Keys to Relationship Repair

All couples encounter differences and fall out of synch at times. They may disagree about things, misinterpret one another, or get their buttons pushed. Your ability to effectively communicate at such times makes all the difference between resolving issues or getting stuck in upset.

Unfortunately, most of us did not grow up seeing adults model healthy ways to work through differences. So we don’t know how to talk with one another in a way that handles each other’s distress.

We can all learn from couples who share ongoing happiness. How do they communicate and  handle distress? A key skill they have is being able to rapidly repair things. They are good at quickly attending to the little glitches that every relationship encounters.

Those of us who do not naturally know how to do this suffer a buildup over time of unrepaired ruptures. Eventually this buildup leads to feeling unsafe or guarded with each other. And we find ourselves feeling less intimate, less relaxed, and more alone.

So if you and your intimate partner are experiencing lack of intimacy or a build-up of unresolved distress, it’s time to learn this three-step formula for addressing and resolving communication difficulties: Catch-Pause-Repair. Think of this as CPR for your love life.

1. Catch. This is about becoming aware and speaking up when a triggering event or emotional injury occurs. It’s about catching it before it escalates more. As soon as possible.

Discuss and agree on a short, one or two-word signal or nonverbal hand gesture, that either person can use whenever you feel over-loaded with too much input, flooded with emotions, or whenever you find yourselves going around in circles in your attempts to be heard and understood. This could be a “time-out” hand signal or saying the word, “pause,” or “let’s pause.”

Choose something that both of you can agree on—something easy to remember and recognize when things are difficult between you. Make sure your signal is short and neutral in its emotional tone—so it does not trigger more confusion or upset.

Agree together that anytime either of you gives this signal, you will both stop talking so you can calm yourselves—the second step in this three-part formula.

2. Pause. During your pause, the aim is to calm your activated nervous system by taking some slow conscious breaths or using some other method to relax your mind and body. Sometimes it helps to turn your attention to your here-and-now sensations and perceptions. Feel the chair you are sitting on, notice the rise and fall of your chest as your breath.

Reassure yourself that you are safe, that your partner is still your friend, but has most likely gotten temporarily triggered due to their own emotional make-up. Remember that even though your partner may seem angry, cold, or upset, this behavior represents a protective pattern. It is not how your partner would behave if he or she felt safe.

The next step, repair, involves helping your partner feel safe with you. We’ll get to that step in a minute. But before you can attend to your partner’s safety, it’s important to get some of your own higher brain functions back. When you’re triggered or upset, it’s hard to feel empathy or care for your partner. But once you’re calm again, then you’re ready to reveal to your partner your deeper, truer feelings and needs.

3. Repair. Once your nervous systems are calmed down, it’s time to engage in the a repair process. The goal of this process is to repair any damage that may have occurred to your trust or closeness and to deepen your empathy for one another’s sensitivities and needs.

During this repair step, you let your partner know that you now realize that you were triggered or that your nervous system was overly activated when you did what you did or said what you said before your pause. You let each other know what fears got triggered in you—such as a fear of rejection, criticism, being controlled, or of not being accepted, loved, or respected.

These are some of the common fears that get activated (often unconsciously) when we find ourselves blowing up, shutting down, or over-talking.

Then, you reveal to your partner some of the things you now feel and need— now that you are calmer. While one person is revealing this vulnerable information about themselves, the other partner is listening intently and responsively. The book provides a step-by-step procedure to help you get in touch with your deeper feelings and needs so you can communicate these in a loving, reassuring way.

Agree to Rewire Your Partnership for Safety

Each time you stop reactive communication by doing Catch-Pause-Repair, you are rewiring both of your nervous systems so that you actually become a more secure functioning couple. You get better and better at spotting reactivity before it goes too far. And you more instinctively begin to reassure one another whenever you see signs that someone is in a protective or reactive communication pattern.

