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Rupture and Repair: How Conflict Can Strengthen Relationships



Do you remember the last fight you had with a loved one? Many people find conflict unpleasant, stressful, and even scary at times, believing that conflict is a negative thing to be avoided. What these people might not realize, however, is that conflict is not only a normal, inevitable part of an authentic relationship, but is also a great opportunity for growth.


Similar to how muscles get stronger after being subjected to stress and then given time to recover and repair, relationships can become stronger through this process of emotional rupture and repair. When done effectively with care and intention, repair after a rupture can lead to a more resilient, stable, and satisfying bond (Bloch & Bloch, 2018) (Gottman and Levenson 1988).

How to Repair

You may be wondering, “What does effectively repairing a rupture look like?” Many people learn, either directly or by example, unhelpful ways to cope with conflict. Often, people turn away after a rupture by giving the silent treatment, sweeping the issue under the rug, or digging their heels in and refusing to apologize or understand the other’s side. What is much more effective is turning toward each other after a rupture by practicing empathy and taking a step back to try to understand the other person’s perspective. It is important to communicate openly and honestly without blame, criticism, or defensiveness (Gottman and Levenson, 1988). Take accountability for how you have made the other person feel, and share how the rupture has hurt you.

The steps toward repair after a rupture may look like this*:

  1. Person A shares how they felt using I-first and emotion-first language, explaining what went wrong and what type of action may be more helpful in the future.

  2. Person B reflects back what they heard from Person A, checking for accuracy, in order to make sure that they are understanding Person A correctly and that they feel heard and understood.

  3. Person B apologizes for how their actions made Person A feel (Note: Expressing empathy and apologizing for how you made someone feel does not have to mean that you agree with the other person’s opinion or that you are taking on the label of being the “wrong” one in the argument. The way someone feels in response to an action is a fact, regardless of how much each party may disagree about the facts of the rupture).

  4. Person B shares how they will behave differently in the future.

  5. Once resolved– and only once resolved– Person B may share how they were hurt by the rupture and may repeat the process (e.g. “I’m glad that we talked that out. Is now a good time for me to share a bit about my perspective and what was difficult for me?).


A sample dialogue may look like this:


Person A: “Is now a good time to talk?

Person B: “Sure, what’s up?”

Person A: “I’m feeling upset about the joke about me that I heard you telling our friends earlier. I know you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but stuff like that makes me feel embarrassed, and it feels like you’re not in my corner. In the future, it would mean a lot to me if you steered clear of jokes like that. Does that sound doable?”

Person B: “Thank you so much for sharing that. It sounds like me telling jokes about you like that makes you feel really hurt and embarrassed, and you’d like me to avoid them when we’re hanging out with our friends. Is that right?”

Person A: “Yes, exactly.”

Person B: “I am really sorry for making you feel that way. You are absolutely right; it wasn’t my intention to hurt your feelings at all, but I can see I’ve done that anyway. Moving forward, I will do my best to avoid those kinds of jokes, and please also let me know if I’ve crossed that line again without realizing it. I love you, and I’m so glad that we had this talk.”

Person A: “Thank you. I just want us to both feel respected with and without other people around. I love you too, and I appreciate you hearing me.”

*Tip: Be mindful of tone throughout the repair process. Try your best to speak in a calm, non-defensive manner.


Parent-Child Relationships


The concept of rupture and repair also applies to parent-child relationships. When parents and children have conflicts or misunderstandings, it is important for both parties to try to understand each other's perspective and communicate openly and honestly. For example, if a child does something that upsets their parent, it is important for the parent to communicate their feelings and the reasons for their upset in a calm and understanding way. This can help the child to understand the parent's perspective and can lead to a resolution of the conflict (Gottman & Levenson, 1988). This can be far more effective than yelling or assigning arbitrary punishments.


Similarly, if a child is upset with their parent, it is important for the parent to listen to the child's perspective and try to understand their feelings (Gottman & Levenson, 1988). Many parents feel that apologizing to their child may disrupt the power dynamic or send an unhelpful message, but children need to hear an apology when one is due. All parents are bound to behave in a way they regret that may hurt their child emotionally from time to time. Apologizing to children teaches them that their feelings matter, it is okay to make mistakes, and it is important to own up to your mistakes and honor others’ feelings. When children learn these lessons, they grow into adults who find healthy, loving relationships, friendships, and even workplaces full of mutual respect and care.

Here is an example of what repairing a rupture with your child might look like:

Child: *Crying after Parent snaps and yells* “You’re so mean!”


Parent: “I can see you’re feeling really upset after I yelled at you. I’m so sorry I lost my temper. Can we take a few 4-7-8 breaths together?”

Child: *Breathes with Parent and calms down*

Parent: “It wasn’t right for me to yell at you like that. I felt upset when I couldn’t get you to brush your teeth before bed. Brushing your teeth is really important, but I need to find a nicer way to help you do that. Let’s come up with a plan together.”


Child: “Okay.”

Parent: “How about, when I say it’s ready for bed but you need a few more minutes, we use a code word? What do you think the word should be?

Child: “Dinosaur!”

Parent: “Awesome! So, when you say the code word “dinosaur,” you’ll have five more minutes to finish what you’re doing so that you feel ready to get ready for bed.”


Ruptures are a normal, inevitable part of any meaningful relationship, and viewing them as an opportunity for growth results in stronger, more resilient relationships in every realm of life. Often, however, practicing healthy repair can be challenging. For support on how to work through conflict in a healthier way, consider seeking professional support by getting started with an individual, couple, or family therapist. Seeking help can be difficult, but the relief that follows is so worth it. By approaching conflict with patience, empathy, and an open mind, couples and families can work together to repair their relationships and build a stronger foundation for the future.

Note: There is a limit to how much a relationship can withstand. When over-worked without enough time to heal, muscles can become injured. Similarly, while it is normal and healthy for relationships to experience conflicts and misunderstandings, ongoing neglect or abuse is never okay and can seriously harm individuals and relationships (Bloch & Bloch, 2018). If you are in an abusive or neglectful relationship, seek help and support to ensure your safety and well-being. There are many resources available for those experiencing domestic violence, elder abuse, and child abuse, including:


The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233)

The National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD)

The National Elder Abuse Hotline (1-800-677-1116)


References

Bloch, L., & Bloch, J. (2018). The art and science of love: A couples workshop. John Wiley & Sons.

Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1988). The social psychophysiology of marriage. In The social psychology of health (pp. 163-194). Psychology Press.


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