We are not able to dance closely without sometimes stepping on each other’s toes, trampling or loosing track of each other. And attachment research tells us that secure attachments happen in relationships where there is connection, then disruption of connection, followed by repair and reconnection. In this way we learn to trust that when the disruptions happen, as they always do whether in the parent child relationship or in other intimate relationships, reconnection is possible.
Therefore, a very important part of having a really good relationship is the repair process – knowing what to do after you’ve made a mistake and injured each other.
What not to do.
-Confuse caring with confession
-Think it’s possible to not make mistakes
-Try to be right
-Forget that taking care of the relationship first is the imperative.
In working with couples in my practice I often find that apologies are not being offered because of confusion about what the apology means. In particular that an apology is an admission of guilt.
In the disruption and injury that happens between couples the determination of guilt is the least important, and in fact often optional, part of the process.
When couples injure each other three things get broken and need repair:
- The empathic connection,
- Consensual reality,
- Agreements and expectations.
Repair of the empathetic connection is the most important repair, the first repair and usually the easiest repair.
Ideally the first “I’m sorry” comes as soon as you realize you have been involved in something that injured your partner. This “I’m sorry” means: “ it matters to me that you have been injured or upset. I care about you and when you feel bad, I care about that.”
This one thing, an empathetic connection, defines your relationship as either allies or adversaries.
We do not have to feel that we have erred in order to be distressed that our partner is in pain. The more complicated matter of responsibility can be addressed later, and, in fact, is better addressed after mutual caring has been affirmed.
If the initial “I’m sorry” is offered immediately, it often needs repeating as the injured party is often in a state of upset that gets in the way of fully accepting the apology. The best Step #1 in apology is usually a two step process of speaking immediately and then returning later when feelings are more neutral and emphasizing that you really are sorry that the other was hurt.
The second thing that gets “broken” between couples that needs repair is consensual reality. All of us depend on a social consensus about reality in order to feel safe and sane. Between couples even a small disruption of consensual reality (“You said you were going to take Matt to school.” “I absolutely did not; I told you I would be going in early to work and that you had to take him.”) can be disturbing and disruptive. Repair of consensual reality is often the next step and this step is often the hardest of the three. In fact consensus is not always possible. What is possible is a good conversation that leaves the relationship more intact.
This is the discussion of what exactly happened and who is responsible. Two things can happen in this discussion that are helpful and make all the difference. First, that we listen to and try to understand the other person’s experience. Second, is the clarification of misunderstandings, which account for a surprising number of injuries and which usually come to light in a careful discussion of each person’s experience. Discovering the misunderstandings is extremely helpful and often relieves the tension of hurt, anger, guilt and blame.
But sometimes you are left with some aspect of the mistake(s) about which you disagree either concerning what happened or who’s mistake it was, whose responsibility. Some times this is the place where you have to ‘agree to disagree,’ or be willing to loose the battle to win the war. Try to remember not to beat the dead horse. Better to leave this one in the realm of disparate realities than to cause further problems by a heated stand off.
The next step in apology, the repair of agreements, involves figuring out whether the injury resulted form somebody making a mistake or from a disagreement about what should happen. Does this injury indicate a difference between us about how we want to treat each other or is it a result of being unskillful? Do we agree on the ways we want to treat each other and what we are trying to realize in our vision of this relationship, even though often neither of us quite upholds this as well as we would like?
Usually this step amounts to a reaffirmation of agreements, but occasionally it turns out that we do not agree on what should be happening. One person may feel that they should always reserve weekend time for each other, while the other person wants time on the weekend reserved for solo activities. Clarifying the difference between disagreement about the goals and mistakes made in implementation is an important part of the ongoing dialogue for couples.
In a good repair process we join with the other in an attempt to reaffirm our caring for each other, understand what happen to the fullest, and learn what we can that will serve us in the future.