By Hans Jorg Stahlschmidt, PhD
PACT Senior Core Faculty
As couple therapists, my colleagues and I have no shortage of advice on ways to help your relationship. There are 7 rules, 10 steps, 9 secrets and 5 truths, all designed to help you to have a happier relationship with your partner. If a set of rules or steps to follow were effective relationship medicine then we as couple therapists could seek early retirement. Unfortunately, our logical mind is not in charge of our romantic relationships.
When we are upset and angry, stuck in emotional gridlock and mutual misunderstandings, we do not care about complex rules. Our emotions, our physiological and nervous systems are in turmoil. We often become so dysregulated that our worst selves come to the fore and we do not have access to rules of engagement.
It would be futile to remind your partner in the middle of a heated argument, “Remember rule 8: Don’t be reactive!” Especially during intense emotions, access to our rational processing is impaired.
We make an accusation. The other is to blame. After screaming at or abandoning each other, the damage is done. We might retreat in our den, dissociate or power up and be angry. When we fail to negotiate our individual differences and conflicts, when we feel right and justified – we are alone.
Then at night the hurtful and upsetting memories are transferred into the long-term memory storage of the hippocampus. This fight will not easily be forgotten. Additionally, we also store highly upsetting or threatening experiences in our survival and alarm memory, the amygdala. These highly emotional memory units might prime us for the next misunderstanding and the ensuing fight. Misunderstandings and hurt pile up and our partners become increasingly a threat to our well-being instead of a soothing presence.
It is essential to improve our capacities for self- and other-regulation over time. Methods and skills can be learned and slowly integrated in our somatic-emotional and psychological functioning when we are under stress. But there is one important principle that we could agree on as an absolute safeguard for recovery after we might have raced together to the bottom and are stuck and distraught. This principle has to be simple and essential in order to shift our way of relational engagement from ineffective and destructive to constructive and healing. This principle is repair.
Repair is a deep emotional, psychological, somatic realization of our wrongdoing – intentional or unintentional. It is not a gesture nor a performance. Instead it is the deep resonance in us of our partner’s hurt. It facilitates the essential function of re-appraisal, of seeing again, reevaluating our perception, behavior and response. It leads to deeper understanding, improved self- and other-regulation and ultimately allows learning and growing.
Repairing is the essential process that is necessary after any kind of violations of our agreements or rules, after hurtful behaviors and unintentional injury. Without repair the hurt will be kicked down the road and become resentment. Misunderstanding becomes loneliness. Unintentional rejection becomes hopelessness, and our vitality turns into resignation. Instead of being attracted to our partner we feel threatened. Soon curiosity about our partner and our relationship dies and with it the potential for growth.
Our human predicament is that we will fail our partners at times. We are disappointing and disappointed. We misunderstand, misread, mis-attune. We will fail to follow ideals, keep promises, uphold standards and principles. We can put a strong and lasting floor in the ups and downs of our relationship when all disagreements and arguments will lead to a reparative process.
Even the most regulated, secure couples misunderstand each other and make mistakes. One could say that, despite our advanced status in the world of mammals, we actually cannot prevent screw-ups.
When we know that, whatever happens, we will repair any pain inflicted from arguing with our partner; that safety net gives us the security that this negative interaction will not bring our relationship to an end.
Knowing we will repair allows us to be more forthcoming. Widening the minefield between us and our partner becomes a thing of the past. We know that apologies, understanding, remorse and good will are on the way. We will calm down, reappraise the situation, learn what we didn’t understand, and repair.
Over the decades, I have observed in my work that one partner can often inflict more injury by not communicating, as if an extended silence could protect their partner or themselves. Hurt can dig deeper and damage a relationship by the things a couple hasn’t said but has felt, thought and sensed. What remains unsaid is often more damaging than what is said.
The primary couple relationship thrives when the experiences of each partner are paramount to the other. They are free to feel and think. Free to be. This freedom includes mistakes and unintentional injury, which makes the commitment to repair essential. It seems counter-intuitive, but a repaired relationship is stronger, deeper, and has a better chance to last for a long time.
John (who lived 107 years) and Charlotte Henderson (who lived 106 years) on their 80th anniversary several years ago had this to say: “We never argued that much in the first place and have always made a point to settle things before bedtime.”
It’s true; settling things before bedtime is a good idea. While couple therapists have no shortage of advice, there’s only one principle I recommend for the fridge and for life: “We are partners who repair – no matter what.”