Attending Catholic school in Brooklyn, I felt loved by the Catholic nun who was my second grade teacher. But one cold morning that suddenly changed.
We were lining up to enter the classroom when the nun suddenly came up to me, shouting, “Spit out the gum!” Being an obedient Catholic boy, I’d never consider flaunting the no-gum rule, so I was stunned by the accusation. Defending myself, I replied, “I’m not chewing gum!”
I was confident that my protestation would clear things up. But my innocence was shattered again: “You are chewing gum,” the nun insisted. “Don’t lie!” Ouch! I could feel my stomach churning and a horrible sinking feeling to be assaulted by a second accusation. Dare I protest again?
Something in me trusted that if I kept speaking the truth, justice would prevail. Mustering some sheepish courage, I muttered: “But I’m not lying… look!” I opened my mouth so that she could witness the lack of evidence. The final blow to my dignity and innocence descended when she coldly responded, “That’s because you just swallowed it.”
Yikes! Nothing I could say or do would disabuse her of her perception. I was in an emotional prison with no “get-out-of-jail-free” card. I felt powerless, helpless — a sorry character in a Kafka-esque nightmare. Exasperated and hurt, my relationship with her was never the same again.
Looking back, I see this episode as an initiation into the rough and tumble of real life, where oftentimes we’re not seen as we really are. Being condemned as guilty evoked the shame of being falsely accused, disrespected, and bad. In psychological terms, I recognize this incident as an early attachment injury — a relational trauma that, if unrepaired, tends to be carried into our adult lives and relationships.
If you can identify with my experience, know that you’re not alone. The first step toward healing old shame and attachment trauma is to recognize it. There’s nothing shameful about acknowledging the multiple ways we’ve been injured in our lives — and realizing how it has affected our tender heart.
Softening Our Wound Activation
As a marriage and family therapist, I often see couples who unknowingly step into the minefield of each other’s old wounds. False indictments of having an affair or being attracted to other men or women, or other bogus accusations can reactivate old traumas. It’s impossible to defend oneself when the accuser’s mind is made up. There’s no way to produce evidence of one’s innocence. Continued protestations fall flat when a partner insists that they’re right and that you’re in denial.
How can we deal with such a quandary? Responding defensively to false accusations may only add fuel to the unfounded attacks. But saying nothing may convey that we’re guilty as charged.
Here are some guidelines that may help soften the cycle of accusations and defensiveness. And, of course, couples therapy may be helpful when couples reach such an impasse.
1. Be Gentle with Your Old Wounds
When you are feeling falsely accused, notice whether old wounds are getting activated. Does this remind you of something that’s happened in the past? Is it evoking the pain of not being seen or is it reminding you of painful breaches of trust?
If old, painful memories are surfacing, be gentle with yourself. Practice self-soothing by taking some slow, deep breaths. Bring a friendly mindfulness toward the sensations in your body that are getting activated, holding these feelings in a caring, gentle way.
2. Be Sensitive to Each Other’s Wounded Places
We all carry old attachment wounds. Revealing old wounds — letting your partner see your areas of vulnerability and sensitivity — may evoke empathy and understanding. Then, when you’re being falsely accused or attacked, you might reveal what’s getting touched in you rather than getting defensive or irate.
Maybe say something like: “When you ask if I’m having an affair, it really hurts me. I don’t know how to reassure you that I’m not. It touches an old place of not being seen and trusted.”
Perhaps your partner’s accusations are signaling old betrayal wounds or not receiving enough verbal reassurance or affection. If these wounds and needs were uncovered and expressed more directly, they might be heard more easily. If your partner is not able to express this, do your best to be gentle with their felt sense of insecurity, as well as being more present in the relationship.
3. Know that You’re on Solid Ground
When you’re falsely accused, know that this is something going on with your partner. Perhaps some old hurt is getting activated. Take a deep breath, stay in your body, and realize that this is about them, not about you.
Knowing that you’re on solid ground may help you to self-soothe rather than feel compelled to defend yourself — assuming that you are on solid ground (there is no affair, etc.). Maintaining your sense of self-worth and not succumbing to shame, you’re better positioned to hear the deeper feelings or insecurities that your loved one is trying to convey, even if their manner of delivery is hard to hear.
Close relationships are the place where our deepest longings arise — and where our fear of loss of connection can be activated. Being gently attentive to what is arising within ourselves and being empathic to our partner’s wounds can help heal old injuries, build trust, and deepen intimacy.
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