have a relationship that is so much better than before. That in no way implies that the affair was a good thing and that it isn’t still painful, but it does shine a more positive light on its outcome.
There’s no way in this world that I could have put such a positive spin on things without a sufficient period of time passing and after putting in the hard work required to recover. Affair recovery is a long process and it takes a long while for the negative images to dissipate and for new, better memories to take their place.
What do you think? Have you had any success with healing from painful memories of infidelity by associating them with something more positive and restorative?
Here’s a video with another perspective on letting go of the past.