Learning how to do relationship repair well will improve your life more than just about any skill you will ever learn. Tension and conflict are normal parts of every relationship. Relationship repair, however, can be tricky.
If you think you can make sure problems never happen by preemptively solving them, you will be sorely disappointed. There will always be tension and challenges in every relationship, so don’t try to eradicate them. If you do, you will likely spend your time together walking on eggshells, criticizing each other, or feeling distant. Instead, try to become efficient and effective in the relationship repair process. It will allow you to spend more time in joy, pleasure, love, and connection – and less time in pain, trauma, and conflict.
What is Relationship Repair?
Relationship repair is the process you go through with a partner when you have a challenge come up in your relationship.
If you address relationship conflict like most people do – by blaming, shaming, defending, explaining, apologizing, demanding forgiveness, or avoiding all conflict altogether – trust and intimacy in your relationships will likely erode over time.
Practicing relationship repair whenever you or your partner are upset can exponentially increase the likelihood of getting to a better place of understanding. It deepens trust and connection, and can also pave the way for mutual support.
The 10 Steps of Relationship Repair
1. Know You Are in an Emotional Conversation
Either of you can bring awareness to the fact that you have moved from a regular, positive, neutral, logistical or non-triggered conversation to a triggering or challenging conversation. You might say, “I’m starting to get activated” or “I’m feeling tension inside me from this conversation” or “I’m triggered”.
2. Gauge Your Level of Activation or Triggering
Each of you can name your number from 0-10. Zero is neutral and 10 is my head is about to explode/I’ve completely lost it (can be rage, desire to flee, dissociation). The idea is to try and avoid having conversations – and especially making any decisions – when you are in high activation. Anything beyond a 3 on either side, and it’s better to look for a way to come down and reconnect before you even try to start talking.
3. Give the Benefit of the Doubt – In Both Directions
Remember you are both good people. Once you’ve started the conversation, your partner might say things to you that make you feel like you’ve done something wrong. Or, you might start to feel like your partner is trying to hurt you on purpose. Instead of defending or explaining or accusing and shaming, see if you can take a moment and remind yourself that you and your partner are both good people and you are doing the best you can.
4. Decide Who Will Go First
It is almost impossible to get both people’s feelings or issues heard at the same time. Either of you can generously offer though to be the listener first. You can also preemptively decide to let the person with the highest trigger number go first. If over the course of your relationship, the same person always seems to be the listener first, it’s a good idea to let the other take a turn. In the least, try consciously acknowledging and making sure everyone is ok with whatever is happening around turn-taking.
5. Share Vulnerably
Sharing vulnerably means talking about your feelings and not about what happened or about the other person. If you are the person who is sharing first, try to speak neutrally – in a non-shaming, non-judgmental way. Explain what the other person is doing and tell them how it makes you feel. For example: “When you decline my invitations for sex, I feel rejected and start to shut down or give up.”
6. Listen Empathetically
Listening empathetically doesn’t just mean parroting back what the other person says. It means actually taking a moment and seeing if you can let yourself, as best you can, feel what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes. Do NOT say, “I feel exactly like that” or “Yeah, I feel that way too” because it is not true. Even if you harbor similar feelings, your life experiences (core wounds, triggers, survival strategies) are completely different. You will never feel exactly the same thing as someone else feels in the same situation.
Once you get a handle on what you think they might be feeling, say it while staying connected to your empathy. For example: “Yikes, that sucks. I can imagine how rejected and shut down you must feel when I say no to you.” At that point, they may need to elaborate more about how they feel, and you want to just keep listening and empathizing with each new thing they say.
Make sure to track if you are getting too triggered or overwhelmed in the process. If you do feel too triggered, you will need to alert your partner to the new number you are rising to.
7. Cop to It
Once you’ve listened to your partner as best you can, it is time to cop to whatever particular way you behave may have contributed to their upset. You know you can be challenging sometimes. It is great to know the ways you are challenging and to be aware of how they affect your partner. Instead of defending or feeling guilty, you can instead acknowledge the impact.
For example, you might say, “I know one thing that is hard about me in relationships is that I often feel like my freedom is being encroached upon so I might say ‘no’ even when I’m more of a maybe or just because you asked. Also, when I say ‘no’, I can be harsher than I want to be because I feel protective of my freedom.”
Make sure that the cop is generic – this means that you are copping to something you know to be true about you in relationships in general. Copping is not an apology for a specific thing that you did. Copping to a particular way you behave that increases the likelihood that your partner will get upset can really help your partner feel like they are not crazy. Make sure you only cop to something if you authentically feel it is something you do regularly – in other words, it is one of your patterns.
8. Reassure Your Partner
Once you really understand the underlying issue, you can give reassurance to your partner. Do not reassure before you actually know what is upsetting them or you will likely miss the mark. A reassurance might be, “I know that I have a much lower sex drive than you and the discrepancy is really difficult. I also want you to know that I really do desire you. When I am in the mood, I love having sex with you.” Again though – only reassure if the reassurance is TRUE.
9. Make Sure Both Partners Get a Turn
If you have shared some challenging feelings with your partner, it is likely they have their own concerns come up in response. It is extremely important that both of you are able to share – and feel heard.
10. “Is There Anything Else You Need to Reconnect?”
When you come to the end of the process, you can ask each other if there is something else you need to reconnect. You might ask for a hug, a walk together, a little break to be by yourself and get some fresh air. Each of you should be able to ask for what you need.
If, for some reason, at the end of this process, you are not feeling better or more connected, something may have been missed. Perhaps a feeling you weren’t able to voice, or a need for reassurance. If this is the case, check-in and see if you are both feeling heard, understood, and reconnected. If not, you may have to go through the process again with whatever is still residual. This process is an ongoing exercise in relationship repair, and you might need to revisit the same topic multiple times.
When emotions are high, it can be very difficult to switch into relationship repair mode, so be gentle on yourself and your partner. Instead of monitoring and correcting your partner around following the steps, see if you can do it well yourself.
The best way to make relationship repair part of your daily life, is to commit to practicing it as best you can – to share vulnerably, be honest about what is challenging about you in relationship, and treat others the way you want to be treated. You will feel better about yourself, and you will be the invitation for your partner to practice it well if they are able.
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