While learning to drive, one important lesson you must learn is how to stop the car.
It’s the first thing you’re taught. Remember the driver’s ed cars that have an extra brake pedal on the passenger’s side?
The reason – learning to apply the brakes is vitally important to all those in the car, and around the car.
Putting on the brakes is an important skill in marriage and relationships as well.
When your conversation starts off on the wrong foot or you find you’re both in a cycle of blame and defensiveness, you can often prevent a disaster if you know how to stop.
Marriage researcher John Gottman calls these brakes – repair attempts.
And they’re the secret weapon of happy couples.
Marriages that are built on and sustain a good marital friendship are not devoid of arguing and disagreements. In fact, 69% of the problems in marriage are perpetual. Repair attempts, when used well, are the secret weapon that prevents quarrels from getting out of hand.
Two key factors in determining whether repair attempts are successful:
- The current state of the relationship.
- The ability of the attempt to get through to your partner.
Let me give you an example.
Steve and Michelle are in a heated discussion about an upcoming family move. They see eye to eye on where they want to live, how to set up the house (mostly), and where to put the kids in school. They are drawing the battle lines over the set up of the family room. Michelle thinks they should use their current TV and stereo system while Steve wants to jump at the chance of upgrading to the system he’s had his eye on for some time now. It’s not extravagant and they have the money from the sale of their current home. The more they talk, the louder it gets.
A passer-by, if they overheard the argument, may think they have no hope of a lasting marriage. Then all of the sudden, Michelle puts her hands on her hips in perfect imitation of their 4 year old daughter, and proceeds to stick out her tongue. Since Steve knows she’s about to do this, he beats her to it by sticking out his tongue first. They both start laughing. This silliness defuses the tension between them.
Repair attempts are any statement or action – silly or otherwise – that prevents negativity from spiraling out of control.
When a couple has a solid foundation together and a good friendship with each other, they naturally become experts at sending each other repair attempts and at correctly receiving those sent their way. If a couple is negatively locked down with each other, even a blatant repair attempt of “Hey, I’m sorry” will have trouble getting through.
What determines the success of repair attempts is the strength of the marital friendship.
Everyone has room to grow and improve when it comes to strengthening the state of the marital friendship. This is not as easy as simply being “friendly” or “nice.” It involves your own personal growth and emotional maturity, as well as your spouse’s (although they’re responsible for themselves in this area).
You can begin by learning to recognize the repair attempts as they happen between you. Sometimes these attempts are missed because they don’t come sugarcoated. A heated “Why are you changing the subject” or “Can’t we discuss this later” is still a repair attempt and is often overlooked.
One of the best strategies to begin with is to make your attempts obvious and formal. Statements like “this is getting out of hand, can we discuss this later” or “can I take that last statement back, I’m sorry” can go a long way in smoothing the waters between you. You could even go as obvious as “Hey, what follows is a repair attempt.”
If you’re on the receiving end of a repair attempt, your job is to simply try and accept it. Confront you own anxieties and tension from the discussion and plan to come together to discuss more at a later time.