The Healing Power of Repair
As a divorce mediator at Castle Rock Mediation, I see first-hand the legacy of unhealthy or unresolved conflict. I believe that almost all marriages that end in divorce come from the inability to practice healthy conflict.
But what most people don’t know, is that while conflict may be an inevitable occurrence in our lives, it doesn’t have to derail our relationships. In fact, if people will learn how to manage their conflict in healthy ways, they can actually experience deeper connection and intimacy. The key to healthy conflict is to include a “repair” of the conflict. Most people, having only experienced conflict resolution through the classroom of family modeling, have no idea how to achieve a successful repair.
But to understand “a repair” it would be helpful to define it. According to Dr Gottman a repair is “any statement or action — silly or otherwise — that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.” And in relational terms, repair is less about fixing what is broken and more about getting back on track. What couples fail to realize is that a repair is the necessary bookend to healthy conflict. Repair can take the shape of many things, from a “time out flag” to make up sex. According to Zach Brittle of the Gottman Institute, “No matter what strategies you choose, it is absolutely critical that you master the art of making and receiving repair attempts. In Dr. Gottman’s research, the consistent failure of repair attempts is a sign of an unhappy future.”
One of the strategies that my husband and I use for repair after an intense conversation is what we call the “customer service desk.” This is a concept learned from Jimmy Evans in his marriage book called the “Four laws of Love.” Basically, after my husband and I have some kind of conflict, one of us asks for an appointment with the “customer service desk.” The idea is based on a mutual premise; that we as a couple have decided to be willing and able to hear a complaint from the other party, as well as open to fixing the complaint. Jimmy Evans explains that just like every good department store has a customer service desk to hear customer’s complaints, we need to be open to hearing the complaints our partners have. And just like every customer service desk is focused on resolving the complaint, we need to make resolving and repairing conflict a priority.
You may be interested to hear that my husband and I don’t always come to repair and resolution after our customer service appointment. But we are slowly getting better. We are learning to wait until emotions are running lower and learning to come into our conversations without accusations or attacks. Slowly, we are learning how to repair our conflict more consistently.
But sometimes a customer service appointment isn’t enough. Especially when emotions overtake us, and anger can become abusive and damaging. In these situations, a repair needs to be more intentional and the person who inflicts the damage needs to accept full responsibility. Sometimes in relationships one person abandons, cheats or allows substance abuse to devastate the other person. These events can seem to be unredeemable because of the amount of destruction created.
However, if each person takes responsibility for their side of the fence, especially if you have been the one to wreak serious wounds on the other person, learning the skill of the five-point apology can change the trajectory of an otherwise, doomed relationship. Most people want harmony in their relationships, but until the wounds have been addressed and repaired, they are unable to extend trust to the person who damaged us. This is a natural response to being hurt. Intimacy cannot be restored until trust is restored.
Most people think an “sorry” or “I’m sorry” is good enough but almost always a one-point apology is not sufficient for true repair. At the very least, a real apology has to include a plan to not commit the offense again.
When there is deep damage, sincerity and true remorse are key ingredients.
1. Acknowledge the offense and accept responsibility; keys to this are taking responsibility for the offense and validating a legitimate hurt or damage. Take responsibility for what you did wrong and say it. An example would look like this:
“I know that I hurt you yesterday when I lost my temper and yelled at you. That was wrong of me to do and I know it was damaging.”
2. Express remorse: This is where you say you are sorry and be specific. Show the other party that you recognize the offense as damaging and you regret doing it. You can possibly can give a reason, but never an excuse for your behavior.
“I want you to know that I am really sorry for losing my temper and no matter what the reason, there is no excuse for me treating you that way.”
3. Making Restitution: This tells the listener that you are not only willing to admit that you committed an offense but that you want to try to right the situation in some way and prove to them that you want their trust back. This also allows the one offended to have a say in what would make your relationship right again.
“What can I do to help you start trusting me again and to repair this damage I have done?”
4. Genuinely promising change: Tell the listener that you not only want to say you’re sorry for the offense, but you want to make sure that the offense never happens again. Tell them what you will do to stop yourself from committing the same offense.
“I am committed to doing everything I can do to never do this again. I made an appointment with a counselor to get anger management therapy.”
4. Requesting forgiveness: At this point asking for forgiveness from the one you offended or hurt marks the apology as genuine. Because you are sorry for what you did, admitted what you did, offered to make good on the hurt relationship and trust, and promised change in your behavior in the future, the listener is more likely to genuinely forgive you because of your genuine apology.
“will you forgive me?”
It is essential that if we want to nourish our relationships, we recognize the importance of both healthy conflict and healthy repair. In a world of ever-growing isolation and distance it is easy to dismiss the necessity of face-to-face communication. But our relationships will never thrive until we learn and practice how to repair the people and relationships that we’ve knowingly or unknowingly hurt. We have within ourselves the power to heal our closest relationships, if we purpose to offer the needed repair. This demands practice, intentionality, and humility, but the rewards far outweigh the cost.