Conflict happens. It just does. You and your spouse are not always going to see a situation the same way, you may have different opinions, preferences, and values. And so, you will disagree. It is not realistic to expect that you will never experience conflict or disagreement. Today, I’m talking about repair attempts, a secret weapon to preserve your relationship during conflict.
Why Repair Attempts
Sometimes the conflict issues aren’t a big deal and we can just agree to disagree or each do our own thing. You like comic book conventions, and I like camping; you do your thing, and I’ll do mine. Maybe you’re a republican and I’m a democrat; we have some intense conversations but in the end we each vote our conscience.
Other times it’s not possible to just agree to disagree or to each do your own thing. One of you wants sex more than the other, you disagree about how to spend your money, you have different parenting styles. You can each practice our own religion, but how will you raise the kids? And so you will have to discuss conflict issues.
I probably don’t have to tell you that sometimes conflict discussions are tense, sometimes they escalate, sometimes you both get hurt, and sometimes you get off track and end up fighting instead of resolving or discussing conflict in a helpful way. Dr. Anne Goshen, a couples therapist in San Diego, explains that repair attempts are used when one or both partners recognizes the conversation is going in a negative way and does or says something to get it back on track.
What is a repair attempt?
In his popular book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr John Gottman describes repair attempts:
This term refers to any statement or action—silly or otherwise—that prevents negativity from escalating out of control. Repair attempts are a secret weapon of emotionally intelligent couples. When a couple have a strong friendship, they naturally become experts at sending each other repair attempts and at correctly reading those sent their way. . . .
The success or failure of a couple’s repair attempts is one of the primary factors in whether their marriage is likely to flourish or flounder. . . . Most of the couples who participate in our workshops are relieved to hear that almost everybody messes up during marital conflict. What matters is whether their repairs succeed.
Having a marital secret weapon sounds pretty cool. Most couples are doing some form of repair attempts already. If you recognize in the examples things you do, keep doing them! If you’re able to stay on track during conflict discussions, great! Now that you know how valuable repairs are, you can implement a repair sooner and recognize when your partner is offering you a repair.
I don’t like being angry with you.
Let's not fight. I don't like fighting with you.
I love you.
I see your point.
Can we find a win-win?
How do we move on from this?
I just need some time to calm down
This is really important to you
Watch out for the words you choose. “I don’t like the way I’m talking to you” or “I don’t like the way we’re talking to each other” is a repair. It serves to de-escalate and move the conversation back to a friendly place. “I don’t like the way you’re talking to me” is not a repair; it is likely to escalate the fight and move the conversation in an adversarial direction. (Example borrowed from Dr. Goshen)
Recognize and accept the repairs from your partner. This is often harder than it seems when we are in the throes of the conflict. I’m not expecting you to become some kind of emotional wizard and to be able to just instantly calm and turn off any difficult feelings as soon as you see a smile or hear an “I’m sorry.” But don’t push it away. Most people can do at least that. So, you’re still upset, that’s okay; you can say “Thanks” or offer a smile back or even offer your own repair “You’re right. We’re getting off track. I think I need a few minutes to calm down before we continue.”
Conflict and friendship are closely related in marriage. The stronger your friendship, the better your conflict discussions will go. So take time to invest in the friendship between you. Date. Have fun together. Talk. Couples who have good friendships with each other make and receive repair attempts naturally, and so their conflict discussions go more smoothly.