Relationships are complex! We are in a continual dance with those around us, sometimes one that flows and feels amazing, other times stepping on toes and tripping each other. When relationships are going well, we can feel on top of the world. Burdens are lighter. We have less anxiety and feel more capable of facing challenges. But when relationships crumble, we can crumble too, falling apart in ways we never dreamed possible.
I have experienced this in my own life, and as a therapist working from an attachment perspective, I’ve walked with clients through the highs and lows, beginnings and endings of their relationships.
One of the biggest reasons I am so in love with Bowlby’s attachment theory is the concept of repair. Maybe this shouldn’t feel so novel to me. After all, I take my car in for repairs regularly. We repair things around the house. I’ve had some teeth repaired. Repair is a normal part of life!
But somehow, when it comes to relationships, we tend to not think about repair. We might think about “making up” after a fight, or “making it up to” someone we’ve wronged, and those things can get at repair if done well, but real relationship repair runs a bit deeper.
Think about any close relationship in your life (because this will happen in every one of them at some point — much more than once). Remember the last time you were really excited about something, or really sad, or just filled with fear, and you went to your person. You tried to tell them about it. But they were busy, or distracted, maybe feeling overwhelmed by their own emotions, and you didn’t feel understood. Or you felt brushed off, unimportant. Hurt.
A small rupture just happened in your relationship with that person.
What did you do next? Depending on the situation, you might have done any number of things… perhaps you tried to talk it out, told your person how you felt, they listened, understood, and the relationship was repaired; or you were too upset to do that, so you yelled, or shut down, or just walked away.
The interactions following a relationship rupture determine the depth and breadth of what needs to be repaired. What started out as a small thing can become huge. A moment of pain can become a pattern. We can begin to close ourselves off from the other in an attempt to protect ourselves. We can feel less safe, less secure.
But wait! All is not lost. Repair is the beacon of hope in relationships. Research tells us that not only can repair happen after hurt, it can actually make the relationship stronger than it was before!
That’s right. Messing up can actually benefit you and those you love when relationship ruptures are repaired well.
So what is it? What does repair look like in relationships?*
Repair begins with openness toward the other, a desire to maintain connection, and a courageous vulnerability to examine oneself and one’s behaviors without defensiveness.
The next step is empathy. When we empathize with someone, we are able to see things from their perspective without offering to fix it or change it. This is vital because there are at least three things going on when people relate with one another: there is my experience; there is your experience; and there is a third, a co-created experience of us, who and how we are in relationship with one another.
When we are able to be open to hear the other’s story, to empathize with how it was for them, and to examine our own thoughts and actions without defensiveness, we have a solid foundation for repairing the rupture in any relationship.
After those pieces are in place (and this may be quick and easy, or long and arduous, depending on the situation), the next step is for each person to think about what I need to do to make it right. You might be thinking, “I don’t need to do anything! They hurt me!” And sometimes that is totally true, but this goes back to openness. Perhaps what I need to do is forgive, let go of my bitterness or desire for some form of revenge.
Then more hard work of introspection… are we willing to be open to the possibility that it is not entirely the other’s fault? Are we willing to look at ourselves first, not to take blame, but to own what is ours? Just as defensiveness has no place in repair, blame will kill the process.
Likewise, we do not do anyone any favors by taking responsibility for what is theirs. When you are vulnerable enough to examine yourself, also be wise and discerning enough to only own what is yours. This isn’t about blame! You can own what’s yours and allow the other to own what’s theirs without blame. Repair is about each person taking responsibility for themselves.
It’s kind of a spiral process that builds on itself: begin with openness and vulnerability; empathize; take responsibility.
When each of these steps is done with thoughtfulness and kindness, repair is most likely to be successful and the relationship made stronger.
So next time you trip up in the dance, or get your whole foot crushed, remember: repairing relationships is not only possible, it could be the best thing you ever do.
So much love,
*Repair cannot happen in abusive relationships. What happens in the cycle of violence is not repair. It is not good, nor healthy, for the victim to try to be open and vulnerable with someone whose intent is to harm them emotionally or physically. If you are in an abusive relationship, protecting yourself is both reasonable and healthy. You can get help. Call the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or go to their website at thehotline.org for live chat.