Relationships, Part 49: Constructive Conflict: Repair the Damage

If you’ve been reading the last few posts, you now know how to have a constructive conflict. You can pick the right time and place to talk about difficult matters. You start with the easy stuff. You don’t expect her to fix the things she has no influence over. You can learn from her and how to acknowledge her feelings. You can call the four fouls of an unfair fight, whether you commit them or she; and you know enough not to be evil. You’ve learned a lot, but, before you and your partner can perfect your new skills, things can still go badly.

You need to know enough to make repairs.

Remember the last time you and your partner tried to have a conversation, but it turned into a fight? Go through the scenes carefully. Get to the part right when it started to get ugly. Now rewind back a few frames to where no one was mad yet. Roll it in slow motion. Watch the expression change in your partner’s face as you say that thing you said that made her so upset. You see it? You see that look? You know the look. You’ve seen it plenty of times, whenever you’ve been in trouble. Memorize it. When you see that look again, stop whatever you’re doing and make a repair.

If you were driving down the highway and your tire blew, you wouldn’t go on cruising, playing the radio, looking at the sights, as if nothing was wrong. No, you’d stop and fix it. The same principle applies when you begin to have a fight with your partner. Stop talking about whatever it is you were talking about and reaffirm your commitment to the relationship.

So, let’s say you’re trying to convince him to get up with the baby once in a while. Your cause is just. You have to go to work in the morning just like he does. You need your sleep as much as him. Spending time with the baby, even at two o’clock in the morning can be a tremendously rewarding experience that facilitates bonding. Furthermore, the evidence of his failure to pull his weight is unassailable. You’ve been keeping track. You even have a chart. You wait for a good time to talk, you clear your throat, and speak. You make your point, but then, there’s that look on his face that I told you to notice. It’s time to make a repair.

You might know what you did to get that look. Maybe you just couldn’t resist a little jab. Maybe his precious male ego got jostled too much. Maybe he took something the wrong way. Maybe he’s overwhelmed. It doesn’t matter why you got the look, you still need to make a repair.

It also doesn’t matter how correct your complaint might be. A righteous cause does not guarantee that you’ve expressed it well, nor does it justify any means to implement it. You don’t have to back away from the point you made; he still should get up with the baby. Don’t forget the whole thing because he gave you this look, but you’re going to have to live with this man, even if you win the debate and prevail over him. You’re going to need his cooperation, even if he agrees with you. Make the repair.

If you see that look, stop trying to make your point. You made it already. The job is done. Continue in the same vein and it’ll just get ugly. You need to make a repair. Did I say that already?

It’s not necessary at this juncture to fix everything about your relationship. You’re just trying to undo whatever just happened and get the conversation back on a track. Correct the little things before they turn into big things. Switch your focus from content to process. Forget about what you are trying to say and pay attention to how you are saying it. If you see that look, you’re saying it wrong. Stop it. Make the… you guessed it… make the repair.

People often ask me, “OK, I saw that look and I stopped. Now what do I do to repair the damage?”

You’re asking me how to love your husband? That’s something you should already know, he became your husband somehow. Go back to that tape you were looking at. Rewind it to the beginning of your relationship. Look at how charming you were then, how easy you were to get along with, how you guys talked for hours. Look at all the ways you won him over and made him decide you were the one for him. Do that again. That’s how you make a repair.

Now is the time to paraphrase, to use your safe word, take a break, focus on the positive, reset and reboot.

There’s also humor, humility, a gentle touch, a come-hither look, a soft expression. Sometimes you don’t have to say anything to make a repair, but you do need to communicate that you love him.

In my experience, couples know very well how to make repairs; they just don’t do it. Or they don’t notice when their partner is attempting to make one. They get stuck the issue, rather than paying attention to how they are talking about it.

Don’t wait until doors are slammed before you stop trying to hammer home the point. Notice your relationship needs mending. Make a repair.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

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