Ironically, this means that emotional reactivity in a relationship is the ideal vehicle for fostering emotional healing. Hair trigger reactions and insecure circuits in the nervous system need to be activated a little bit in order to be rewired—but not over-activated. So it is best to catch reactive incidents early.

The more consistently we can remember to use this three-step formula, the more we are creating a relationship that nurtures our deepest longings for love, trust, safety, intimacy, and respect.

Hidden Under Upset Reactions — Core Feelings and Needs

When we get triggered, two levels of feelings exist: reactive and core. Where we direct our attention will make all the difference between making things better, or making things worse. Repair is based on getting into the core—to the very heart of the matter. This is where the root of our upset lives. Most of us don’t recognize this.

We usually stay on the surface, where we experience reactive feelings like feeling frustrated, angry, resentful, anxious, hopeless, confused, stuck, numb. These reactive states usually trap our attention. These are versions of the primitive survival states of fight, flight, or freeze. Usually these are what we display to each other in the form of reactive behaviors like yelling, criticizing, getting sarcastic, interrogating, blaming, blowing up, withdrawing, avoiding, distancing, or shutting down.

When we communicate on this level, things only get worse. Repair is impossible, and we get stuck in an upsetting reactive cycle. To overcome this, we have to reach beneath the surface, to understand and take care of the core feelings and core fears that are at the very root of our upset.

Since core feelings get masked by reactive feelings, we’re rarely aware of the tender emotions at the heart our reactions. Certainly our partner won’t be aware of these either, as we only show our reactive behaviors.

On a reactive level, Donna felt angry when Eric kept checking his cell phone on their date night, thinking, “I don’t matter to Eric. I’m all alone.” She started reactively complaining: “The only thing you care about is your work!”

What core feelings and fears were hidden underneath her anger? She actually felt hurt and afraid. She felt hurt when she imagined she did not matter to Eric. And her fear of abandonment button got pushed when she thought she was all alone and that he was not really interested in being there with her.

Why couldn’t Donna directly express her core fears? She was programmed in childhood to believe that being that vulnerable never worked out for her. In infancy, her parents did not respond when she cried—and often ignored, laughed at, or belittled her when she tried to express her hurts or fears.

Now, as an adult, her core fears and vulnerable tears get masked by her anger—remaining hidden from Eric and probably from herself. Hearing her complaining and criticizing, it is impossible for Eric to see that Donna is really feeling hurt, afraid, and alone.

When we do not have valid information about a partner’s core feelings, we tend to make up stories to explain the behavior we see. Our stories arise out of our own unconscious fears. So as Donna complained that night, a story came up in Eric’s mind that he could never do enough to make her happy. At first he tried to push this thought aside and ignore her. As Donna escalated into angry criticism, he felt hopeless. Then he shut down.

It never occurred to Eric to express his own core feelings and needs. Most likely, he didn’t even notice these core parts of himself. Instead he withdrew, thinking, “I can never get it right with Donna. Nothing I ever do is good enough for her.” This reaction hid his softer, more vulnerable, core feelings—both from himself and from Donna. So Donna’s story that he didn’t care was reinforced by his seeming lack of attention to her complaints.

If Donna had gotten valid data about Eric’s core feelings, she might have been able to see beyond her worst-case story about him. In his core, Eric was feeling a deep sadness. A core fear of being rejected by Donna came up in him—a fear of being seen as inadequate in her eyes. But he couldn’t let Donna know this. Such vulnerability was out of the question. In childhood, his nervous system was programmed believe nobody would respond to his distress. So his pattern was to go numb and hide his feelings. Often he didn’t even realize it when he was upset, since being conscious of distress just left him feeling helpless and inadequate.

Donna had no idea that he had all these feelings. She always got the impression that he didn’t feel much, that nothing affected him. He always looked so cool, calm, and collected. If she really knew what was going on beneath his shut down exterior, she would have realized that he really cared about her, and she would have wanted to soothe his sadness and reassure his fears.

