Couples argue. This is a reality. Some escalate to damaging levels of conflict while others manage to keep it manageable, where no harm is ultimately done. What’s the difference between these couples? John Gottman, PhD, refers to successful repair attempts as the “happy couple’s secret weapon.”
The beginning stages of conflict are wrought with possible paths to take, some helpful and some not. I imagine there have been a few times in your life when you’ve gotten irritated around a particularly tense subject with your spouse. You likely either successfully or unsuccessfully diffused what might have been a big argument.
There are a few types of repair attempts; the ones that happen along the way that help mitigate a higher level of conflict (low level) and the ones that are needed when real emotional damage has been done to the other (high level). One of the biggest problems I see coming up between couples in my therapy practice is the toxic build-up of resentment; unresolved anger or sadness around things the other did or said which in worse case scenarios can stretch into years of simmering discontent creating an emotional gap or disconnect between them. The irony is that much of these resentment markers might never had existed had repair attempts been made at the time.
7 ways to make a repair attempt in the moment to keep from escalation: (low level)
- Use humor
- Ask your partner what they need from them right now
- Validate their emotions
- Apologize in the moment
- Touch them gently
- Verbally remind both of you that you’re on the same team
- Empathize with them. “I get you.”
7 ways to make a repair attempt when real emotional damage has been done: (high level)
- Take responsiblity for your behavior
- Verbally apologize with sincerity
- Give your partner a hand-written, personalized card
- Tell them you love them and didn’t mean to hurt them
- Ask them what they need from you to help salve the wound
- Share your ideas around how you got triggered and how you plan to work on avoiding it happening again
- Tell your partner why they are worth it and what they mean to you
The best way to avoid problems in the future is to nip situations in the bud in the moment but often times this is easier said than done. If you miss the window of opportunity and things get heated, remember that you can still repair things. Repair attempts are a loving behavior to not only your partner but the relationship in which you share.