“Apologize, say you’re sorry, ask for forgiveness…” How many times did you hear these phrases growing up? We often teach children the importance of using such repair statements in order to mend a relationship when someone’s feelings have been hurt, or there was an action that caused harm to the wellness of the relationship. But do we practice this same repair work when there is a break in the attachment bonds in our adult relationships? After childhood, the word ‘repair’ may more often be associated with fixing a broken appliance or electronics rather than helping a relationship reconnect after conflict. While the need for such repair work in relationships remains vital to the overall health of a relationship, the simpler “I’m sorry” wording and behaviors that worked to resolve a playground conflict may fall short in accomplishing the same goal of reconnecting after conflict in adult relationships.
Why do we need repair statements
The more we experience in life, the more we bring our own past hurts and experiences into each new conflict, increasing what is needed from repair statements in order to feel the same resolution and sense of validation. However, in adulthood, we are also more likely to avoid conflict and bypass repair work, leading our relationships to suffer. In many cases, it is not the lost desire to maintain healthy relationships that prevents the regular practice of repair work, but rather busy schedules, frustration in failed past attempts, or the uncertainty of how to go about truly repairing a break in healthy attachment patterns when conflicts emerge. Regardless of the reason, when relationships do not receive this regular repair work, partners become increasingly disconnected from and resentful of one another.
Conflict, by nature, disrupts the attachment patterns that make us feel safe, secure, and cared for within relationships. Repair statements are those phrases or actions that help a relationship return to a place of stability and safety after conflict. Like any good repair, the most effective repair work is done as part of regular relationship maintenance rather than waiting until an absolute breakdown. So instead of waiting until the next big fight or the next couples therapy session, challenge yourself to practice the art of repair using these five tips; your relationship will thank you.
1. Show Understanding of Your Partner’s Response to Conflict
We each have different attachment patterns that develop over our lifetime, which lead us to respond to conflict differently. For some, when conflict emerges within a relationship there is an urge for alone time and physical separation. Yet others have a strong desire for physical proximity to help ease the anxiety conflict creates. Understanding your partner’s internal responses to conflict is helpful in engaging in repair work that best meets your partner’s need. This also offers an opportunity for compromise and to begin repairing the bridge to reconnect intimacy bonds after conflict. For instance, if one partner has a response for physical space while the other desires physical closeness, how can you work to achieve both goals as partners? Perhaps you sit quietly together after conflict in order to meet the need of physical proximity, while honoring the need for internal reflection through silence. Or maybe you choose to offer a timeframe in which you give yourselves a timeout before looking to come back together for the repair work. Understanding these instinctual responses after conflict is key to effective repair work because we have to be in a place to receive the repair statements.
2. Address the complete message taken away from the situation
When an apology is limited to the action that caused the conflict or hurt feelings, minimal validation is offered for the other’s experience. For instance, it most often is not that you were late to dinner, or whatever the situation may be, but that because you were late to dinner your partner took away a message about what your tardiness means about your partner and/or the relationship. Such messages can sound like, “When you are late to dinner it makes me feel insignificant.” If we can understand the message taken away from the situation that led to the hurt feelings and conflict, we can better meet our partner’s needs by speaking directly to those messages. “I’m sorry for being late,” pales in comparison to “I’m sorry for making you feel insignificant.” Even better, follow up the repair statement with the message you would ideally like your partner to hold. For instance, “I would never wish to make you feel insignificant, I love and care about you.”
3. Provide affirmation and validation
We do not get to choose how our partner feels or experiences a situation, and vice versa. Part of repair work within relationships is to find a sense of understanding. Agreeing on how the facts of a situation or conflict unfolded is less important than finding the common ground of love and compassion after the event. While you may very well have experienced a situation differently, honor and validate that your partner’s experience of the event is real and true for them. Once a person feels even the attempt of understanding, there is an opening for further engagement to mend the disruptions in attachment and intimacy within the relationship.
4. Your repair statements are unique to the current situation
One of the issues that comes with simply saying “I’m sorry” or any other phrase that becomes common within a relationship, is that, in its commonality, we begin to experience it as disingenuous and an attempt to appease rather than nurture. The more you are able to show understanding of your partner’s individual experience of a conflict, the more you are able to demonstrate care, and a desire to foster a strong relationship. Particularly in long-term relationships, themes will emerge in the core messages partners tend to take away from certain conflicts. While this knowledge can be helpful, it can also lead to complacency and a loss sense of value in vocalizing such repair statements. Even though the conflict may feel familiar, this current situation is new. Your partner is only aware of your actions, not the intention behind such actions, so vocalized words matter, especially as a relationship continues over time. Choose wording that addresses the impact of the current conflict in order to meet the current needs within your relationship.
5. Repair statements should be regular occurrences
Relationships can be compared to a dance. It takes time and practice in learning your partner and how they move and operate, and there is an art to finding your rhythm as a team. Which is why effective repair work in relationships cannot be something that is infrequent and short-lived. It takes time, questioning, and practice to learn about your partner and find your own wording in how to go about repair work. Ideally, repair statements would occur after every disruption in attachment patterns, whether that looks like a big fight or a partner feeling somewhat disconnected within the relationship because of a bad day at work. Repair work provides messages that you are important, and the relationship is important. These are messages that should be frequently given and received to foster healthy attachments, which lead to healthy relationships.