Most of us have difficulty expressing our fears and tears—the soft, vulnerable, core parts of ourselves. So like most couples, both Eric and Donna kept each other in the dark about the tender emotions they really felt beneath their surface reactions. They got stuck in a reactive pattern that only got worse over the years. Neither of them would ever suspect the other person was actually fearing rejection or abandonment. Thus neither partner knew that each of them had the power to interrupt their cycle and reassure their partner’s fears.

In order to interrupt your reactive cycle, it is vital to understand what is at the core of your reactivity—your vulnerable core fears and tears. The following lists show the typical reactive feelings that get triggered—and the core feelings and core fears that are usually hidden beneath this reactivity.

REACTIVE FEELINGS

irritated, frustrated, annoyed, angry, resentful, infuriated, enraged, anxious, impatient, hopeless, confused, stuck, blank, empty, numb, paralyzed, shame

CORE FEELINGS

sad, hurt, disappointed, pained, grief-stricken, lonely

CORE FEARS (afraid of being…)

abandoned, rejected, left, all alone, unneeded, insignificant, unimportant, flawed, not good enough, inadequate, a failure, unlovable, controlled, trapped, suffocated, out of control, weak

The first list, reactive feelings, shows some of the states that we may feel when we are triggered. These hide the deeper core feelings at the root of our upset. The second list shows these core feelings. The third list shows core fears that are at the root of why our alarms are ringing and why we are reacting with survival states of fight, flight, or freeze. So you might look at these three lists as a kind of emotional “parfait”—with core fears at the bottom, core feelings the middle layer, and reactive feelings at the surface. Normally, the only thing anyone sees or expresses is the top layer, the reactive feelings.

Generally, a core fear lives at the root of any reaction. Yet, while reacting, it can be difficult to identify what that fear is. The reactive story can offer a clue. For instance, the story “I can never get it right” often points to a core fear of being rejected, inadequate, not good enough, or a failure.

Start being curious about the core fears at the root of your reactivity. Everyone has these fear-buttons, so it’s best to welcome these new insights rather than thinking you have to cover up your weaknesses.

The most important piece of the puzzle is the relational core needs of each partner—like the needs to feel accepted, important, and valued. Core needs operate like air, food, and water in a primary partnership. It is important to feel okay about having such needs and expressing them in your relationship. Otherwise it will be very hard to feel safe with your intimate partner.

People have to feel that these core needs are being met. Otherwise, your alarm will soon be ringing. If you could state these directly, you would say things like:

CORE NEEDS

“I need to feel…

connected to you, accepted by you, good enough for you, valued by you, important to you, appreciated by you, respected by you, needed by you, that I matter to you, that we are a team, that I can count on you, that you are there for me.”

Intimate partners need to feel valued, needed, connected, accepted, that they matter, and that they can count on each other. These are core needs for all partners in relationship. When these needs are frustrated, couples fall prey to frequent reactivity and co-triggering.

By recognizing what is really driving a reactive cycle, partners can learn how to repair upsets and reassure one another that they truly are safe—that they are cared for, that they are important, that they are good enough, that they are loved. This is why it is vital to see what is at the root (or core) of your own reactive cycle, and to understand how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

Communicating for Repair

Whenever upset occurs, it is vital to repair it as soon as possible. Most of us have little experience with emotional repair. Gaining some first hand experiences of giving and receiving reparative communication will grow our nervous systems and skill set. The following are some simple tools and rules that can enable you to begin to gain experience. Treat these as potential training wheels helping you get enough balance and facility to be able to repair in your own style.

First, know that it is very difficult to do two-way repair simultaneously. In general, both partners need emotional repair when there has been an upsetting event. Someone has to offer to deliver repair first, giving their partner the opportunity to receive it. Then they can trade roles. One of the things that prevents successful repair is that both people are simultaneously trying to receive repair, but nobody is left to give it.

Good repair can be done in five minutes. In fact it can be argued that taking any longer is an indicator that you are probably dis-repairing and making things worse. In the protocol below, one person delivers a Repair Statement, and the other gives a reparative response. Each has a tightly defined role.

