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A Couple's Repair Playbook

What distinguishes successful couples is the ability to repair. How we handle the breakdown makes all the difference in the world. Don't be discouraged by conflict. Whether disconnections are frequent or few and far between, they can deepen trust if you step into the repair mode promptly.
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It was an idyllic afternoon in the small town of Idyllwild, California. The sunlight glistened from the pine needles and the birds were sweetly chirping as Tahquitz Peak stood proudly in the distance. My husband, our six year old daughter, and I were visiting his mother, whose health was in decline.

We were enjoying a family shopping trip to the local stores when it happened. We were all trying on hats when Duane asked how his looked. I was distracted and annoyed as my daughter was hanging on me and I flippantly responded. My callous, "It looks fine!" did not land well. Duane took issue and said he did not like my tone. My tone? His comment set me fuming. Our exchange became heated until his mother approached and told him how much she loved the hat. We silently stewed as we continued shopping, the irritation mounting inside each of us. His parents drove back to the house while we walked. This gave us the opportunity to let the other one have it and release all the fury that was bottling up. Impervious to the presence of our daughter we were each determined to prove the other wrong.

Relentlessly, we argued back and forth like we were trying to win a point in a tennis match. We returned to his parent's house with no apparent winner and barely hid our anger behind pleasantries as we ate dinner with the grandparents. But under the polite remarks we were both plotting our next round.

This second round never materialized. Instead after dinner we retreated into a passive aggressive silence and we both went to bed disgruntled. The next morning was soured by the day before as we remained distant and aloof.

What happened? What went wrong? What could we have done differently to avoid this caustic collision?

The following are a few playbook tips to mend your breakdown fast.

1. Benefit of the doubt
Always give your partner the benefit of the doubt. After all, commitment is about putting your life in their hands, so you might as well believe their intentions are good. We all have off moments. Daily stresses and aches and pains can cause us to be insensitive or unable to be our most loving selves. This is why we need to give our partners a pass whenever possible. Studies have shown that idealizing your partner is beneficial to committed relationships. Most conflicts are the result of misunderstandings, or mis-read cues. We think we know what our partner is thinking but we don't. Be curious instead of reactive. Get the facts before you attack. Resist your automatic impulses, wait, step back, take a breath and respond compassionately. Chances are if your partner is acting badly toward you they are probably in pain. In retrospect I could see that Duane had not yet come to terms with his mother's rapid decline in health.

Whatever the argument might seem to be about, it's aways a breakdown in the quality of the connection. Duane did not really care whether or not I liked the hat, what he did care about was that I dismissed him, and what I cared about was that he accused me. The argument was about the sudden loss of a positive connection, and we were both vulnerable to this because of the surrounding circumstances.

2. Repair quickly
What distinguishes successful couples from those that break-up is the ability to repair swiftly. Hurt, injury, conflict are all normal, inevitable and necessary for growth within a relationship. The longer the connection is broken the harder it is to repair. The mind is a negative magnet and during the disconnect your partner is collecting every complaint that they have ever had of you, and re-constructing your identity. You don't want to be mistaken for the person your partner creates in your absence. Projection can be a nasty thing and the best way to prevent it is to show up in a positive way.

3. Do the opposite
A good rule of thumb is to identify what you typically do when conflict arises, and then do the opposite. If you usually withdraw, approach and stay present. If you tend to pursue your partner around the house or text them relentlessly, let it rest, step back and wait. Another example of doing the opposite is relaxing the facial muscles. This immediately sends your partner a non-verbal cue that they are safe. Doing the opposite will be difficult and perhaps feel impossible, but you will discover it is relationship game-changer.

4. Do not set the record straight
It is important whenever conflict occurs NOT to set the record straight about what really happened. Neuroscientists have discovered that memory is unreliable. It is impossible to get an accurate account of what happened. Therefore because of the way the mind works, what happened is less important than what needs happen. No matter what your partner says or how they respond, do not defend or justify yourself. Do not expect your partner to take responsibility for their part. They will only see how they contributed to the problem after you have fully owned your own contribution.

5. Take Charge
In our private practice we have noticed a common confusion around the idea of taking responsibility. Seeing your part in creating or maintaining the disconnection is equated with giving in and taking blame. We all have a fundamental aversion to being wrong. The fear of being wrong is second only to the fear of being bad, because when we were growing up accusations of either exposed us to the danger of disapproval, and therefore threatened our sense of safety. But as adults when we refuse to take responsibility in our relationships we actually diminish our personal power and constrict our range of freedom.

6. Shake off the mood
The heavy sensation that lingers after we make-up is chemical. It results from the activation of the dorsal motor vagal complex. When our body is physically or emotionally injured the dorsal motor vagas floods the body with opiods and lowers our blood pressure causing us to feel deflated and withdrawn. It is an autonomic bodily protection response. However, to repair our relationship we need to shake off this stupor with laughter, silliness or sex. Even if it feels inauthentic, it is important to remember that it is nothing more than a chemical residue. Our true authenticity lies in our intention to reconnect, not in our moods.

What distinguishes successful couples is the ability to repair. How we handle the breakdown makes all the difference in the world. Don't be discouraged by conflict. Whether disconnections are frequent or few and far between, they can deepen trust if you step into the repair mode promptly.

Please share with us your experience. We would love to hear from you!