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Couples Diffusing Arguments with Repair Attempts

“I’m sorry” are two of the most important words couples can use. Vital. Life-altering. Forgiveness and reconciliation is the glue of marriage. Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done. First, we need to get there: to open the door of tenderhearted and the eyes of kindness on our spouse once again.

Dr. Gottman, one of the most renowned researchers in marriage and divorce, noticed that one thing that affects whether or not a couple will stay married is how they make and receive, what he calls, “repair attempts.” What is a repair attempt? You might be able to identify something you or your spouse does that you now have a name for. If not, you now have a fun new marriage project. Work on finding one! Talk it out with your spouse. Ask them, “What would be something silly or tender that would help each of us return to acting reasonable when we get in a heated argument?”

Some of the responses I’ve gotten from my clients, colleagues, and friends include:

  1. Even if he’s grumpy, he’ll say, “I love you.” What am I going to do? I have to say it back. Even if I’m still mad, it definitely diffuses things.

  2. He hugs me. I usually resist at first, but ultimately it softens me up and we both calm down.

  3. We hold hands. We heard about this somewhere… that you can’t stay mad at someone you’re holding hands with. We’ve tried it, which is hard when you’re mad, but it makes a big difference.

  4. He farts. No matter how mad I am, I can’t stop laughing.

Foundationally, a repair attempt is any gesture that attempts to calm, diffuse, or end the fight peacefully. Gottman says that even if someone says, “Ugh, I need a break,” it can come across as stonewalling, but it is actually that person’s repair attempt to calm themselves rather than further escalate the fight. What he’s noticed with couples whose relationships eventually dissolve is that either they aren’t willing to make repair attempts, or if one spouse makes the attempt, the other spouse rejects it. For instance, if Farting Husband was rejected by his wife as being rude or gross instead of received by her with laughter – that would be a failed repair attempt. Or if the wife reaches for her husband’s hand but he rejects her and refuses to hold hers back, it is a failed attempt.

There is a long list of repair attempts found in Seven Principles to Making Marriage Work. The author admits these can feel forced at first, but as you and your spouse begin to learn some “damage control language,” you’ll come up with your own versions of what he’s given. These are just some of the rehearsed repair attempts he mentions.

15 Possible Repair Attempts

1. “Please say that more gently.” 2. “That felt like an insult.” 3. Open your arms to invite your spouse in to be held. 4. “Just listen to me right now and try to understand.” 5. “Can you kiss me?” 6. “Can we take a break?” 7. “Let me try again.” 8. “How can I make things better?” 9. “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” 10. “I agree with part of what you are saying.” 11. Reach your hand out gently to touch theirs. 12. “One thing I admire about you is…” 13. “We are getting off track.” 14. “That’s a good point.” 15. “I love you.”

So, how about you? Since some kind of fighting is inevitable, what do your repair attempts look like? Are you willing to receive your partner’s repair attempt? Are you likely to reject it? It might be beneficial to discuss this with your partner and identify some repair attempts that would work for you.

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