Delivering a Repair Statement

The essence of a Repair Statement is saying, “When you did that, I got triggered.” Where “that” refers to a specific action. Then you fill in the details of your experience, including the story that came up in your mind about the emotional meaning of “that” as well as the core feelings, fears and needs that arose for you.

The Repair Statement and it’s component parts is spelled out in far more detail in the book Five-Minute Relationship Repair. Here we will mainly look at the factors of delivery that makes the statement more powerful.

Keep it simple and deliver it slowly, into your partners eyes. When you fill in the blanks of the Repair Statement, only put in one item per blank. People often think more is better. But when it comes to emotional communication, less is clearer, and clarity is power.

When you deliver the statement, stick to the simple script. Glance at whatever the next phrase is on the paper, but look up and slowly deliver it into your partner’s eyes. Take your time. Slower is better.

Once you are finished, cue your partner to start their response by asking, “What did you hear me say?” And please expect it to be difficult for them to remember! They will ask for help remembering, and it’s in your interest to keep helping them to really get it, as described below

Giving a Reparative Response

1. Repeat what your partner said. In delivering a Repair Statement, your partner vulnerably reveals their deeper core feelings, fears, and needs. Listening with an open heart, you will naturally want to respond in a way that alleviates your partner’s fears and helps them feel safe with you.

The first step is to be able to prove to your partner that you do understand these deeper feelings and needs. You prove this by accurately repeating back to them what they just told you. It is important to be able to do this in their words as much as possible. Especially when it comes to their core fears and needs.

You might be amazed how difficult this can be. The Repair Statement generally takes less than 30 seconds to present. One would think it would be easy to remember and repeat back. Yet, especially at first, I find partners often have difficulty in accurately repeating what the other person said.

So be gentle on yourself, and expect to stumble. Just ask for help. That is, ask your partner to tell you again any parts of their statement you are fuzzy on. Or ask them to repeat the whole thing. It’s in both of your best interests to help each other transmit and receive this important and vulnerable emotional message.

At the end of your repeat, always ask your partner, “Did I miss anything?” Your knowledge of your partner’s core fears and needs will guide you to find the most relevant way to repair the rupture they experienced with you.

2. Deliver a sincere apology. Look deeply into your partner’s eyes. Say one of the following kinds of sentences (the simpler, the better)

“I’m so sorry I hurt you.”

“I’m sorry I triggered you.”

“I’m really sorry I shut you out.”

“I’m sorry for lashing out.”

Some find it difficult to apologize, due to childhood experiences of being shamed. So as a child, it may have felt like pleading guilty or admitting you were a bad person. But as an adult, saying “I’m sorry…” in this context says you care about how your partner feels. You are saying that you recognize the painful emotion your partner felt, and you are sorry for any unintentional way you played a part in triggering it.

The shorter the apology, the more power it has. The most powerful apology of all is to simply say, “I’m so sorry I hurt you.” The simple directness of this can penetrate deeply into your partner’s brain. It can wire in the faith, perhaps for the first time, that someone cares about his or her feelings.

Imagine your partner’s hurt feeling is located deep inside his or her heart. Your apology is a verbal way to put your hand on that heart to soothe that pain. If you want to actually put your hand on your partner’s heart area as you look into his or her eyes and speak, that can be even more powerful. Always keep your words simple and your sentence short.

Note that this is not the time to clarify that you had a positive intention. That would be about you, not your partner.

Your apology is a vital part of the repair process and a powerful healing tool. It can be like applying a soothing balm to all the hurts from every significant person in your partner’s life. It will start rewiring his or her brain, and your partnership, for safety.

Hearing an apology may be a completely foreign experience to your partner. But it will be a vital one that lets your partner know his or her feelings matter to you. This will help you both develop your capacities to be vulnerable rather than reactive. So once you hear your partner’s Repair Statement and you have successfully reported back what you heard, practice the fine art of apology. Say something as simple as, “I’m so sorry I hurt you.”

