Differences are inevitable in close relationships. Two people can never be exactly the same; and when they are different, occasionally, these differences collide in goals, opinions, desires, and behaviors. Couples handle these differences in a variety of healthy and unhealthy ways. The goal, however, isn’t to create a relationship without disagreement, but to navigate the disagreements in way that protects the bonds of intimacy, allowing each partner to develop both autonomously and as a member of the relationship. Research discovered that the psychological concept of repair attempts is paramount for healthy relationships.
John Gottman Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle and the recipient of numerous national and international awards for his groundbreaking relationship research, introduced an effective technique for successfully defusing tension during relationship conflict and preventing emotional flooding and regrettable behaviors. He refers to this technique as repair attempts.
Gottman wrote that, “effective repair is probably the single most important process that a long-term relationship needs to survive and stay mutually satisfying (2011, Kindle Location 4,992). A repair attempt is any statement, expression, or action to regain control of a downward spiraling conflict, preventing the disagreement from morphing into a destructive and hurtful event that damages the relationship.
Purpose Repair Attempts
Jennifer Long of the Marriage Restoration Project wrote, “when they work, repair attempts are like hitting the reset button. The argument may not be over but the hostility and aggression disappear even though the conflict remains” (2021).
Repair attempts are not attempts to resolve the disagreement—some disagreements will never be resolved. When used, and properly received, repair attempts protect the relationship bonds from the corrosive attacks of emotionally charged arguments.
Simply put, repair attempts are a proposed break in the action. Often spontaneous and unconscious interruptions that signal a need to settle emotions and reaffirm acceptance.
Disagreements easily slip from effectively resolving a differences to defensive protections of worth in a battle for supremacy. The disagreement switches formats, becoming a zero-sum game where someone must lose for someone to win.
Underneath different motives are at war, creating a cognitive dissonance. In disagreement, we protect our desires and hopes—autonomy. Our partner is the adversary, pushing against our desire. Yet, in opposition to the antagonist roll in the current disagreement, our partner, away from the current issue is a protagonist, a friend and confederate, in our daily encounters with life.
The repair attempt is a reaction to the dissonance, steps back from the emotions of the current disagreement, and creates an opportunity for the couple to reaffirm that the relationship is of greater importance than the disagreement.
Gottman emphasized the importance of the repair attempt for a successful marriage. He found that, “The success or failure of a couple’s repair attempts is one of the primary factors in whether their marriage flourishes or flounders” (2015, p. 23).
Breaking Downward Spirals with Repair Attempts
The problem of disagreements that morph into grand importance, overshadowing the intimate bond of the relationship, is that the single issue disagreement spills over into other areas, impacting loving feelings for each other.
Disagreements that fail to reaffirm the importance of the relationship bond, escalate in intensity, heighten emotional arousal, and often lead to introduction of Gottman’s four harmful tactics that he labeled the “four horsemen”.
Gottman identified these for tactics that should be avoided as: “the four-horsemen usually enter a marriage in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling” (2015, p. 27). T. Franklin Murphy wrote in his article on relationship drama that “the four-horsemen bring heart-pounding drama that breakdowns good feelings” (2020).
Hurtful Interactions Damage Relationships
In a 2015 article, Murphy wrote, “painful attacks damage bonds. Repeatedly inflicting pain leaves deep scars, building barriers to trust and inviting thoughts and plans to escape the drama for an alternative other. If our goal is intimacy, painful attacks have no place. They hurt, they separate, and they destroy. These unhealthy barbs of manipulation frustrate intentions for emotional security.”
Interestingly, Gottman found that even when discussions digressed to these harmful tactics repair attempts could still interrupt heal the disconnection. He wrote, “when the four horsemen are present but the couple’s repair attempts are successful—the results are a stable, happy marriage” (2015, p. 40). Dr. Sue Johnson, clinical psychologist, the developer of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, and a recognized leader in the new science of relationships, refers to these patterned escalating arguments as demon dialogues. She explains that to break free from the hurtful end of the demon dialogue partners need to find a way to make space. She wrote, “once they have slowed down their Demon Dialogue, the space opens up for curiosity, for reaching for the other’s reality” (2013, Kindle Location 1,760).
One of the main benefits of repair attempts is that when properly recognized and received they interrupt emotional flooding—the affective state where we say and do stupid things.
T. Franklin Murphy wrote “a raised voice, a shadow, an uncomfortable question, a critical remark, unexpected change, or a crazed man with a ninja sword move the body through physiological changes. Depending on the immediacy and severity of the information, the heart speeds, blood flows, and complex cognitive appraisal are suspended” (2014).
Emotional flooding is common in extremely threatening circumstances. Fears of abandonment and rejection strike at the heart of security. Arguments strike fear, emotions intensify, and we react defensively. Codependency heightens these emotional states.
