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How to repair relationships

Left unaddressed, small ruptures can lead to resentment, emptiness and unhappiness

Every repair attempt offers a chance to strengthen a relationship
Every repair attempt offers a chance to strengthen a relationship (iStockphoto)

One of my favourite concepts, particularly when working with couples, is that of “rupture and repair”. All intimate relationships, whether it’s friendships, parent-child relationships or those of romantic partners, are characterised by moments of disconnection. Every time there is a disconnect, there is rupture. In 17 years, I have never met a couple who hasn’t experienced a rupture.

These ruptures can be felt in many moments: when one, or both, partners feel unheard or unseen. Or, when one partner feels their physical or emotional needs were unmet. Then there is infidelity, betrayal of trust or neglect, where rupture can take the form of trauma. Ruptures can spill over to social interactions: for example, when a partner feels their parent was not respected or treated with warmth by their spouse.

Ruptures lie on a spectrum and can vary in frequency and intensity. What brings couples to therapy, generally, are the large serious ruptures. What unfolds very often, though, is a tale of many small ruptures that have not been acknowledged or spoken about. If small ruptures are ignored for years, they don’t remain small. Left unaddressed, these can take on the form of resentment, long-lasting unhappiness, and emptiness.

A couple who reached out to me 20 years into their marriage tells me: “Four years after we got married, we stopped appreciating and being there for each other, five years later we stopped being intimate with each other and now when our son is getting older, we both realise how much we have ignored our marriage. During a family holiday, our 16-year-old son asked us if we would separate after he left for studies abroad. This shocked us and that is why we are here.”

Sometimes, even if ruptures are serious, couples choose to either not recognise this or continue living with it, for a variety of reasons.

In an intimate relationship, repair attempts are the soothing balm that decide how long relationships last and the shared satisfaction couples experience. When a couple first reaches out to me, how they choose to engage in repair attempts is what fascinates me more than the ruptures. Psychologist John Gottman describes a repair attempt as “any statement or action—silly or otherwise—that prevents negativity from escalating out of control”. Every couple I have worked with has had their own unique and personal repair attempt, which strengthens their relationship.

Repair strategies can take the form of a gentle hug, a kiss, humour to deflect a situation, the ability to receive and sense when a repair attempt is being made, verbally or non-verbally. In marriages, where couples feel in sync or happy together, they have these strategies built in even without knowing the vocabulary around rupture and repair. Repair attempts can go a long way when it comes to family resilience.

At the core of such attempts lie each partner’s acceptance, even acknowledgement of their role in the conflict, either owing to actions or words. Learning to take responsibility, listening to a partner’s feelings without invalidating them, a readiness to offer an apology or accept it when the other partner reaches out. Choosing to communicate which words felt hurtful and what needs to be avoided is central to a repair attempt. At an individual level, each partner needs to identify what they can do to self-soothe to regulate their own mood.

Every repair attempt offers the possibility of hope and a chance to strengthen a relationship. We are all capable of learning what repair attempts look like. What decides the future of a relationship is our ability to introspect, the desire to make it work, the timing of the attempt and the ability of the other partner to receive these attempts. It’s not in the rupture but in the repair attempt that the success of an intimate relationship lies.

Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.


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