The art of Relational Repair
Updated: Jan 14, 2022
“taking responsibility—even for a small part of the problem in communication—presents the opportunity for great repair.”~John M. Gottman
If we don’t feel safe enough in our relationships, we’re perpetually alone.Holding onto relationships that are unsafe -in an attempt to not be alone-only perpetuates our aloneness.
Relational repair is the process that addresses relational hurts and helps the couple move from disconnect into mutual safety and deeper connection.
The relational repair is a process requiring patience and commitment. When one partner finally starts to talk about their hurt, the other often becomes defensive or shuts down. It could be very difficult to be on the receiving end of someone airing a grievance. There could be shame and fear in the mix. Without a supportive structure to hold these kinds of repair attempts, things could become more painful.
The relational repair exercise offers the kind of safe container that can hold difficult conversations in ways that protect and honor both partners.
No loving person wishes harm on someone else and yet, because we’re imperfect and those we love are complex, we will occasionally fail one another.
Proper relational repair= owning the behavior+acknowledging the impact of the behavior on another+doing better in the future to not re-injure carelessly.
There are some considerations that make relational repair much more robust. These considerations can be developed over time in any relationship. Couples who are able to cultivate the following qualities in their relationship are able to repair with one another in ways that are long-lasting and deep.
-Differentiation/regard: I often see that partners who are fused with one another report higher levels of frustration and reactivity. There needs to be space that differentiates where one person ends and the other begins. Separate thoughts, wants and preferences that partners can name for themselves and can imagine for the other all indicate a healthy degree of differentiation. Safety is when both partners can exist fully and no one's needs are either constantly prioritized or consistently taken off the table for the other to exist.
-Intentional communication: This includes practicing consent and asking the partner if they’re available for a conversation especially if it has a potential to activate them, turning frustration and anger into a want/need, using I-statements when communicating.
-Commitment to growth: One of the premises in Imago relational work is that frustration is growth wanting to happen. From a Jungian perspective, it is in making the unconscious behavior conscious, that we become more empowered and less reactive. Unconscious behavior is automatic and, if left unconscious, will continue to surface over and over. A big part of effective repair is owning our behaviors and our blindspots in relationships without shame.
-Compassion: Before we know better, we do not always know how to do better. Knowing better, however, usually is accompanied by deep shame over what we did when we didn’t know better. Couples who are able to hold themselves in high regard even if they feel upset by what they did before they knew better are able to move through the repair process easier.
-Holding complexity: Couples and individuals who are able to hold the basic premise that a loving being can sometimes be hurtful move through the repair process without losing their humanity. This requires holding two very different truths at the same time-I know you love me and I have been hurt by your behavior or I know I am a loving person and I see that my behavior has hurt you. If a person is only able to hold one side at a time, they will be faced with the impossible choice of: do I want to connect with my partner or do I want to feel less horrible about myself?
-Doing the work (Bonus): When a partner asks for a behavior change, the work that we choose to do-if we choose to do it-benefits everyone. Ultimately, when we’re stretching to become more conscious and more intentional of our partners needs, we’re also growing parts of ourselves that have been underdeveloped or submerged. More safety benefits everyone.
The Repair Script:
There are various repair scripts out there, but I find that the set up is often just as important-if not more-when a couple first begins to introduce this practice. I suggest the following statements as a way to intentionally prepare for the practice.
Partner who is making the other aware of their hurt-I know you would not want to hurt me intentionally, I know you love me very much (differentiation, compassion). What I am saying now is that a behaviors of yours has hurt me (holding complexity) and I’d like to speak with you about it (differentiation). I’m sure it might be difficult for you to hear what I am about to say (differentiation, compassion). I thank you so much for your courage and your willingness to hear what I imagine is very difficulty to hear (differentiation, compassion). I trust that we will make good use of this information to help us grow and heal (commitment to growth). I’m not asking you to undo what has been done (communication, differentiation). I accept our journey as it is. What I want is to not get caught in our unconscious patterns (communication, differentiation, commitment to growth). I want our connection to be stronger (communication, differentiation). Would you be willing to help me repair? (Communication/consent).
Partner who is receiving the grievance: I’m so glad you know that I love you. I do love you very much and I never want to see you hurt (differentiation). What I’m learning from you though is that I may have a blindspot I can look at (communication, differentiation). And that there is a way I behave unconsciously that has hurt you (communication, differentiation). I’m willing to look at this because I trust that what you’re bringing my way can help us grow and become even more connected (doing the work, commitment to growth). I’m excited for our growth. I’m excited to be even closer to you.
The Repair Dialogue:
I suggest that grievances are not generalized. To decrease the overwhelm for all involved, grievances need to be very specific (for example, focused on the very instance that is upsetting).
Partner A: I want to talk about what came up for me when (the situation, the behavior)
-When you (name what happened), I felt _______
-And when I felt ______, the story I told myself was that _____
-What hurts me about ( the situation, this behavior, the story) is….
-(Optional) It reminded me of the time in my childhood when _____
-What I would like to feel in our relationship instead is _____
-owns the behavior (you're right, I did ____ )
-owns the impact (I can see how when I did____ , that was (hurtful, upsetting, confusing) for you)
-expresses desire to do better (I want to help you feel more….(whatever partner has named as desirable) in this relationship. What can I do right now* to help you feel more _____ ?