Robert Augustus Masters PhD, an integral psychotherapist, relationship expert, and spiritual teacher, referring to emotional flooding arising from jealousy, wrote, “when jealousy possesses us, we may behave badly: getting destructive, making incredibly rash decisions, losing ourselves in massive melodrama. Jealousy can be like that. Crazily consuming. Plates flying, loved objects destroyed, accusations barbed with poisonous intent, physical violence, damage done that cannot be repaired” (2013).
In emotionally stable relationships, partners find avenues to intervene before emotions flood and commandeer the conversation. Relationship expert Caryl E. Rusbult wrote, “satisfying relationships are not conflict free, but they involve the kind of trust that allows couples to argue constructively and to engage in effective problem-solving behaviors” (2004).
Repair Attempt Goals
- Giving the relationship priority over current issue
- Easing tension
- Validating partner’s emotions
- Each partner feeling they are on the same team
- Each partner feeling understood
- Each partner feeling important
If repair attempts are not used with sincerity, reaching towards the underlying goals. They will fail.
Examples of Repair Attempts
Gottman wrote that, “repair attempts refers to any statement or action—silly or otherwise—that prevents negativity from escalating out of control” (2015).
There are countless ways we can break the trajectory and reaffirm our commitment to each other. Each couple can determine what works for them. Repair attempts work best as a co-effort between partners more interested in their relationship than a single incident of being right or wrong. Gottman explains, “in emotionally intelligent marriages I hear a wide range of successful repair attempts. Each person has his or her own approach” (2015).
Repair Attempt Behaviors
- A gentle touch
- A hug
- Holding hands
- Compassionately looking into their eyes
- Non-defensive facial expressions
Repair Attempt Words
- I’m sorry I said that.
- I shouldn’t have got so angry. I’m sorry.
- I’m sorry if my complaint made it sound like I don’t appreciate everything you do.
- I upset you. I’m sorry
- We sound like school kids
- Time for a “repair attempt”
- We need an ice cream cone and a break
Humor is often achieved through the skilled use of shared fond memories. When we draw on these humorous experiences together and can laugh, we pull ourselves from the trance of the demon dialogue, interrupt the emotional flooding, and remember our fondness for each other.
- I see you are upset. I understand how the things I said must have been upsetting
- I would feel the same way under the same circumstances
- This must be very frightening. How can I help you feel better
- Help me understand your point of view better
- What are you feeling right now
- I see what you’re saying
Validating emotion is both recognizing the emotion and accepting it as an appropriate feeling reaction to the circumstances. When we validate, a partner feels seen, understood and appropriate. Validation can be a powerful repair attempt, breaking away from the emotional disagreement that often feels invalidating.
Reaffirm the Relationship:
- What do you need from me right now?
- I love you even though we disagree about this
- Do you remember our first date?
- We’re a team. We can resolve this together
Some successful repair attempts require shifting focus from the current disagreement and refocusing on the relationship, reminding both partners about what really matters.
Shift from the Current Topic to discussing the Process:
- How did this argument get so heated?
- How can we discuss this in the future without these emotional melt downs
- I should have presented my view without escalating the emotion
- I don’t know why I said that about you.
- When you said, “…” I started feeling defensive.
Hit the Pause Button:
- I’m feeling overwhelmed. I need a break
- Can we switch topics for a while?
- Let’s pause for a moment and start over
- We should come back to this discussion when we are both feeling better
Ingredients for a Successful Repair Attempt
Repair attempts are the secret weapon of emotionally intelligent couples (2015). A successful repair attempt is much more than words, or even timing.
Relationship Must Be Paramount
Repair attempts can’t be a refined technique used to win an argument. ”I love you. It hurts when we argue. Lets do it my way and move on.” This is a manipulation disguised as a repair attempt. We get locked brain. We stubbornly can’t let go of the issue.
Relationship Must Be Paramount
If the immediate resolution to the issue is essential for the success of the relationship, the deep dividing issue may be more important that the relationship. This is a possibility. If we can’t continue together, breaking away from the disagreement, even for a few moments, to affirm the relationship is paramount to the dividing issue, then repair attempts will fail.
When too many issues must be resolved or the relationship is over, the relationship is doomed. Relationships survive when partners give the relationship priority over the differences.
Underlying State of the Relationship
I’m going to be frank. If you already hate each other, with every neutral or positive comment interpreted as an attack, perhaps these relationships are immune to the positive impact of a repair attempt. The break will not reset something that was missing from the beginning. Gottman explains, “when a couple have a strong friendship, they naturally become experts at sending each other repair attempts and at correctly reading those sent their ways. But when couples are in negative override, even a repair statement as blunt as ‘hey, I’m sorry’ will have a low success rate (2015).
