This is often hard to understand for a lot of the people I work with so in this post I am going to go through what we mean about repair in relationships.
Let’s start with acknowledging the kinds of things we need to repair in a relationship. That might seem obvious, but let’s lay the foundation for this. It starts with a communication or action by your partner that leaves you hurt, disappointed, let down, frustrated, and so on. There may be things you have both said or done during a conflict that causes both to want attention to your hurt feelings.
Several common pitfalls arise and get in the way of a smooth repair process.
- The first is when one partner brings up their experience with a lot of blame and accusation and the partner being accused responds defensively. This attack/defend scenario does not lead to an easy repair process.
- Secondly, one partner starts to talk about their experience and the other goes into their experience without really responding. In this situation, neither party feels listened to.
- Thirdly, one partner starts to address the situation and brings in many other unresolved situations. This ends up overwhelming the process and creates more resentment. We can only truly repair one situation at a time.
What do we mean by repair is one way?
Let’s talk about the key elements of repair first.
For repair to happen we need our hurt acknowledged and to receive a caring response (usually in the form of a sincere apology). We need that hurt understood. We need to be clear about what hurt us and what we need to move on.
Even when both partners have hurt feelings we can see that it is not possible to attend to both at the same time. It has to be one at a time to truly experience this repair. This makes it particularly difficult for the partner who is in the position of listening and responding when they have hurt feelings themselves. It takes practice and this is where having a structure can be helpful to facilitate the process.
I have come to appreciate the process laid out by RLT (Relational Life Therapy). Here are a couple of key aspects that come into this practice.
Separating what happened from what we make up about it.
Often when expressing how we have been hurt we combine these two things. For example, ‘When you ignored me that really hurt’. So here what happened is ‘you didn’t respond to me when I was talking to you and what I made up was that you were ignoring me and what I have to say doesn’t matter to you’. When we combine the interpretation of what happened then our partner will want to argue how that is not true and make it difficult to acknowledge your experience. When we acknowledge this is what we make up (interpretation) then we can begin to be more open to what the truth is for the other person, and recognize where these feelings are coming from. Often our story includes historical experiences in our life that we bring into relationships.
Understanding our partner's experience does not have to include agreeing with it.
When we are in the listening chair this is hard for a lot of people. Let’s take the above example. It may not be true for you that your partner’s concerns don’t matter to you. In understanding your partner it doesn’t matter what is true for you. Understanding requires us to put ourselves in our partner's shoes and get how they got there. Acknowledging first what you understand about that goes a long way. In many ways, this process demonstrates they matter. It can be hard to put aside our experience and desire to fix their feelings by telling them this is not true. It is, however, essential to a successful repair process.
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