“People can only change when they feel liked and accepted as they are.” –John Gottman
Have you ever tried to make-up with your partner after an argument or wrong word only to find things getting worse, both of you becoming even more frustrated or shut-down? Making up, what John Gottman calls “relationship repair,” is an essential, continuous task of good relationships but it can be challenging when a repair attempt does not work the first time. You may find yourself hurt and angry or ready to withdraw emotionally. This reactivity can create a negative feedback loop as it feeds the original emotional disconnect. Managing rejection, expressing fondness for your partner, and trying again are keys to making relationship repair successful.
In attempting to make-up, intentions may be good but timing, delivery, and presentation can be tricky. Often, a repair attempt looks good on the surface but underneath can be hidden frustration, guilt, or expectations that your partner change. Phrases like, “I’m sorry for yelling but you can’t shut down when we talk” or “Look, I’m trying to go forward here” carry a message of “I am right, you are wrong.” This leads to defensiveness in your partner and failure of the repair. A negative feedback loop perpetuates as a failed relationship repair increases feelings of frustration, anger, or withdrawal. To avoid this negative cycle, keep the following steps in mind when making-up:
- Be Mindful of Reactivity: Recognize where an argument starts going off the rails. When discussion becomes personal attack, it is a sign someone is emotionally reactive. Gottman calls this “emotional flooding”—being overwhelmed by the emotional brain (the limbic system where the fight, flight, or freeze survival reaction is based). Create a habit of checking your breathing and level of physical tension when you sense emotional disconnect. Checking-in will help you avoid seeing your partner attacking you. Like a fire drill though, you must practice this in advance in order to avoid reacting instinctively when an emotional crisis hits.
- Self-Soothe: When you notice you are emotionally flooded, do not initiate a relationship repair. Deal with the flooding first; this will make the repair cleaner and easier to accept. “I’m going to make a cup of tea, can I bring you one?” or a similar phrase can be an agreed upon signal to self-soothe and regroup. To soothe your emotional brain, try a simply body scan: sit in a chair, feet on the ground. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Breathe to the bottom of your lungs throughout this exercise. Beginning with your feet scan all body muscles. As you do so, tighten and relax each muscle in your feet, legs, hips and waist, torso, arms, shoulders, neck, and head. See tension leaving your body as you focus on each muscle group. Imagining a calming place, like a clear stream in the woods or a favorite beach, can help. Once relaxed move on to the next step.
- Initiate repair attempts (as often as it takes): Offer repairs freely, with no expectation they will be accepted. This is critical in negativity when repairs do not take. Repairs are not one-offs; if a relationship repair doesn’t go smoothly, first self-soothe (see step 2): breathe, identify reactive thoughts, and calm yourself. Recognize that thinking “The relationship is over, we’re done!” is a sign of emotional flooding. Yoga or a simple stretching routine can help dissipate emotional flooding. See a rejected repair as one step in a many-stepped dance of reconnection. Ask yourself what could be changed in your delivery (tone of voice, intent, body posture). Also, remember the 5:1 ratio—it takes 5 positive relationship acts to balance 1 negative one (Gottman).Check your timing and bias, and try again when you and your spouse are ready. Avoid trying to engage your partner in making-up when they are not ready. A key phrase or two can help set a more positive tone for repair: “I’m sorry I raised my voice, I do think you have a point. Can I check in with you in 15 minutes?” These signals can help both of you avoid further flooding.
- Accept repair attempts: If on the receiving end, avoid stonewalling, punishing by silence. If you are not ready, indicate this to your partner. Talk about reactions, signals, and their meanings in advance so that you are not leaving things open to misinterpretation.
- Avoid Reproach: When a repair is successful, avoid criticism. Not: “You are so easy to talk to now, I wish you could always be like that.” Say instead, “I really like being able to talk to/hold you.”
- Talk about repair attempts that didn’t work. Make a cup of tea together. When you and your partner are calm, talk about what happened: “I was trying to suggest a hug after supper and it didn’t seem to work. I wonder what was going on? Is there something I could do differently?” is a neutral way to process what happened and is better than, “You really have to start accepting my hugs or else I’m just going to stop trying!”
- Work on the little connections each day. By increasing these you will need to use repairs less often and they will become easier to accept and initiate when needed. Checking in with each other at key points in the day, even if this means simply helping each other do the dishes or holding a crying baby can help. You do not need to isolate yourselves from your family lives in order to connect. Do express fondness and admiration for each other in ways you both can notice. What do you value about your partner?
Essential for happy relationships is the ability to make-up and repair emotional disconnection. See making-up as a process, not a means to an ends. Avoid seeing a failed repair as a sign to get upset or give up. By initiating and accepting repair attempts without criticism, anger, or contempt you can increase the strength of the glue that keeps you together. And in using these steps, you may just become skilled in the art of making a good cup of tea.
Gottman, J., & Silver, Nan. (1997). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. New York.