It's the Repair That Matters

Relationship Conflict and Repair

You will screw up in your relationship; you’ll make mistakes, do or say the wrong thing, and hurt your partner’s feelings. It’s impossible to be perfectly attuned and connected ALL the time.

In fact, studies suggest just the opposite. Ed Tronick, developmental researcher (famous for his Still Face experiment), estimates that we only need to be attuned 30% of the time to engender secure attachment. Instead of being perfect, it’s more important to acknowledge when you’ve made a mistake and try to make amends soon after. In infant-caregiver relationships this repair process develops the child’s resilience as it instills a sense of hope that when things go wrong they can be set right again.

Similarly, John Gottman found that romantic partners are only emotionally available 9% of the time. What really defines a successful intimate partnership is the capacity to both reach out and to be willing to receive your partner’s bid for reconnection. As Gottman put it, “How couples repair is what separates the relationship Masters from the Disasters.”
This requires at least one partner to see beyond the reactive-defensive responses and turn towards their loved one. It doesn’t matter how the repair is done--whether it’s a hug or puppy-dog look of remorse--it’s the genuine effort to reconnect that counts.

It’s important to remember that when we feel hurt by the person we count on, our nervous system registers the experience as a threat; we become dysregulated and our body activates its fight or flight responses. In repair, we need to help each other feel safe, comforted and soothed again, which can be communicated through facial expressions, gentle touch and the intonation of your voice. Playfulness and humor can also help!

These moments of repair make relationships stronger by demonstrating the resiliency of the couple to withstand conflict. Each time you actively engage in repair, you are showing your intention to be there for your partner, and you are deepening the trust in the relationship.