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The secret to relationship repair

When you think about it, every couple in every relationship is set up for failure. As we change gears from the early rush of passion to the commitment of navigating a future together, life gets in the way. Practically speaking it’s impossible to be emotionally available to your partner 100% of the time. Research shows that the average couple can only offer about 25% of their day to focus on each other. This figure drops to 9% when you take into account that both people need to be available to focus on each other at the same time.  Given how little quality time is actually available to focus on a relationship, it’s easy to see how the opportunity for miscommunication is rife.

Misunderstandings are exhausting. Repeatedly being misunderstood can eventuate in feelings of loneliness and despair. These types of emotions physically weigh the body down, making you tired and lethargic. Carrying these heavy emotions can impact your capacity to cope with day-to-day expectations. Most of us will go to great lengths to avoid feeling these painful sensations, with avoidance strategies include reaching for a strong drink, binging on Netflix, crawling into bed to sleep or spending more time at work to avoid being at home. Alternatively, we can learn better ways to communicate. The best place to start improving these skills begins with building a repertoire of little statements of repair. 

Little statements of repair are the keys to quickly resolving any ruptures in misunderstanding before they get out of control. Repairs are about catching the moment before you speak, finding your balance, noticing and naming what went wrong and taking responsibility. By offering small repair statements that redirect the focus of the conversation towards a more constructive outcome.

Catching the moment can happen if you are tuned into yourself. Noticing when you are becoming emotionally overwhelmed or charged is the first step to keeping yourself on track. Symptoms of being overwhelmed may include an elevated heart rate, heat or tightness in your shoulders and chest, a lump in your throat or tears welling up. You may also notice that your mind is busily formulating statements of attack that may be both critical and condescending.  It’s quite likely that when the motor of overwhelm revs up, the words that fall out of your mouth will be loaded with the sound of attack, being “You… you… you… you.” Once in full swing, most critical remarks translate to “there’s something wrong with you, “and defensive statements fire back with “it’s not me, it’s you.” It’s easy to see how this style of conversation does more damage than good.

Mistakes happen, carelessness and conflict are inevitable. Though the right repairs at the right time can make all the difference. John Gottman, the founder of the Gottman Institute, suggests we imagine repair attempts as buttons on a TV remote control. If the conversation goes awry, you can “press”:

Rewind (Sorry) 

  • “Can I try again?” 
  • “I messed up.” 
  • “How can I make things better?” 
  • “I’m sorry.” 

Fast Forward (Get to Yes) 

  • “I agree with part of what you’re saying.” 
  • “Let’s find a compromise.” 
  • “What are your concerns?” 

Pause (I Need to Calm Down) 

  • “Can we take a break from this conversation for now?” 
  • “Please be gentler with me” 
  • “I am starting to feel overwhelmed” 

Stop (Stop Action!) 

  • “Give me a moment.” 
  • “Let’s agree to disagree.” 
  • “We are getting off track.” 

Record (I Appreciate) 

  • “That’s a good point.” 
  • “I know this isn’t your fault.” 
  • “I love you.” ​​​​

Microphone/Voice Command (I Feel) 

  • “That hurt my feelings.” 
  • “I feel defensive. Can you rephrase that?” 
  • “I’m getting worried.” 

Like learning any skill set, improving communication takes practice. The better you get at catching the moment, standing down and reaching for words of repair, the more effective these simple statements will be. Couples that learn these skills together come to recognise these words of repair as a sign that their partner cares about them and is standing down. Importantly, a couple’s capacity to transform arguments into an opportunity for an intimate conversation is the primary indicator of a relationships long term success. Just as the saying goes ‘a stitch in time saves nine,’ a few small words or repair, leads to a contented life.

Joanna Joustra, Psychotherapist, Yarra Valley Counselling




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