The timing of your delivery is everything. The most powerful delivery will be to say your apology slowly, with deep sincerity. Then wait 30 seconds and watch carefully what happens on your partner’s face. Wait, watch, wonder…

Repeat this three times. Each time goes in deeper. Keep it slow. This is how to rewire a brain. Simple… Slow… Repeat.

3. Deliver a key reassurance. By listening carefully to your partner’s Repair Statement, you can start to guess which key reassuring message is most likely to address their core needs and fears. This will be a key to create deep safety for them. Do you know what is usually at the core of your partner’s distress? Try your best to intuit the key reassurance your partner needs to hear from you.

If your partner reports fears of abandonment, that they don’t matter, are insignificant, are not important, their feelings don’t matter, or they feel all alone—then the following kinds of reassurances might help:

“You’re the most important person in my life.”

“I can’t imagine life without you.”

“I’ll never leave you.”

“You couldn’t get rid of me if you tried.”

“I’m in this for the long haul.”

“Your feelings matter to me.”

If your partner reports fears of being inadequate, rejected, not good enough, not accepted, not valued, not appreciated, or being a failure—then the following kinds of reassurances might help:

“You are more than good enough.”

“I love you just the way you are.

“I am so lucky to have you in my life.”

“You are irreplaceable.”

“I appreciate you so much.”

“You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Keep your reassurance simple. Try one phrase and see if it has a strong positive impact. If it does not, try another. Usually there is a particular phrase that will sink deeply into your partner’s brain and heart, and you will see the power of this on his or her face. You are aiming for the right brain, which has rudimentary language processing ability, akin to that of a two-year old.

Eye contact is crucial to the success of reassurance. Make sure you speak slowly. Watch for breathing and facial expressions as signs of how well your reassurance is being received by your partner’s brain. Experiment until you find just the right ways to combine eye contact and supportive touch with your verbal reassurances.

As with the apology, repeat this three times. Simple… Slow… Repeat.

Think of this as if you are dropping a small pebble into the lake of your partner’s nervous system. See if you can watch the ripples and notice how he or she responds. Notice if your partner seems to relax or even melt. Note if eyes water or pupils dilate. Repetition will help your partner’s nervous system take in your gift even more deeply.

Common Mistakes When Trying to Repair

As you start to improvise or go off script, avoid these common mistakes people make when trying to repair upsets. These actually create more triggering!

  1. Explaining your behavior. Trying to explain your behavior to your triggered partner never works—not until you have listened responsively. You may think that if your partner understood what really happened, then he or she would not be upset: “I had to finish up a project at work that was running late.” It may be useful to explain things later, after you successfully reassure your partner.
  2. Establishing your good intentions. You may try to get your partner to realize you had only good intentions. You think that if your partner understood where you were really coming from, then he or she would not be upset: “I never intended to hurt you.” Sometimes this is helpful to say, but only after you have delivered a key reassuring message.
  3. Claiming what your partner should know or feel. You may try to remind your partner that you have previously given a needed reassurance. You may believe that if he or she remembered this, then there should be no further reason to be upset: “You already know that I care about you. I’ve told you this so many times.”
  4. Making a logical case. You attempt to logically prove your partner has misread you. You think that if your partner realized this, then he or she would not be upset: “If I didn’t care about you, why would I take you to such a fancy restaurant?”
  5. Using a tit-for-tat defense. You try to show that your partner also does similar things. You think that if your partner realized this, there’d be no justification to be upset and you would be off the hook: “Who isn’t late? You were late paying the bills last month!”

We all make these common mistakes. To repair well, we need to be conscious in how we communicate—and not just wing it. Committing to use the tools above of Catch-Pause-Repair can help you to keep on track and stay happy together.

My book Five-Minute Relationship Repair presents the above material in far greater detail. If you are in a relationship and struggling, think about coming to one of these intensive marriage retreats where you can learn to repair old wounds, reconnect and take home tools to keep your love life growing on a positive track.