A repair attempt brings existing fondness back to the forefront. If the fondness isn’t there, there is nothing to refocus on instead of the issue. Gottman wrote that “repair attempts that are based on increasing emotional closeness (taking responsibility, agreement, affection, humor, self-disclosure, understanding and empathy, and “we’re okay”) were highly effective (2011. Kindle location 5,236).
“Whether a repair attempt succeeds or fails has very little to do with how eloquent it is and everything to do with the state of the marriage.” Gottman continues, “in marriages where the four horsemen have moved in for good, even the most articulate, sensitive, well-targeted repair attempt is likely to fail abysmally” (2015. p. 41). A repair attempt, then, is returning to what is good in the relationship, preventing an argument from spoiling the underlying shared love.
Catered to Our Partner’s Unique Style
David and Constantino Khalaf wrote that “the success of a repair attempt has a lot to do with how well it’s tailored towards your partner” (2017). We must learn what works and what doesn’t work with our partner. Our trial and error process must zero in on our partners particular style. Humor may enrage instead of ease tensions.
Khalaf and Khalaf add, “knowing how your partner receives love and what they need to repair from conflict is like having a secret weapon tailored just to them and their happiness” (2017). We may find that discussing the details of how an earlier disagreement was handles may provide invaluable information, learning which words sparked defensiveness, and which expressions threatened. We then can use this information to refine future discussions.
When Repair Attempts Fail
Not all repair attempts work. Some fail miserably. A lot depends on the state of the relationship proceeding the disagreement. Unmaintained relationships slowly spiral downward into an entanglement of negativity. When a negative sentiment overrides all or most communications, repair attempts struggle to poke through the negative interpretations as something of value. They are seen as another attack.
Aaron T. Beck hints to this state of mind in his wonderful book Love is Never Enough. He wrote, “in distressed marriages, the pleasures of conversation are lost in a fog of angry complaints, missed cues, and misunderstandings. Instead of knowing winks, witty allusions, and private codes, there are angry glances, critical references, and veiled threats” (2010, p. 274).
Gottman found that “in the vast majority of cases, when one spouse does not ‘get’ the other’s repair attempt, it’s because the listener is flooded and therefore can’t really hear what the spouse is saying” (2015, Kindle location 177). Flooding is a physiological state. The body focuses on the threat. Before anything can be discusses, the heightened arousal must be soothed. The first step is to soothe the arousal (Fruzzetti, 2006).
In high arousal we miss or misinterpret bids to repair. Heightened arousal leads to a destructive feedback loop. “the more contemptuous and defensive the couple is with each other, the more flooding occurs, and the harder it is to hear and respond to a repair. And since the repair is not heard, the contempt and defensiveness just get heightened, making flooding more pronounced, which makes it more difficult to hear the next repair attempt, until finally one partner withdraws” (Gottman, 2015. p. 40).
A Few Final Words on Repair Attempts
While healthy successful relationships, unconsciously intervene in destructive communication to reassert the importance of the bond, we can begin to transform our relationships by consciously working with our partner to integrate repair attempts into these moments, avoiding many regrettable interactions.
Both partners can call for a timeout when they notice the emotional temperature rising. Both partners can listen for repair attempts from their partner and honor the bid for a change. As repair attempts become a familiar tool in our relationship repertoire, we will begin to change the balance of communication, reducing negative moments and increasing the positive.
Beck, Aaron T. (2010). Love Is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstandings. Harper Collins e-books; Reprint edition
Khalaf, Constantino, ; Khalaf, David (2017). How to Make Repair Attempts So Your Partner Feels Loved. Published 3-17-2017. Accessed 3-29-2022
Fruzzetti, Alan E. (2006) The High-Conflict Couple: A Dialectical Behavior Therapy Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy, and Validation. New Harbinger Publications; 1st edition
Gottman, John (2015). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. Harmony; Revised ed. edition
Gottman, John (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. W. W. Norton & Company; Illustrated edition
Johnson, Sue (2008). Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Little, Brown Spark; 1st edition
Long, Jennifer (2021). Relationship Repair Attempts: What They Are, Why They Work & 10 Examples for Your Own Marriage. Marriage Restoration Project. Published 3-5-2021. Accessed 3-27-2022
Masters, Robert Augustus (2013). Emotional Intimacy: A Comprehensive Guide for Connecting with the Power of Your Emotions. Sounds True
Murphy, T. Franklin (2020) Relationship Drama. Psychology Fanatic. Published 11-16-2020. Accessed 3-28-2022.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2015). Intent to Hurt. Psychology Fanatic. Published 11-16-2020. Accessed 3-28-2022.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2014) Emotional Overload. Psychology Fanatic. Published 8-2014. Accessed 3-28-2022.
Rusbult, Caryl E. (2004). Close Relationships: Key Readings (Key Readings in Social Psychology). Psychology Press; 1st edition.