I work in healthcare and this term strikes fear into even the most hardened hearts. The word itself just sounds scary, right? What it refers to is an event so terribly awful that deep, profound changes within the whole system are required to fix it. Example – an amputation is performed on the wrong leg and triggers an unbelievable shitstorm. A very much appropriate shitstorm. How the health system recovers from this is by recognizing and acknowledging the gravity of the error and then doing a deep dive into the whys/hows this happened (overworked surgeon, lack of checks and balances in verifying and reverifying procedure needed, absence of a big bullseye on the correct leg, etc.). The identification of the root cause then directs the effort to prevent it from ever happening again in the future.
I think sentinel events occur in relationships too. Cheating comes to mind as does abuse of all kinds. Bigotry. Lying. Financial issues. Fraud. The question is, can a relationship ever effectively recover from one of these? Can a relationship, or more importantly, your relationship survive the kind of deep processing that is required here to identify the REAL roots of the problem, correct it, forgive and move on? I don’t know the answer here because I’ve only had the bad experience of it, unfortunately.
Seemingly small things can be sentinel events too. I was never forgiven for a transgression that seemed somewhat minor, but I believe ended up derailing the entire relationship. I did not respond enthusiastically when I was given a gift that to me anyway, seemed incredibly impersonal. Admittedly, not my finest moment. I apologized sincerely for being a jerk, but this was never enough. He could not forgive or forget and extrapolated from this one instance all kinds of damning conclusions about my moral character. I think underlying the issue itself was a different, distant hurt in him unrelated to me or this incident that was so deep we had no prayer of ever reaching it. At least not with the tools and lack of trust we had in each other at that time. Nevermind fixing it or moving on. This issue continued to come up in various forms throughout our entire time together which was almost 20 years! Not over exaggerating here, sadly.
Despite my own personal experience, I do believe sentinel events in relationships are possible to overcome. It requires deep trust in each other to be vulnerable at the level that is required to ferret out and fix deep problems in ourselves and each other. Plus, a healthy helping of forgiveness for our human failings. Handled properly, I think sentinel events actually have the potential to bring us closer together and make us better, but they certainly aren’t desirable or fun! They are warning of deeper problems that need attention or risk cutting off the wrong leg over and over and over again.