“ We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily difference we can make, which over time, often add up to big differences we often cannot foresee.” – Marian Wright Edelman
It would be accurate and certainly understandable to think that repairing a stressed or damaged relationship comes in the form of deeper themes of forgiveness, mutual understanding, restored meaning, emotional and intimate connection, and so on. And again, this is absolutely true and often the primary end goals for most partners when they enter couples therapy. But you may be wondering what happens in the space between?
What are the little things couples can do to repair their relationships on a daily basis?
It may surprise you to know that repairs can be found in the simplest of statements or questions within your everyday conversations. The key is to use them when you can and recognize them when they happen.
What is a Repair Attempt?
According to the Oxford dictionary, the word repair means to fix or mend (a thing suffering from damage or a fault). Naturally, when we think about the word repair objects like cars and household appliances may come to mind. But how does this idea of repair translate to relationships? Well, just like fixing a broken refrigerator or worn out car engine you need the proper tools in order for them to function more smoothly and efficiently. Relationships are no different. Relationships often require little tweaks and tools to improve dialogue for more positive and healing conversations.
Repair Attempts in terms of couples in conflict, is a term coined by relationship experts and researchers Drs. John and Julie Gottman.
A repair attempt is “any statement or action — silly or otherwise, that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.”
A repair is like the water used to prevent a fire from spreading. These types of statements or questions can bring relief, even temporary, to a conflict discussion between partners. Repair attempts are efforts your partner takes to slow down in order to understand, feel, apologize, de-escalate, compromise, or show appreciation.
Overt vs. Subtle
Some repair attempts are more obvious than others. Saying, “I’m sorry I hurt you,” or, “How can I make things better?” are pretty clear attempts to repair. However, did you ever think that saying something as subtle as, “That makes sense to me,” or, “That was a little harsh, let me rephrase,” are also considered repair attempts?
Most couples who enter into couples therapy will say, “We need to work on communication!” Communication is a big topic and repair attempts are certainly part of that. Additionally, repair attempts may look a little different from couple to couple depending upon the unique circumstances and overall personality of their relationship.
For instance, if you are a couple who values humor you may appreciate this repair attempt example my husband used the other day…
We were up early one morning and I was already in “planning mode,” which for my not -so-morning-person of a husband, I should have known this was not going to land well. I sensed that he was getting a little irritated with me (some huffing and puffing as I rattled off my to-do list) but instead of him getting angry and yelling he simply said, “Hold on. I hear you and I like where your head’s at, but you know I gotta have my coffee first!” We both laughed and I responded, “Well, pour me a cup too while you’re at it.” This was particularly funny to us because we always joke that his relationship with coffee is like the Snickers commercial, “You’re not yourself when you’re hungry.” Nevertheless, he softened what could have been a really sharp way to start the day together. I felt like he heard my plan-making needs and instead of telling me that I was being annoying, he found a way to let me know he heard me but just needed a few minutes to wake up in order to be more present. I should also mention that this repair opened the door to engage in one of our favorite rituals of connection, morning coffee time.
Real-World Repair Resources
Being able to incorporate repair attempts into conflict discussions is a vital component of communication, especially when things are feeling rough in the relationship. Check out this article from the Gottman Institute on repair attempts which includes a Repair Checklist that breaks down different types of repairs you can start using right away.
Repair attempts are not meant to be nebulous or overly complicated, rather they can be simple, direct and extraordinarily effective ways you can let your partner know you are trying. And on most days, those little things can go a long way.
Need a little more help?
If you feel that you and your partner struggle with making repair attempts, couples therapy may be a good option to work on this skill in a safe and nonjudgmental environment. If you are ready to schedule an appointment and live in Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas, we can help. Contact us to get started. We are beginning to schedule in-person appointments this month at both NC and AZ office locations.