How do couples who share ongoing happiness differ from those who don’t? One key difference is that they know how to quickly repair. Partners who keep love alive resolve small riffs or ruptures before they escalate into big ones. All couples go in and out of synch and can occasionally be at odds. Knowing how to repair such distress is central to staying happily connected.
Here’s an example of repair. Say your partner forgets to do something they agreed to do. You react by criticizing them. They react back defensively. You now notice you are in a familiar reactive pattern. What can you do? Below are some simple steps that couples who engage in quick repair would do.
Catch & Stop Reactivity
Realize you are in a reactive pattern, stop the damage, and figure out what’s at the root of it…
- Say something to stop it from escalating further (“Can we pause?”).
- Stop the reactive behaviors you both are engaged in (criticizing, defending).
- Say a simple sentence that assures friendship (“Sorry. We’re okay here. I just need a minute.”).
- Pause and figure out what insecurity got triggered in you (feeling last on their priority list).
- Say this simply, vulnerably (“When you forgot to ____, I felt like I wasn’t important to you.”
Respond in a Reparative Way
Now it’s your partner’s turn to respond to your vulnerable reveal…
- Your partner does something supportive (gives you a hug).
- They give a simple, direct reassurance (“I’m sorry I forgot. You matter more than anything.”).
- This repairs the deeper insecurity that got triggered in you.
Since triggering usually goes both ways, you will also reverse roles and give your partner any reassurance they need (to your criticism). But you can only repair one person at a time. And you cannot do any repair while you are still triggered. So you have to pause and calm down a bit first, even to figure out what deeper insecurities were at the root of your triggering.
In a secure partnership, if you get triggered, you approach each other for reassurance. You don’t expect your partner to read your mind. You don’t avoid your feelings or keep them hidden. You do not try to provoke a response. You don’t blame or guilt-trip each other. You don’t get caught up in interrogating, complaining, or criticizing. And you don’t ignore, distance, or withdraw.
Have a Pause Signal
If you catch yourself in a reactive pattern, you notice it and revise your approach as soon as possible. When triggered, give a simple, clear distress signal (such as, “Can we pause?” or “I just got triggered.”). This signal will get both of you to slow down and take action to repair what is going on. Quickly re-establish friendship. And then show your needs for reassurance rather than acting out your insecurities.
We learn to be more skillful as we develop the capacity to express our needs directly and vulnerably, to reach out for hugs and reassurance, and to quickly respond to each other’s distress. What we find out in doing so is that our insecure feelings (like not being important) are misinterpretations of situations — and these can be easily straightened out by each other.
Be proactive. As soon as you notice your partner is in distress, don’t wait to be told. Give your pause signal. Offer a long, deep hug. Offer reassurances of safety right away. Be an early responder. Calm distressed states as soon as possible. The longer you stay in distress, the more upset escalates and lodges in long term memory. And that adds up to even more triggering in the future.
Know Your Vulnerabilities
Figure out each others’ vulnerabilities. In the example above, your vulnerability was an insecurity of not being important to your partner. Perhaps your partner had an insecurity of being blamed that got triggered by your criticism. Such insecurities need to be directly addressed and soothed if you want to feel safe and secure together.
So become an expert on each others’ sensitivities. Do you know what is usually at the core of your partner’s distress? Do you know what they really need when they react in ways that upset you?
You can begin to explore this in detail in my book Five-Minute Relationship Repair. Gathered from decades of working with couples in my intensive marriage retreats — this book helps you discover what’s at the root of reactive patterns. It offers ways to quickly stop and repair upsets before they lead to major disconnects.
Learning to quickly repair enables you to stay happily connected and experience your full potential as partners to share a pleasurable life together.