Couples have challenging times which can include arguments, bad moods, bad behavior and legitimate mistakes. The question is, what follows? How do some couples get through these situations with greater ease than others? John Gottman, PhD, refers to successful repair attempts as the “happy couple’s secret weapon.”
When hurt feelings occur, leading to the possibility of conflict in a relationship, there are many paths that can be taken. Bickering that gets out of control can ensue or you can take a breath and try to communicate in a way that has the best chance for a successful outcome. An argument can be avoided and hurt feelings diffused by using repair attempts. If done successfully, they can help de-escalate conflict and keep things from getting out of hand.
Taking responsibility—even for a small part of the problem in communication—presents the opportunity for great repair.
Make a repair as soon as possible.
If someone feels hurt by what the other has done or even is perceived to have done, it’s important to try to remedy this quickly. This avoids the build-up of resentment, one of the most common themes I see in my couples therapy practice. Unresolved pain points for one or both partners impairs the emotional security in the relationship. These emotional safety breaches over time can create a lack of trust and lead to relationship disconnection.
The goal is to broom out hurt feelings as soon as possible, so you don’t end up with a growing pile over time. Many couples aren’t clear how to repair a relationship which then becomes more challenging. Trust in each other can be badly damaged. Couples can then become adversarial vs collaborative and work is required to strengthen the relationship foundation.
14 ways to make a repair attempt
- Validate their emotions
- Apologize as soon as possible
- Touch them gently
- Use humor
- Ask your partner what they need from them right now
- Remind each other you’re on the same team
- Empathize with them. “I see you and understand why you feel that way.”
- Take responsibility for your behavior
- 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
- Share your ideas around how you got triggered and how you plan to work on avoiding it happening again
- Tell your partner how important they are to you
- Initiate a discussion of how to avoid the situation next time
Repair attempts are not a one-size-fits-all.
The ideal repair attempt is done in the moment but this is often not possible for a number of reasons. If you miss a window of opportunity and things start to get tense, remember that you can still try. Also keep in mind that some of the above listed repair attempts won’t be suitable for situations with higher level of upset and emotion. For example, you would not use humor for a heavier situation as your partner will likely not find the attempt funny and it may backfire. Repairing relationships takes effort but is part of the ebb and flow of healthy relationships. Everyone makes mistakes, it’s what you do next.
There is a great repair attempts questionnaire via The Gottman Institute. Check it out!5