Relationship Conflict: The Art of Repair

All couples argue, but why do some escalate into damaging territory and others keep it manageable and constructive? According to Dr John Gottman, a renowned relationships researcher, repair attempts are the “happy couple’s secret weapon.” Typically, we think of repair in terms of something being broken and needing repair, as in a car or dishwasher. But in relationships, repair is less about fixing what is broken, and more about getting back on track.

Happy couples repair early and often, and they have many strategies for repairing, both verbal and nonverbal. Gottman describes a repair attempt as “any statement or action – silly or otherwise – that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.” The word “any” is key: if you have arguments with your partner, you need to be creative and develop your own unique repair strategies that will work for your relationship.

For a happy relationship you need to master the art of repairing, which includes both making and receiving repair attempts. Notice and acknowledge when your partner makes a repair attempt and try to receive rather than reject it. It takes courage and insight to make a repair attempt, and it’s a sign from your partner that they don’t want to feel the pain of another fight. If you’re not quite ready to receive a repair attempt then at the very least acknowledge and thank your partner, and explain that you need some time to calm yourself. It is then up to you to come back (sooner rather than later) and make a repair attempt yourself to get the relationship back on track.

Gottman has developed a Repair Checklist, which is a list of phrases grouped into categories. It’s designed for use when a conversation with your partner escalates and goes off track into negative territory. The idea is to review the list together and choose the phrases that may or may not work to help you de-escalate a conversation before either of you becomes emotionally overwhelmed.

Keeping in mind that some of these may not work for you, some possible repair attempts include:

  • Using humour (but not at the expense of your partner);
  • Asking your partner what they need from you right now;
  • Validating your partner’s feelings (e.g. “It sounds like you’re feeling hurt”);
  • Apologizing with sincerity (e.g. “I’m sorry I jumped to conclusions”);
  • Touching your partner gently;
  • Asking your partner if you can both take a break;
  • Gently reminding your partner that you’re on the same team;
  • Empathising with your partner (e.g. “If I was in your shoes I understand that you would see it that way”);
  • Taking responsibility for your behavior or part in the conflict;
  • Telling your partner you love them and you didn’t mean to hurt them;
  • Explaining to your partner how you got triggered and how you plan to avoid or manage this in the future.

You can attempt a repair at any point in an argument, even if things get heated — but it’s best to try to repair early. Repairing is not an admission that your partner was “right” or that they have “won”. Rather, a repair attempt is an act of loving behaviour not only to your partner but also to the relationship you share. It’s about putting your relationship first and ensuring that your relationship wins the fight.

If you feel you need help with your situation and relationship, it can help to work with a professional. myLife Psychologists provides relationship & marriage counselling for couples and individuals. To make an appointment in our Alexandria or Sydney CBD office or to find out more, contact us.

Written by Tal Schlosser, Clinical Psychologist & Couples Therapist