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Relationship repair always has two sides

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It’s vitally important we persist in getting this relational “dance” right. Photo: Supplied
It’s vitally important we persist in getting this relational “dance” right. Photo: Supplied

Disconnection has happened frequently in our marriage, even for newlyweds. It might have been the result of a hurtful action, a careless comment, an argument, or just insufficient time together. 

We’ve written about a number of disconnection behaviours over the past few months including harsh start-ups, criticism, contempt, globalisation, defensiveness and stonewalling. In this article, we want to look the final one in the series: Rejecting Repair Attempts. 

But first, what exactly is a Repair Attempt? A Repair Attempt is any gesture or statement made with the goal of reestablishing connection and closeness.  

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It might be overt, like one of us simply saying, “I said that badly and I’m sorry.” More often, a repair attempt is more subtle, like reaching out to touch the other’s hand, an offer of a cup of tea, making a joke, or a wordless ‘I-hate-it-when-we-argue’ sigh. 

The possibilities for Repair Attempts are quite varied and every couple will develop their own go-to favourites. A common one for us is the toe touch under the covers because we’ve been cranky all day and it’s a last-ditch attempt to ease the tension.  

Another favourite is this argument disruptor: “Hey, this is hard right now, but I want you to know that I love you” (coupled with eye contact).  

When one of us does that, we usually forget what we were debating, which by then has gone down some absurd rabbit hole. 

Couples who go the distance in marriage are those who have learned to repair early and often. They still have disagreements, tiffs, and other challenges to their connection, but they catch it before it escalates. 

It’s like taking a wrong turn. The longer we delay in correcting course, the more complicated and costly getting back on track becomes. That’s because the further negativity escalates, the more damage we do to the other.  

And the deeper the hurt, the more defensive we get, making it harder for either of us to muster the humility and the courage to attempt a repair.  

Repair attempts are fundamentally acts of vulnerability. In trying to break the pattern of negativity, we take a risk and put ourselves on the line. 

Which is why, the reception of a repair attempt is so important. Rejecting a repair attempt is deeply hurtful and usually escalates the negativity because it feels very personal to the one who made it. 

Yet blaming the other when our Repair Attempt is rejected, is also unhelpful. For often our peace offering was not recognised as such, because it was poorly executed. 

For example, when Francine attempted a repair with a humorous comment and instead of amused, Byron felt teased and belittled.  

Or when Byron reached out to touch Francine during an argument, and she perceived it as wanting to shut down her concerns and short-circuit the discussion.  

In other words, we need to customise our repair attempts to the other so that they communicate tenderness, respect, and cherishment. This means understanding our spouse’s sensitivities and knowing how they experience love—what we call their “Unique Love Profile.” 

Effective Repair Attempts have three important features: They are offered in sincere humility. They are attuned to the other so that they soothe rather than trigger. They are received and reciprocated. 

It takes a measure of smarts and a disposition of humility on both sides for a repair attempt to successfully disrupt our negativity. 

While it takes time and practice to get this relational “dance” right, it’s vitally important that we persist. For a relationship without repair capacity is ultimately doomed. 

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