Some of the best wisdom ever shared with me about marriage came from one of my university professors when he offhandedly said, “I fought more with my fiancée than I ever have with her as my wife.” I thought that was a strange concept; aren’t you typically married a whole lot longer than you are engaged? I can now say the same thing about my marriage even though we have been married much longer than we were engaged. There is a secret we learned about communication that has helped us keep our disagreements from becoming argumentative, and it can help in your dating and marriage relationships too.
Repair attempts are things that either partner can say to help de-escalate disagreements so they can be managed with reasoning and positive emotions. Using these repair attempts has helped resolve differences between my spouse and I because we learned to keep the conversation from becoming combative.4 John Gottman, the man who developed repair attempts, is one of the most influential researchers when it comes to marriage and communication. His research has been a revolutionary in marriage therapy and relationship education around the world.
There are many types of repair attempts and people prefer some over others. It is important that as you read more about them that you consider which ones work best for you and your partner.
Use an “I Feel…” Statement
When you are arguing with someone, it is hard to think about how they are feeling, which is why it can be so valuable to tell your partner even when things are heated. In healthy relationships it typically isn’t the goal of one partner to hurt the other, so when they do say something hurtful, let them know how it affected you. Statements like, “I feel really hurt by what you just said, do you really mean that?” or “could you please rephrase that? I don’t think I understand what you mean,” lets your partner know that what they said was more hurtful than helpful and gives them an opportunity to change.
An important thing to note with I feel statements is that you should be focusing on how you really feel, not on what they did. Statements that start with “you made me feel…” is blaming them more than it is informing them of how you are feeling.
Find Common Ground
You don’t have to agree with your partner completely, but when you point out elements of what they are saying that you agree with you are telling your partner that you are being open-minded. Phrases like, “You bring up a good point,” or “I didn’t consider that,” will let your partner know that they are being heard and you are giving serious thought to what they said.
This is just one of many repair attempts that reminds your partner that they aren’t talking to a rival, but their significant other who loves them and wants the best for them.
Let Them Know When You are Getting Too Emotional
If your emotional needs are not being met, you will react negatively in ways that affect your partner and your ability to be reasonable. When you recognize that you are not doing well, tell your spouse what they can do to help you calm down. “I really need to finish my thought; can you just listen for a moment?” or “Can I please give you a hug?” are requests that share a need for something that can’t be met with how the argument is currently going.
A lot of people have a hard time imagining themselves requesting a hug in the middle of an argument, but this one in particular my husband uses a lot with me, so I know personally it can be effective. Though I am often initially irritated with the request because of how unfitting it is for the setting, I almost always calm down while he is hugging me, and it changes the direction of our discussion.
Even if you can’t genuinely say sorry for the action you did that may have been the cause of the argument, you can typically find something that you wish you had done better. Apologies like, “that came across the wrong way,” or “I can see why you feel that way” can be effective repair attempts even without the words “I’m sorry” included. Clinical Health councilor Daniel Bates said that even if you don’t think your actions were wrong, “You can apologize for how things happened that caused the disrupted bond.”1
Though it is important to remember, if you can recognize that you hurt them and do feel bad, a proper apology is always welcomed.
Get on Their Side
A great way to remind your partner that you are there for them is to let them know that you are facing this problem together. A simple compliment or a reminder that you aren’t blaming the whole thing on them is an effective way to do that. Saying something like, “One thing I really appreciate about you is…” or, “I know I share the blame in this,” reminds your partner that you are a team, and the point of the discussion in the first place is to resolve it together.
Reminding your partner that you are on their side is key to keeping the discussion from becoming heated. Sometimes we get so riled up that we forget how much we care for each other.
Sometimes arguments turn into a rabbit hole where the original thing you were discussing is now two or three topics back and nothing is resolved. Other times you are still discussing the topic you started with, but at least one of you is not in a position where they can listen anymore. One of the best things to do then is to use a repair attempt that lets you start over, either now or when there has been some time for both of you to calm down. Statements like, “I think I need a few minutes to calm down,” or even, “I think we have gotten off track. Can we start over?” gives you both an opportunity to hit the refresh button and approach the subject from a more productive mental state of mind.
These examples equip you with the basic concepts, but if you would like access to the entire Gottman Repair Checklist you can find it here.2 The main idea is that you are saying something that reminds your partner that you are both in this together, not against each other.
Repair Attempts Will Keep Your Marriage in Good Shape
All couples will find something on which they disagree, so why does it matter how couples discuss those disagreements? First, there is a difference between disagreeing and arguing. My husband and I still disagree all the time, but there is a very different feeling around how we discuss disagreements compared to when we argue. One engenders a feeling of respect, while the other encourages frustration and negative feelings. Second, Gottman explained in a TED Talk that the overall positive trend in communication between partners is predictive of a happy marriage, while a negative trend in communication is predictive of unhappy marriages and even divorce.3 Even if you are a person that is comfortable with a good debate every now and then, repair attempts will help you keep positive feelings within your relationships when you discuss something you disagree about.
It is also important to not use repair attempts as a last-ditch effort before you give up and walk out of the room. John Gray, PhD has said that “Happy couples repair, and they do so early and often.”5 If you have a mindset of keeping the discussion in good feelings, you will find ways that incorporate repair attempts frequently and at the earliest stages where negative feelings may start.
Of course, there are times when your emotions will get the best of you, but by applying these principles you and your partner can start a history of good feelings and respect to rely on. If you slip up, keep going. I still argue with my husband at times, but even when that happens it still isn’t as volatile as before because we have established overall good feelings towards each other. As you use repair attempts, you will find that a lot of your overall thoughts about your significant other become more positive, even if you do occasionally argue.
1. Bates, D. (2020, January 16). No more fake repairs. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mental-health-nerd/202001/no-more-fake-repairs
2. Benson, K. (2017, February 23). Repair is the secret weapon of emotionally connected couples. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/repair-secret-weapon-emotionally-connected-couples/
3. Gottman, J. M. (2017, October). The science of love [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/john_gottman_the_science_of_love
4. Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work. Harmony Books. https://www.pdfdrive.com/the-seven-principles-for-making-marriage-work-a-practical-guide-from-the-countrys-foremost-relationship-expert-e194562691.html
5. Grey, J. (2017, August 30). How to repair the little things so they don't become big things. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/repair-little-things-dont-become-big-things/
Written by Emily A. Goff, edited by Sarah E. Hokanson, Elizabeth Wood HoChing, and Stephen F. Duncan, Ph.D., professor in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. December 15, 2020.
Originally published on Mylifebygogogoff.com and republished here with permission.