Struggling to recover from your last knock-down-drag-out?

Oh, No… Not again!

Susan and Bill just finished having another major argument. Following their usual pattern, they each went to their own “side” of the house to be away from their partner. They both needed time to cool down before interacting. Once they settled down, they started interacting again, but subsequent conversations occurred only out of necessity. They were both hurt and reeling from their 4th major argument of the month, wondering if this was the beginning of the end of their marriage. Bill felt bad for attacking Susan and didn’t really mean what he had yelled at her. Susan’s frustration with Bill had reached its peak in this argument. Only now she wishes she would have approached her concerns a little differently. Not knowing a way how to bring up the issues without re-igniting the same conflict again, they both pretended the argument never happened while knowing inside how great a toll it has taken on their relationship. If they only knew a good way to address their partner in order to discuss their issues without causing more fireworks…

What do “the Masters” do?

Some might begin to wonder if “the relationship masters” – or healthy and happy couples – even have arguments that they need to recover from. The reality is that these masters do fight and some may even fight as often as those who struggle in their relationship. The main difference between the masters and everyone else is how they fight and how they recover from their disagreements (if they even end up trying to do so). When one partner makes an effort to recover from a recent disagreement or conflict it can be said that they are making a repair attempt. A repair attempt is any communication, verbal or sometimes even non-verbal, that tries to address the rift and begins the recovery process of restoring the relationship connection which was lost as a result of the fight. Repair attempts seem to come almost second nature to these “relationship masters.” In contrast, many couples who struggle in their relationship often just wait until they appear to forget about the fight and pretend it never happened.

Count Four Ways to Repair

There are almost countless ways to make a repair attempt;however, they all share one commonality. Repair attempts all steer the conversation away from the typical attack-defend mode in arguments. This occurs when participants begin to take a step back, regroup, and address their partner differently. Here are some examples of various types of repair attempts:

 

Apologizing

 

  • “My reactions were too extreme. Sorry.”
  • “Let me try again.”
  • “I can see my part in all this.”
  • “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”

“I” Statements

  • “I’m feeling unappreciated.”
  • “I don’t feel like you understand me right now.”
  • “I need your support right now.”
  • “I feel blamed. Can you rephrase that?”

Acknowledging Partner

  • “You’re starting to convince me.”
  • “I never thought of things that way.”
  • “I agree with part of what you’re saying.”
  • “I think your point of view makes sense.”

Showing Appreciation

  • “I know this isn’t your fault.”
  • “That’s a good point.”
  • “Thank you for…”
  • “I see what you’re talking about.”
When should I try this?

John Gottman has talked about the recovery or repair efforts as a 3 step process. The first step is to be able to learn to repair after the disagreement or argument. This can mean five minutes or five days after the fight. As you’ll see in a moment, the sooner the repair attempt(s) occur, the healthier for the relationship. In fact, when one is able to repair during the fight, that is even more ideal and is what Gottman calls the 2nd step in the process. In this step, as soon as a conversation begins to turn south or becomes adversarial, couples can attempt to change course by utilizing repair attempts. The 3rd and final step in the process represents a way of discussing or dialoguing about issues. This last step is about how couples process or discuss issues, problems, and differences of opinion. Instead of the more common adversarial nature of attack-defend arguments, couples begin to discuss issues in a collaborative way which never lets the conversation turn negative. It should be noted that 99% of “the masters” in relationships spend some of their time in step1 and step 2 (they are NOT always able to dialogue as described in step 3). Even “the masters” are not perfect!

Hold on! I have a few Q’s about this Repair Stuff

 

What if I’m too angry to make a repair attempt?

That’s a very important question! Research has shown that when we are too upset or agitated we do a very poor job of processing information. Hence when too angry or emotional, we will not be able to fully understand our partner’s perspective. When this happens we have two options. If you are able to catch and recognize your agitation/anger in the midst of an argument, one option is to communicate that to your partner as a repair attempt itself (“Please help me calm down.”). Otherwise, it would be wise to calm yourself down before making a repair attempt.

What if I feel I’m right? Shouldn’t I wait for my partner to make a repair attempt?

Making a repair attempt does not mean your partner is 100% “right.” Remember, the purpose of a repair attempt is to simply change the adversarial way issues are discussed. And perhaps more importantly, when couples become focused on being “right” instead of having a harmonious relationship, then the relationship usually loses. Therefore, even if you believe strongly in your position, you can soften the conversation by making a repair attempt (which could simply be acknowledging that you contributed to the adversarial discussion/fight).

How do I know that making a repair attempt won’t start the same fight all over again?

Unfortunately, there is no guarantee. However, if you are sincerely focused on changing the negative interaction when making the repair attempt, there is a good chance that your effort will lead to a softening of the conversation (and even a repair attempt in response). If repeated repair attempts do not lead to a more collaborative conversation between you and your partner, it may be time to seek professional assistance with a couples therapist.

Recovery in Action

Suppose Susan and Bill (from beginning of article) tried something different than pretending their arguments didn’t happen. It could have gone like this after their fight:

Bill: Susan, I really blew that one. I reacted too extreme. Sorry.

Susan: Thank you for admitting that.
Bill: I had a hard day at work and should have just asked you for some support instead of attacking you that way.

Susan: The reality is I actually agree with part of you were saying.

Bill: Let’s see if we can find a compromise that works for both of us.

Bill and Susan give each other a hug & kiss.

It should become clear that repair attempts can become contagious. One will often lead to another! And soon enough, although the problem may not necessarily be solved, a more collaborative conversation will replace the negative, adversarial one.

Summing up Repair Attempts

1. Repair attempts are effective ways of recovering from an argument.

2. They can assist a couple to move from an attack-defend adversarial conversation to a more collaborative and productive one.

3. Repair attempts tend to be contagious

4. The goal is to first be able to recover after an argument, then to do so during an argument, and at times to even eventually dialogue without ever engaging in an adversarial conversation.

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