Blog December 2020
The repair process in relationships and how it can go wrong
One of the popular misconceptions around relationships is that healthy couples are, or should be, harmonious all the time. Research in the field of interpersonal relating, including Ed Tronick’s work with infants and their mothers (see here for his fascinating but somewhat unsettling "still face" experiment), show what we already intuitively know - human relationships are based on a continue cycle of being connected (harmony), falling out of connection, for example through a hot or cold conflict (disharmony), and then reestablishing the connection (repair). What distinguishes a healthy adult relationship is not how much time is spent in harmony, but rather how skillfully the couple navigates the repair process.
This is easier said than done, as the less than healthy state of many relationships can attest to. Things become especially tricky when your partner pokes you directly in your childhood wound - something that couples have an uncanny ability to do. Like many men in our society, one of my wounds from childhood is the belief that I’m not good enough, not achieving enough, not pulling my weight. When my wife touches this nerve, as in recently by implying I was not doing my share in the house renovations, I instantaneously reverted what therapist Terry Real calls the “adaptive child” - adopting strategies from my childhood to deal with the threatening situation. These include defending myself in a self-righteous way, getting upset and blaming her, or pulling away. In that moment, I could not care less about repair - I want to be right, and I want her to be wrong.
Another obstacle to moving into repair is ironically not being able to bear any degree of disharmony. For some people, including myself, any type of conflict or distance to someone we love feels very uncomfortable - so we avoid it at all cost. When both people in a couple are like this, it makes a perfect recipe for bypassing the repair process and going directly back to harmony, ASAP.
The problem with this approach is that each time a conflict or disconnection is not repaired , a residue is left behind - often made of resentment - which over time builds up and poisons the relationship from within. During the first 5 years of being together, my wife and I almost never fought - and when we did, we could not bear it for more than 15 minutes, when invariably one would come to the other to cuddle and "make up".
This is the equivalent of disabling the warning light on the car dashboard and thinking the problem has gone away. By going too quickly back into harmony, we were not addressing the real issues in the relationship, including a sex life which was not working at all. This strategy, predictably, blew up in our faces when we reached a point where we could not look away any longer. The result was a crisis so severe it almost ended the relationship. The good news is that we are no longer capable this kind of bypassing - the pain of avoiding is far greater than the discomfort of going into repair.
Why discomfort? Because the repair process involves the often unpleasant but essential business of looking under the hood and seeing what’s really going on. Doing repair properly requires emotional maturity, the ability to be aware of our feelings but not run by them. It requires self-responsibility, recognizing when we're in our adaptive child and finding our way back to the adult part of ourselves, the part that is more concerned with the health of the relationship than with winning or being right.
These are the most important parts of the repair process*:
- Vulnerability - showing yourself to your partner, communicating your feelings without making your partner responsible for them. In the case of the house renovations, it meant telling my wife that I felt useless and incompetent, as well as angry and frustrated. Notice that communicating our feelings means we first have to be aware of them - this is challenging for many people, especially if the feelings are ones they don’t feel comfortable with and are used to suppressing.
- Listening with an open heart - This means listening to your partner without going into judgement or arguing about what is “the truth”. It means being curious and empathetic - how does my partner perceive, and most importantly feel, this situation.
- Finally, the repair process often involves the fine art of making requests of the other person - “here’s what you can do in the future to make things better, easier, etc… for me”. What distinguishes a request from a command or expectation is that your partner can say yes or no to it, and both answers are totally acceptable for you. In relationships that have a strong culture of repair, both partners are as generous as possible when responding to the other’s request - they give what they can. They do this in part because they know their own happiness depends on their partner’s happiness, and on the health of the relationship.
Going through repair skillfully is important as a way to come back into real connection. But it is much more than that - going through this process over and over again is the only way deep intimacy and trust can be built in a relationship. It is where we allow ourselves to be seen by our partner at our most vulnerable. It is where we put our egos aside and demonstrate how much importance we place on the connection with our partner. Every time a couple successfully navigates the repair process, a brick is added to their temple of intimacy. Every time repair is bypassed or sabotaged, a paper card is added instead of a brick. A house made of bricks can withstand many storms - a house of cards collapses with the first heavy wind.
*Inspired by the book "The New Rules of Marriage" by Terry Real, a book which I can highly recommend.