Linda Graham, MFT looks at how to repair relationship ruptures and the neuroscience around it.
Researchers have discovered that even in “good enough” close relationships, we spend about one-third of the time in actual relating (attuned connection), about one-third in rupture (mis-attuned or disrupted connection) and one-third in repair (recovering the attuned connection). Repair is the most important phase of this rhythm, especially in terms of rewiring our patterns of behavior.
Years ago, I was visiting relatives in northern Minnesota on their summer vacation and witnessed a brilliant example of repair. My seven-year-old cousin Marty was fishing off the dock one morning. His mom, my aunt Gen, came out to check on him, noticed his mouth was covered in jelly and crumbs from his morning donut, and scolded him for being so messy as she wiped his face clean. Marty’s body visibly slumped in a sulk. As Gen started to walk back to the house, Marty’s dad, my Uncle Ted, who had watched the whole scene, walked over to Marty, put his hand gently on his shoulder, and reassured him, “That’s okay, son. Fish bit better with a dirty face anyway.” Marty gave his dad a smile and a high five and joyfully went back to fishing.
Gen, who had watched Ted’s skillful repair to Marty’s self-esteem, decided to try to make amends with Marty, taking responsibility for causing a rupture in Marty’s self-esteem as well as between the two of them. She went into the house for more donuts. Back on the dock, she handed one to Ted to eat and ate one herself. Gen intentionally left crumbs on her face, then asked Marty, “How’s the fishing?” Marty looked at her, understood her attempt at repair, laughed, and gave her a big hug.
Exercise: Repairing A Rupture
- Identify a person you feel comfortable asking to practice this exercise with you, and identify a sense of rupture or disconnect between the two of you that you would like to repair. The rupture could have been caused by a misunderstanding or miscommunication. (Small is a good way to begin.) Your focus will be on repairing the relationships, not repairing the misunderstanding, and privileging reconnection over deciding who’s right or wrong.
- Sit down together, face to face, and take a moment for both of you to come into a state of mindful empathy, each becoming aware of what you are experiencing in your own body and emotions in this moment, remembering what you value in this relationship and why you are motivated to repair it, and feeling compassion for both yourself and your partner.
- Take turns expressing your experiences of the events that caused the rupture and the emotions you have experienced since. Listen deeply and carefully to your partner’s experience of the events that caused the rupture and the emotions he or she has experienced since. Notice what’s happening in your own body as you begin to understand and empathize with your partner’s experience.
- Now take turns expressing your understanding and empathy for the other person’s experience. This conveying of empathy isn’t about fixing or even agreeing. It’s about conveying understanding, and experiencing that understanding as it resonates with the other person.
- Notice your own experience as you receive your partner’s empathy for you experience. Notice if receiving this empathy leads to a reengaged resonance, a renewed sense of trust, a sense of reconnection and repair. Share your experiences.
- Acknowledge yourself and your partner for your efforts in this exercise. If there has indeed been a repair, acknowledge that, too.
The Neuroscience of Repairing a Rupture
Mindful empathy and a strong capacity to differentiate your experience from the others person’s (theory of mind) are crucial to the cusses of repairing a rupture and a reconditioning your neural circuitry. When you can remain mindful of you own experience, you can easily use the resonance circuitry in your own brain to empathize with the other person’s experience. Your empathy also engages the resonance circuit of your partner if that person is able to acknowledge and accept the empathy. It is that experience within your partner’s resonance circuit, of feeling seen and understood, that allows the reconnection and repair to occur. The resonance of feeling seen and understood actually relaxes the neural circuitry, allowing it to be more flexible and thus open to new information and to repair.
When both people are sincerely trying to repair a rupture, the safety they create for each other through the re-engaging of the resonance circuits and the resulting flexibility of the neural circuitry make the repair happen much more easily and quickly. Success becomes self-reinforcing. As we’re learning that we can repair a rupture, we increasingly trust ourselves to become competent in doing so.