Fall is an interesting time of new beginnings, but often at the expense of neglecting what is broken—namely the broken connections in our attachments to our near and dear. The problem in relationships is not so much fighting per se, but how you repair after you fight. Immersed in the self-reflection inherent in winter, I hone my repair skills, because this, more than anything, is what lets me sail into the new years all systems go.
Practicing relationship repairs has a huge impact on our connectedness, and I can’t emphasize the skill enough with my clients, peers, and students. John Gottman’s research states that you will have 80 percent more sustainability in long-term intimate relationships when you learn and practice REPAIR. When mis-attunement occurs in our close relationships—and it will—it actually can damage secure attachment and injure our close relationships. Anything over 50 percent is a high rate of return on learning to repair. If I told you a bank was paying 80 percent on your invested monies, you would stop reading this article and run right over there. And really isn’t the value of your relationships even more important?
Repair can be hard if your pride gets in the way or you have a tendency to hang onto hurts or grudges. But when couples realize what is at stake, how fragile a relationship can be at times, and how much we all respond to repair, many are willing to get on with repairing. Empathize, comfort, and apologize first—then explain yourself later if there was a misunderstanding. No one hears you when they are on the defensive. Help the healing, then work toward deeper understandings.
At my workshops I often ask how many folks have parents that modeled good repair skills. Usually only a few hands reach for the air. We simply don’t learn it at home BUT it is highly teachable now. We don’t have to be perfect–thank goodness—because we never will be. Research shows the way to sustainable relationships is not paved with perfection. Relational resiliency actually gets STRONGER when mis-attunements happen and we learn the necessary relational skills to heal them.
Ed Tronick, developer of the “Still Face” paradigm, says we usually are in attunement only 20 percent of the time. As we navigate relationships, it’s a bit like a sailboat tacking back and forth to get to its desired location. As we find our way back into harmony with another, we grow our skillfulness. It serves us well to learn how to realign.
Both partners ideally would practice repair. It doesn’t matter who goes first. I suggest repair rituals for all couples, and I’d like to share with you some of my favorite strategies:
I teach an experiential exercise—utilizing Beatrice Beebe’s ideas on parent-infant dyads—in which I instruct each person in a twosome to intentionally create a mis-attunement. For example: one person will show a distressed face and their Partner in the exercise will look away as if not interested or not available. This will usually cause a hurt reaction in the “distressed person.” It shows how reactive our attachment system is. But when we take additional time to repair each mis-attunement that we are deliberately causing in this exercise, the relationship grows in resiliency and closeness. Good news for those of us who step on relational toes, that we can learn the dance of repair and waltz our way into relationship health more frequently!
I like having a special word—could be “watermelon” or any silly word, really—to signal readiness for an apology or reconciliation.
I used to stand on a step waiting for a hug from a much taller partner to let him know I had cooled off and softened up for a reconnection.
Sometimes I give couples a beautiful candle they can put in a special place to light when one of them is ready for contact again after a relational rupture.
Some folks block repair in the way they receive repair attempts. Have you ever found yourself stubborn about allowing your partner, friend, child, or even your dog to repair with you? “You did not say it right…you should have apologized yesterday—then it would have meant something.”
Be a skilled repair initiator—find someone to practice with today that you feel you have been out of sorts with.
Be a good repair receiver. Remember Gary Chapman’s “Five Languages of Love”? It may look different than how you would do it. It may be verbal or non-verbal, it may be a gift or an act of kindness. It may be emotional or not so much. Look for opportunities to repair today!