Even the most well-adjusted and satisfied couples argue or experience tension in their relationship from time-to-time. As Dr Russ Harris, an expert in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy says, “there are two types of couples in this world: those who fight, and those who you don’t know very well”.
According to Dr John Gottman, a leading expert on the science of romantic relationships, happy couples seem to do conflict differently to unhappy couples though. So when the tension starts to rise, what is it that sets happy couples apart? It’s repair attempts. Repair attempts are anything you do or say to prevent a fight from getting out of control. Repair attempts put the brakes on that flooding feeling that most of us experience when faced with conflict. Your stress levels are instantly reduced, preventing you from getting to a place where you feel bombarded by your emotions and unable to think clearly. Repair attempts move couples away from damaging words and defensive behaviours towards connection. Dr John Gottman refers to repair attempts as “the secret weapon of emotionally intelligent couples”.
Happy couples not only make repair attempts, they are willing to receive them. Couples who have a strong connection are able to see their partners attempt to raise a white flag even through the confusing and upsetting fog of conflict. They accept that even when their partners repair attempt isn’t perfectly executed, they have good intentions. When couples are stuck in a cycle of damaging conflict repair attempts can be misunderstood, misread or missed altogether.
The goal of repair attempts is not to avoid dealing with the issue at hand altogether, but merely to take a breather so that both parties feel like they are able to communicate in a way that builds the relationship, rather than destroys it.
The changes that happen in our brain during conflict make it challenging to think clearly and logically, so effective repair attempts don’t need to be complex or long-winded. In fact, the simpler, the better. It’s important that you and your partner find the language that feels right for you, but to get you started here are some examples of different types of repair attempts:
“I think we might be stuck in that trap where we both need to prove our point and nobody wants to back down”
“I’m feeling bombarded”
“I need us to slow things down before they get out of control”
“We’ve disconnected. Let’s try to reconnect again”
“I feel like we are caught in a bit of a cycle right now”
“I feel like we’re not on the same team”
“I think I crossed a line then by saying that. I’m sorry. Can I take it back?”
“I feel like I’ve been attacking you and defending myself. I want us to pause this for a minute”
For some couples touch works better than words. It might be a simple gesture like holding your partner’s hand or reaching out for a hug. Other couples find humour is an effective circuit-breaker that lightens the mood and gets you back into the space of being on the same team as your partner.
If you and your partner are looking for ways to navigate conflict better, why not considering booking in with one our couples therapists, Georgia Pierakos, Liz Storey or Cherry Louey? Every couple is different, so they can help you to figure out what your own secret weapons for conflict are so you can fine tune the way you manage conflict in your relationship. To book an appointment get in touch with our friendly Support Team here.
The image in this blog is by Jennifer Regnier.