Saving a Marriage: Effective Repair

by | May 6, 2013 | Saving a marriage

In my blog on building trust, I wrote about the importance of trust as the antidote to betrayal.  I shared what betrayal really is and outlined steps towards building trust in a relationship. (To read that blog click here.)

One of the most important steps to building trust is repairing the damage in a relationship. This topic of repair deserves more attention.

Every relationship experiences periods of conflict or alienation. As Dr. John Gottman found, conflict is normal and not a predictor of divorce. In fact, the key to successful marriage is not the absence of conflict, but rather a couple’s ability to repair the damage. Gottman calls this Effective Repair.

Effective repair keeps couples together by allowing both partners to feel validated and generating a sense of compassion and understanding. Effective repair also expands our capacity to be lighthearted during conflict.

Saving a Marriage: Effective Repair

Effective repair can really be anything that works. It can be accomplished through humor, touch, apologizing, or even just shifting gears.

For example, one partner may say to the other during an argument: “I don’t think any of us is listening, why don’t we try again,” or “I need a break,” or “I’m sorry, I wish I hadn’t said that.” Even making a joke or a silly face that makes your partner laugh can be enough.

What I found especially interesting in Gottman’s research is that the effectiveness of a repair attempt has very little to do with the nature of the repair attempt itself. For example, perfectly worded attempts can fail. Clumsy attempts can succeed.  In fact, he found that teaching couples reflective listening and empathy skills did not really work(!)

Instead, the effectiveness of the repair attempt is determined by the person receiving the attempt and, in particular, the amount of “money” they have in their emotional bank account. If the repairing partner has been a good friend to their partner by putting emotional deposits into the relationship’s account–for example doing nice things, being supportive, kind, and loving–they can effectively repair the broken connection.

So in order to repair the relationship, you must set the stage with rituals of connection.

Saving a Marriage: 5 Steps to Effective Repair

Rituals of connection you make now will set the stage for effective repair in the future. Here are some steps that really work:

Write a list of cherishing behaviors.
This is a way of identifying behaviors from your partner that make you feel valued and connected. Write down what you like from them (I love it when you greet me at the door; I feel loved when you give me a shoulder rub).  Anything that makes you feel good in the relationship.

Exchange the list.
Review what is on the list your partner wrote, and make a real effort to learn what works to cherish your partner (is it humor, touch, space?) Also, notice what personal barriers you may have to doing these behaviors and release them (for example does greeting your partner at the door make you feel submissive? If so, why is that, and how can you reframe it for yourself?).

Make a conscious effort to do things on that list EACH day.
This may feel forced at first, but it will start to become natural. This works best of course when both partners are making the effort. But even if you focus on just your part, you will see shifts!

Move from gridlock to dialogue.
This means avoiding the crazy buttons that instantly escalate your partner ( “you are just like your mother,”) and looking for the life-dreams behind your partner’s behavior. Try getting into the “usness” place and working as a team, not as opponents. If you haven’t already seen my video on the 7 questions that will diffuse conflict, see how to do that here.)

Work on forgiveness.
Most simply put, forgiveness is the choice to not allow the past to frame your interpretation of the present.  It’s our inner response to another’s perceived injustice. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation: While reconciliation requires both partners working together, forgiveness is something that is only up to you. Forgiveness is not forgetting. Trying to forget leads to suppression, which eventually comes back later. Forgiveness has taken place when you can remember the wrong without feeling resentment or a desire to pursue revenge. Forgiveness is also not condoning or excusing. It is simply the choice to not allow the past to frame your interpretation of the present. 


If you follow these five steps, there is no way you won’t feel the difference. Effective repair becomes a natural part of your relationship when the connections are there. So take the time to consciously invest in your relationship each day. The “small” things are really the most important.

To discuss this further, hop on my Free Relationship Coaching call each Monday at 3 pm CT!

Good luck and let me know what you think in the comments below!


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