When you think about it, every couple in every relationship is set up for failure. It is impossible to be emotionally available to your partner 100 percent of the time. In fact, you will miss most of your partner’s bids for emotional connection out of mindlessness.
But failure is not the problem. Even a mother who failed to be responsive and available 50 percent of the time can raise a child to be a healthy adult who has healthy relationships. According to psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, the difference between “good mothers and bad mothers is not the omission of errors but what they do with them.” How a child copes with everyday failures and fluctuations is directly related to the degree in which their parent creates an environment for a secure attachment bond and how that parent repairs their errors.
This is no different in our romantic relationships. The difference between happy couples and unhappy couples is not that happy couples don’t make mistakes. We all do. How couples handle conflict resolution is what separates the relationship Masters from the Disasters.
Repairs are Key to Healthy Relationships
No matter how careful you are, you will inevitably rupture the bond in your relationship. Even in a good marriage, couples:
- Have ugly screaming matches
- Say mean things to each other
- Get critical and defensive
The difference between the Masters and the Disasters of relationships is that the Masters repair their interactions effectively. These couples are willing to admit responsibility for their part in the conflict so that they can begin the process of healing their bond. They realize their relationship is more important than the problem.
The goal of repair is to understand what went wrong and how to make your next conversation more constructive.
What Makes a Repair Effective?
Relationship expert Dr. John Gottman analyzed repair attempts in his Love Lab, asking the question: “How do people try to make things better?”
Examples of repair attempts include:
- “You know, I don’t think either of us is really listening to each other right now. Maybe we should start over.”
- “I need a break. Can we talk about this in twenty minutes?”
- “I’m sorry, I really wish I hadn’t said that.”
After studying more than three thousand couples, Dr. Gottman found that how a repair attempt was made did not necessarily predict the effectiveness of the repair attempt. Some people would make repair attempts in a beautiful way, and their partners just couldn’t hear it. Other couples made repair attempts in really clumsy ways and were successful.
In the Love Lab, Dr. Gottman observed a chemist and his wife talking about the nature of the husband’s work. He didn’t know exactly when he was coming home for dinner.
She said, “Well, the kids get hungry, and they don’t want to start dinner without you, so they get irritable, and I have to put up with the irritability.”
He asked, “Why don’t you feed them a snack?”
His wife looks at him like, What do you think I am? A moron? Of course I gave them a snack.
When she did that, he realized he needed to make a repair, so he smiled with this grin. That was his repair attempt. This big stupid grin. And she started laughing. It was effective. It changed the way they were going into the negative downward spiral.
Friendship is Vital to Good Repairs
It wasn’t until Dr. Gottman looked at the physiology of the partner receiving the repair that he uncovered the secret weapon of emotionally connected couples.
The real difference between the couples who repaired successfully and those who didn’t was the emotional climate between partners. In other words, your repair attempt is only going to work well if you have really been a good friend to your partner, especially lately.
This happens by doing nice things and being kind to your partner. If you are understanding of each other, your relationship will be better fit to stand the inevitable storms that will come.
If you are disrespectful, rude, and distant to each other, then your repair attempts will fail. It’s the quality of the friendship that matters most in repairing the relationship when things go wrong.
Repairs don’t have to be well spoken or even complicated to be effective. Any genuine technique can work if a couple has the right foundation.
The Foundation for Repairs
By focusing on the first three principles in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, you can build a friendship that will make repair attempts—even a big stupid grin—successful and keep your relationship on track.
- Principle 1: Get to know your partner’s world—their likes and dislikes, dreams and fears—by asking questions, remembering the answers, and asking more open-ended questions regularly.
- Principle 2: Nurture your fondness and admiration. We encourage admirations in your relationship by letting your partner know how much you like and care for them. Let your partner know that you’re proud of them, compliment how they looks, and thank them for all the things they do for you.
- Principle 3: Turn toward one another, instead of away. This means responding to your partner’s bids for emotional connection and attention. Hold hands. Answer his questions. Ask his opinion. Laugh at his jokes. Make eye contact.
A strong friendship offers you the emotional connection required to repair ruptures in the relationship that will inevitably happen, as they do in every relationship.