go to the home pageabout ustake the tourjoin as a membercontact ushome

go to workshops

General Information



Cuts and Scabs, Wounds and Protections – and Marriage
Gary Brainerd
Choose another article
Cuts and Scabs Home Page


To fully understand the complexities of loving relationships, it is essential to understand the idea of emotional wounds and protections. It is fairly easy to understand wounds in terms of our physical bodies, I.E. cuts and scabs. It is more difficult to see in terms of emotional wounds. Yet one of the main causes of conflict and tension in intimate committed relationships is the automatic use of protections learned and used in childhood. So we see this issue as one of the most important for couples to understand.

In brief, the way you learned to cope and defend and protect yourself as a child or teenager will be a major barrier to success in your love relationship. This may seem strange, but it is true for many, many persons. This may be one of the most important articles you will ever read.

The Metaphor

Physically, of course, when you cut your arm or leg, nature goes to work immediately to first protect the hurt and then to heal it. First, a scab is formed to stop any bleeding and to provide a protective covering to keep the hurt from being re-injured until the wound is healed. Then any germs are killed and the broken skin is slowly replaced over time. That is the way nature works with physical cuts and wounds.

A similar, but less obvious, thing happens in regard to emotional wounds or hurts. Whenever a person is hurt emotionally (through criticism, neglect, rejection, ignoring, smothering, demeaning, shaming, belittling, abusing, discounting, etc), nature also goes to work to provide a protection -- to make sure that hurt doesn't happen again until healing occurs and even then one does not want to be re-injured.

An "emotional scab" is not something physical. Rather it is a style of being or relating or acting in the world that is designed to reduce the risk of that hurt happening again.

Emotional "Scabs"

It is essentially impossible to escape childhood without experiencing some kind of emotional wounding or hurt - whether by parents, siblings, school friends, teachers, religious leaders, neighbors. All of us, then, have developed certain "emotional scabs" or ways of relating designed to minimize or reduce the chances of our being hurt again. Often these "protections, scabs, defenses, character adaptations" are automatic and unconscious. They are often excluded from our awareness and seem as natural as breathing. And they are often carried into adult life and become part of our character.

These protective strategies feel like "this is just the way I am." But these are not the core self, the essence of self; these are "scabs" developed as the result of wounds. It is these unconscious, automatic protective styles that have such a powerful impact on our loving relationships. See Sources of Conflict in the Couples Fun-Love-Work Station.

Herein is a great irony. What worked for you well as a child will only get you in trouble in your marriage. The way you learned to protect yourself from the hurts, wounds, anxieties, stresses of childhood worked for you. You should get a distinguished medal of honor for making it successfully through your struggles. But if you use those same strategies in your marriage or intimate love relationship, you will end up only replicating your partner's childhood wounds and activating their defenses or protections or "scabs" and thereby deepening the conflict and hurt in the relationship. See “How We Choose Our Mates."

The following is a partial chart of examples of how this often works in love relationships.


The wonderful ability to adapt and the enormous creativity of humans have resulted in many, many styles of protecting, defending, and adjusting. Here are some of the main ones:

The chart first lists the protections, then the wound they are often designed to protect and finally the impact this will likely have on the spouse or partner. This is only a partial list, but this will give you a sense of why the childhood protections will not work well in marriage.

Scab (Protective Adaptation)

Protects from the wound of…

Will tend to replicate wounds in partner…

1. Withdrawing, shutting down, getting quiet.

Being put down, shamed, criticized, rejected, etc.

Triggers wounds of neglect, feeling unimportant.

2. Arguing, fighting, threatening to leave…

Feeling powerless, being shamed or made wrong, being controlled

Triggers wounds of invisibility, not being valued, fear of abandonment.

3. Talking a lot, trying to get people’s attention and interest.

Being invisible or not mattering or not having an impact or being neglected.

Triggers wounds of being smothered or suffocated or dominated.

4. Clinging, demanding, being possessive

Abandonment, neglect, invisibility, not being important.

Triggers wounds of being controlled, smothered, dominated.

5. Criticizing, making the “other” look foolish, dominating.

Being shamed, being wrong, being dominated

Triggers wounds of not being enough or good enough, competency wounds, not mattering

6. Being a loner, not wanting to socialize much

Being ostracized in a group, not being comfortable socializing

Triggers fear of being too alone, not getting needs met, feeling used.

7. Not talking much at all, avoiding being seen or known.

Being criticized or controlled or found to be wrong.

Triggers wounds of being alone, lonely, unconnected, neglected.

8. Isolating, being distant, asking for lots of alone time.

Being suffocated, controlled, smothered, not enough freedom

Triggers wounds of neglect, abandonment, invisibility, not being valued.

9. Pursuing, going after time and attention with some intensity

Being neglected or abandoned or ignored

Triggers fears of being controlled, suffocated, smothered.

10. Never initiating contact or asking for conversation or contact.

Being rejected

Triggers fears of abandonment, not being valued, loneliness.

11. Being competitive, having to win arguments, games, conversations.

Fear of failure, not being good enough

Triggers fears or wounds of inadequacy.


Learning to Identify and Modify Your Protective Styles

Again and ironically, it is the very protections that worked well for us as children and teens that are the biggest source of conflict in love relationships. Since we tend to fall in love with people who have the same defenses as our caretakers (See How We Choose Our Mates), these old defenses, when done automatically will tend to re-injure our partners, deepen the conflict and keep the relationship from being all it could be.

If you join the Couple’s Workstation, in many of the exercises you will have an opportunity to identify your automatic, protective styles or patters of behavior.

If you do not become a member, just learning to look for and recognize your automatic, "first impulse," typical way of reacting to emotional pain, threat or frustration will start you on your way toward understanding the main ways you have learned to protect yourself. You can also think back on some of your main frustrations as a child or a teenager and reflect on how you learned to cope, adapt, deal with, and protect yourself in those situations. Very often the way you learned to protect yourself as a child or teen will become your Modus Opperandus when it comes to your unconscious defensive styles.

The good news is that these “old protections” are usually not good for you as an adult. They often keep you from getting your deepest needs met and at the same time activate your partner’s wounds and protections. How is this good news? By falling in love with someone who will need you to change these old protective styles will also free you to become more whole, more fulfilled and more deeply loved.

The growth challenge for all persons in love is to identify the "scabs" that replicate our partner's wounds and find different, better ways to protect and take care of our partners and ourselves. This WEB site is dedicated to teaching couples how to do that.

If you would like more information on understanding wounds and protections, check the Book Store area or explore the Couple’s Fun-Love-Work Station area.

Back to top

My Home  |  Acknowledgements  |  Take The Tour  |  Feedback  |  Therapists & Website Owners   |  Privacy   |  General Policies

© 2003 Brainerd Psychological Association