Updated: Jan 15
The difference between happy couples and unhappy couples is not that happy couples don’t make mistakes: we all make mistakes. In his book, The Science of Trust, Dr. Gottman explains that both partners in a relationship are emotionally available only 9% of the time. This leaves 91% of our relationship ripe for mistakes, miscommunication, and relationship ruptures.
The ruptures are often quite small, and to outsiders perhaps imperceptible: one person fails to say goodbye before leaving for work; someone tries to explain something exciting from their day to their partner who remains distracted by social media scrolling; in front of friends, a lover shares an anecdote which casts the partner in a less than flattering light. Or the rupture can be more serious: someone calls someone a derogatory name, yells and leaves the room, an anniversary is forgotten, or someone has an affair.
How couples repair after those hurts, slights, or mistakes is what really matters.
Repair refers to the work needed for two people to regain each others’ trust, and restore themselves in the others’ mind as someone who is essentially decent and sympathetic and can be a ‘good enough’ interpreter of their needs. The ability to repair is a central feature in emotional maturity.
When it comes to healing after a ruptures, the real difference between the couples who repair successfully and those who didn’t is the emotional climate between partners. In other words, your repair attempt is only going to work well if you have really been a good partner to them, especially lately.
It's also important to note that there is a difference between intent and impact. No, we usually didn't mean to hurt our partner; but guess what - we did! Our job is to be aware of how we impact others even if that impact wasn't what we intended. Going first means you set aside your intent and everything the other person did to contribute to the rupture, and you offer an opportunity to explore and heal.
In order to repair, you have to be aware of the fact that your perspective is just that: one perspective on the situation. You never have the complete picture of what happened, not just in terms of the events, but also in terms of the social and emotional processing that goes on behind the scenes in all relational interactions. Emotional responses are processed outside of conscious awareness in a matter of milliseconds and they are filtered by our current moods, and relevant memories of past relational experiences. In other words, the past is always the present to some extent and it always influences our perspective. Understanding this should bring a certain level of humility.
I never have the complete or “right” perspective. I am always influenced by past experiences in ways that are outside my conscious awareness.
So, set aside your perspective and listen to the other person’s. If you do that, he or she is much more likely to be willing to listen to yours.
Mindful empathy and a strong capacity to differentiate your experience from the others person’s are crucial to the process 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.
Apologizing is Hard
A full and sincere apology means showing that you genuinely understand the hurt you have caused and take full responsibility for it, with committed action to make reparation or ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
It takes a helluva lot of ego strength to recognize the hurt you've caused and to suck it up and offer a sincere apology; just saying "I'm sorry" in passing is not going to be enough. It's hard to acknowledge our foolishness, to admit we're emotionally unbalanced, controlling, hot-tempered, lazy or vain, and our personal feelings of unworthiness may keep us dug in, allowing self-righteousness to run the show
Forgiving is Hard, Too!
Forgiveness means letting go of the right to punish another person for the wrong they have done you, even if they don’t deserve it.
It can be really challenging to tap into sympathy for someone who has wronged us for possible all-too-human experiences; maybe they were tired or sad, worried or weak. Forgiveness is even more difficult if we ourselves have a history of being wounded by others; staying angry or hurt instead of offering forgiveness may be a form of self-protection.
How To Create An Environment of Repair
Good communication is the key to heading off potential problems or solve conflict when it arises. This, when combined with self-care, companionship activities, and caring gestures, sets the stage for a relationship that can more easily avoid ruptures and when they do happen, repair effectively.
Communication: Communicating openly when the relationship is going well, talking about potential areas of conflict before they occur, and working together to solve problems before they become entrenched, allows couples to anticipate difficulties or air grievances without getting bogged down in the specifics of a recent conflict.
Self Care: When you put your self-care as a priority, it shows that you don’t expect your partner to take care of everything for you and that you are willing to look after yourself physically and emotionally.
Companionship activities: Activities you do together, such as small domestic rituals help build a solid foundation of love and respect. Everyday rituals of leaving and greeting through touch and talk, kissing and hugging, and telling each other that you love one another are ways of letting each other know that you are important to one another and helping cement trust in the enduring nature of your attachment. These rituals need to be distinguished from routines. Routines are rituals that have become devoid of emotional significance and can demonstrate a lack of interest or care in each other as they become stale and stultifying.
Caring gestures: Regular, loving gestures of care and appreciation are a great way to build an environment of repair. These gestures are not done for any direct payback, and work best when they are done frequently (although not necessarily regularly) and are low-cost but emotionally significant. Offering caring gestures that reflect things your partner will genuinely experience as loving is an art that relies on a good understanding of each other’s wants and desires. Gary Chapman describes five “love languages” that are ways to express and experience love. They are: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and, physical touch. Take some time to learn what your partner's love languages are and be sensitive to the meaning that the other person gives to their caring gestures.
Building a Sound Relationship House
John Gottman talks about three specific activities in which you and your partner can engage to build a “sound relationship house” model: building “love maps” (showing an interest in your partner’s life and experience outside of the relationship; sharing fondness and admiration for each other; and turning towards your partner when they make a “bid for connection” or attempt to attract your attention). These all show your partner that they are important to you and thus make them feel valued.
If you'd like to learn more, here's a great video from Dr. Gottman on rupture and repair:
I'd love to hear one of your stories about rupture and repair—a time when you reached out to repair, or when someone did that for you. What happened and how did it impact you?
If you are wanting to improve your current relationship or are wanting to improve yourself so you can create the relationship you deserve and desire, hit me up for a free consultation!