Relationship Repair 101

“Like gardens, relationships need tending to.” ~ Peg Streep

You just had a major fight with your significant other. You are moping around the house, avoiding each other, because you both said some pretty hurtful things. Then you go to bed feeling discouraged and lonely, wondering how you can ever bounce back from a blowout of this magnitude. Through something called, “repair attempts” it is possible. Relationship guru, Dr. John Gottman, refers to successful repair attempts as the “happy couples’ secret weapon.” Read on to learn how it works and how you can implement it into your relationship.

Repair attempts are any time you or your partner do anything to draw closer to one another, mitigate potential conflict, and resolve differences or arguments. There are a few types of repair attempts; the ones that happen along the way that deter you from entering into a higher level of conflict (low-level), as well as, the ones that are used when significant emotional damage has already been done (high-level).  Practicing relationship repair techniques whenever you or your partner are upset can exponentially increase the likelihood of getting to a better place of understanding. It deepens trust and connection, and also paves the way for mutual support. 

Low-level repair attempts are simple practices like directly asking what your partner’s needs are, validating his/her emotions, apologizing in the moment, using humor, empathizing with them, verbally reminding him/her you are on the same team, etc. Sometimes these tactics work to avoid a bigger fight breaking out from petty bickering, but other times the damage has already been done and repairs are needed. First, make sure you have owned your part in the disagreement(s) and have apologized for where you may have overstepped or said something you should not have. Once you have done this, you are ready to utilize the following five higher-level repair attempts:

  1. CONNECT. Remember how you felt when you first met your partner? Remember the joy of discovering who he/she was and what he/she liked? It is common to get comfortable with someone and be caught up in day-to-day stresses, responsibilities, and distractions. When your relationship feels strained and damaged, try going back to the simple pleasures that brought you together. Connect with each other. Put your phones down, turn the TV off, and really pay attention to and talk with your significant other. Connection is healing!
  2. TOUCH. Studies show that touching each other, especially during times of stress, shows compassion and feeling, and also increases your sense of connection. I could write a million blog posts on the power of touch in healing wounded hearts and relationships. It is powerful. Even when you do not feel like it, simple touches can be like a white flag, signaling to your partner that you wish to reconcile. So touch his arm in passing, kiss her cheek when you come home from work, snuggle him when you are falling asleep. Touching is a powerful way to mend strained relationships. 
  3. COMMIT. Commit to be better. You could even consider being accountable to each other with specific things you each are going to do (or not do). Then be sure to follow through. For instance, if your partner is feeling like you are always on your phone, make a commitment to put your phone in the basket by the fridge throughout dinner. And then DO IT–follow through. Committing to little things like that–agreed upon together–speak volumes about your dedication to your relationship. And then when you follow through? This heals relationships!
  4. BE GRATEFUL. Even when you are in a fight with your partner and things are tense, you can still express gratitude for one another and the ways you each contribute to the relationship. My friend’s husband will always thank his wife for making dinner, even when they are not on the best of terms. You can say thank you for working hard, for preparing a yummy meal, for cleaning the house, for putting gas in the car, etc. Gratitude goes a long way!
  5. USE YOUR WORDS. Work on expressing yourself in ways that will not lead to escalation. For instance, avoid saying things like, “You really made me angry and you need to change.” This will only make your partner defensive. Instead, use an “I” statement and pair it with an invitation to talk: “I am bothered by your decision; can you explain why you did that?” You could also try giving your partner a hand-written, personalized note to voice the thoughts and feelings that may be hard to vocalize. Tell your partner why he/she is worth fighting for and what your relationship means to you.  Tell your partner you love him/her and did not mean to inflict hurt. Ask what is needed from you to help salve the wound. Share your ideas about how you got triggered and how you plan to avoid it from happening again. 

If you address relationship conflict by blaming, shaming, defending, explaining, half-heartedly apologizing, demanding forgiveness, or avoiding all conflict altogether, then trust, intimacy, and the very life of your relationships can erode over time. Repair attempts are empathetic behaviors that can preserve the relationship you value. Although these behaviors may be hard to do in the moment of conflict, it is worth it. Your relationship is worth it! Do not hesitate to contact me today with questions about how you can further repair your relationship. 

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Melissa Cluff, MS, LMFT, CSAT

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.