This article is part of the Why Couples Fight Series
It’s a skill to learn to fight well and repair relationship conflict before they spiral out of control. It’s one of the goals of science-based couples therapy.
Do you find your fights escalating out of control?
That pattern, if left unchanged, creates lasting damage to a marriage.
Happy couples naturally offer repair attempts according to premier relationship researcher John Gottman. A repair attempt can be many things.
It can be any statement or action which is designed to minimize bad feelings between a couple.
Repair attempts de-escalate a fight and either partner put on the brakes. They keep a disagreement from spinning out of control. In his award-winning book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. Gottman calls them a “secret weapon.”
View his famous Gottman Repair Checklist of suggested repairs. Check out the Gottman Relationship Blog for more of his findings.
Gottman says effective repair attempts are one of “the primary factors in whether [a] marriage is likely to flourish or flounder.”
The Gottman Institute studied couples over four decades. They noticed that repair attempts made during marital fights tended to be either “cognitive” or “emotional” repairs.
Cognitive repair attempts focused on problem-solving and friendly persuasion. They are solution-oriented and problem-focused. These repairs try to get the fight “back on track” to firmly resolving the source of the conflict.
Sounds sensible, no?
Unfortunately, most fights don’t “resolve,” but are instead “managed.”
This is a typically male perspective. Logical. Dispassionate….and deeply flawed.
Emotional repairs, on the other hand, involve taking responsibility for their contribution to the problem. Emotional repair attempts are rich and complex.
They may include elements of humor, self-disclosure, story-telling, humility, and empathetic connection. And empathy is the key to marital satisfaction.
Repairs made early in the conflict are far more successful than repairs done later. “Repair early, and repair often” is an important takeaway from this research.
Also, note that emotional repairs are far more successful and land more effectively than cognitive repairs. Gottman reminds us that conflict is a natural part of intimacy. And repair is the path to deeper intimacy and mutual understanding. Conflict can be good. Well managed conflict can lead to deeper understanding and empathy.
Gottman also tells us that misattunements are inevitable. Couples are not always at their best at the same time. All relationships have regrettable incidents, hurt feelings, resulting in physiological arousal. Repairing early and often, a couple learns to understand:
Repair is the pathway to mutual growth, intimacy, and understanding. In other words, conflict and early emotional repair deepen a couple’s intimacy and closeness. Gottman calls early emotional repair attempts the “secret weapon of emotionally intelligent couples.”
Gottman’s research shows that without the specific skill-building, most couples are completely unable to effectively repair once negativity sets in.
Accepting responsibility for even a part of the problem early in conflict discussions is also important. It affects the eventual outcome. Reactivity and defensiveness are reflexively automatic. They can lead to escalation. Escalation itself makes it challenging for couples to repair.
In order for repair attempts to be effective, both spouses must:
… so that is is more constructive than destructive. According to Gottman, a couple’s Sentiment Override is the only factor which controls the effectiveness of repair attempts.
Negative Sentiment Override eventually persuades us that our partner is not our friend. They become instead, an enduring adversary. These lead to harsh start-ups, high inertia, and what Gottman calls an “absorbing negative state.”
Think of it as a roach motel for love. You check in, but you can’t check out. And what controls what kind of Sentiment Override we enjoy in our intimate lives?
There are two factors;
These factors result in an “absorbing negative state.” The roach motel effect. Couples check into extreme negativity…then they find that they can’t check out. Accepting responsibility for at least part of the problem is a powerful way to minimize negativity.
It is particularly effective when a wife says to her husband; “Look, I know this problem isn’t all your fault. I have a role in this problem too.”
Our old friends, empathy, understanding, openness, and self-disclosure are the key components of authentic repair attempts.
The Capacity to repair is another matter. There are two factors related to capacity.
Partners with families that naturally repaired, have a deeper well of grace to draw upon.
Research tells us that loving caregivers in childhood improves our innate capacity to repair early and often. The other factor is how well you have been treated in your marriage. The more often fondness and admiration is expressed by your partner, the easier it will be for you to repair.
So obviously a bad parental hand resulting will impair one’s native ability to repair with skill.
But science-based couple’s therapy can help soothe these old childhood wounds. We teach couples how to effectively repair and self-regulate despite a learned tendency to do otherwise.
8. Gottman’s Four Horsemen9. Nagging10. What is Contempt?11. Defensiveness12. What is Stonewalling?13. My Husband and I Argue Everyday!14. Escalating & Time Out15. Effects of Angry Parents on Children
16. The Art of an Apology17. How to Repair Your Relationship18. More than “I’m Sorry…” Repair Attempts19. Conflict Avoidance in Relationships20. Gottman Style Fight Autopsy21. EFT Style Fight Autopsy22. The Developmental Model Fight Autopsy
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.