When a Relationship Ruptures
Connection, disconnection, and emotional communication in adults.
Posted Jul 01, 2020
What is a rupture?
A rupture is a break in the connection between two people. Often caused by hurt and anger, ruptures are a normal part of all relationships. Sadly, when repeated ruptures occur without any repair, walls between people build up over time. Love gets replaced by resentment, causing a relationship to erode.
The Story of Frank and Barry
Frank and Barry, who have been living and working together for six years, had a fight that was the beginning of the end of their relationship. Briefly, Barry and Frank started a hardware business together. Barry was the hardware expert. Frank ran the back office, taking care of bookkeeping. Recently they invested in a new accounting system that Frank recommended. Barry approved the decision. However, it was a great failure that caused problems in cash flow.
When Barry found out about the botched system, he exploded in rage at Frank. He called him incompetent, poking at Frank’s deepest insecurities. He added at the end of his tirade, “What’s wrong with me that I would ever consider being with someone as inept as you!”
Those words were hard to forget and they echoed through Frank’s mind almost every day since the fight. After a few days of sulking, Frank knew he needed an apology to get past this rupture. Barry refused. Caught in a stalemate, the relationship ended 6 months later.
Prerequisites for Repair
Assigning fault, blame, and badness to one person might feel good in a moment of self-righteous indignation, but it doesn’t get you to a better place. In rare instances, it could be all your fault or all the other person’s fault, but truthfully that is rare. More than likely a rupture is created by the actions of two people, although that might be hard at first.
Barry was so sure he had been wronged by Frank. However, if Frank had been less emotionally volatile, he would have stayed calm and remembered that yelling at Barry would not help his financial troubles. Both Barry and Frank held some responsibility for the rupture. Frank made the business mistake, but Barry indulged his temper and then dug in his heels.
Guiding tip #1 of repairing ruptures assumes each person bears 50% of the responsibility. No matter how angry or hurt we are, and even if we believe we did nothing wrong, each person must assume they are part of the reason for the rupture and be responsible for making part of the repair. For those who use blame as a defense against emotional pain, this will be a hard concept to swallow. Hard as it might be, it’s very possible with work to shift from a blaming stance to one of personal accountability. Seeking out and acknowledging the emotions underneath our blaming defenses is what is required. Sadness, fear, shame, guilt, disgust, and anger are the usual suspects.
If Barry had practiced some basic emotion skills, like slowing down, grounding, and breathing, he might have been able to notice his internal distress before exploding. He might have been able to remember all the love and care Frank gave him on a regular basis. He might have remembered that without Frank, he would feel very alone. By using skills and tools to work with emotions, like the Change Triangle, he’d have been able to notice and validate that he wanted to yell and insult Frank. But, then exercise self-control to STOP himself. Blame, after all, was a defense against his underlying emotions, anger, first and foremost.
Repairing Ruptures by "Working the Change Triangle"
Following their fight, Barry could have noticed that his body was tense (anxiety in muscles), that he was irritable (a defense), and that he was drinking more than usual (a defense). He could have noticed how he had once again dug in his heels to shoot himself in the foot (a defense). He could have noticed he was ruminating (a defense); that his mind was churning with negative thoughts that didn’t lead to solutions, like “Why is everyone so disappointing?” or “Why do I always pick such losers?” He could have noticed his defenses and made a choice to work the Change Triangle, to calm himself down and process his emotions. There was no reason not to apologize for the below-the-belt insults he lobbed at Frank, the person he proclaimed to love more than anyone else in the world. According to author Bell Hooks in her book All About Love, love is an action whereby we strive to nourish our loved one’s souls. Attacking or abandoning our loved ones when they make mistakes is not love.
Why is Repairing Ruptures so Important in Relationships?
The more un-repaired ruptures, the more distance grows between two people. Eventually we cannot make contact with one another because our protective walls are too thick and tall. We eventually forget that we even liked or loved each other. We get more anxious, irritable and depressed. We fight about everything. We break up or worse stay together in misery. Why? False pride? Fear?
Why Not Lean into Emotional Communication?
Ruptures are inevitable in close relationships. Therefore, it just makes common sense to learn how to repair ruptures. When disagreements occur, there doesn’t have to be a big traumatic rupture or if there is, we can repair it. We can express disappointment in each other and still stay connected. We can agree to disagree and still stay connected. We can be angry with each other and still stay connected. We can be in conflict without saying to the other, ”You’re bad!”
Can we be open to hearing the hurts of our partner? If not, we must wonder why!
Barry could have said to Frank: I love you and I am so upset and angry about this major business error. I am afraid the business will now fail. I am afraid we won’t be able to pay our bills. I know I approved this, but I feel you bear most of the responsibility for this mistake so I need you to fix it. Because I am so furious, I need some space for a few days so I don't say anything that will hurt you and that I’ll later regret. Lastly, I do love you. I know you didn’t hurt me on purpose. I am counting on you to remedy the situation as fast as possible.
Guiding Tip #2 instructs us to keep talking until each person understands the other and feels understood. Tip #2 goes a long way to repairing ruptures.
Ready to Practice?
Try this Rupture and Repair Exercise:
During a fight or disagreement with someone you care about, pause for a “time out,” and grab a timer.
Toss a coin to decide who talks first.
Each of you gets five to fifteen minutes (decide the time together) to express your side as calmly as possible.
Start sentences with “I” as in “I am so upset that you yelled at me today.” Don’t start sentences with “you” as in, "You are terrible.”
Don't move to other gripes or use words like always or never as in, "I hate that you are never there for me." Instead say, "Today I really needed you."
If you are too upset to calmly speak, take a break until emotions calm down. Important: Agree to come back to the table to finish this exercise.
When you’re sharing your position, talk slowly so the listener can process and hear the words you are speaking.
When you’re the listener, repeat what the speaker said every sentence or two to make sure you're understanding as you go. After repeating what the listener heard, they should ask the speaker, "Did I understood you correctly?"
Allow the speaker space to answer yes or no.
If the speaker says "No, you didn't get it right," repeat your point. The listener repeats it back again until the speaker lets the listener know they got it right. Remember that the listener doesn't have to agree. The listener just has to hear, try to understand from the listeners point of view, and then repeat back the speakers words until the speaker validates that the listener got it right by saying, "Yes, you got that right."
Go for as many rounds as needed until each person understands the other and feels their own positions are understood completely.
Speaker: I don’t want you to talk to me in such a harsh tone anymore. And, I feel totally dismissed when you roll your eyes.
Listener: I hear you saying you don’t want me to talk to you in a harsh tone any more and you feel dismissed when I roll my eyes. Did I get that right?
Listener: Is there more?
Speaker: Yes. I also feel bad when you drop your clothes on the ground and it seems like you expect me to pick them up.
Listener: I hear you saying you think I am a child for dropping my clothes on the ground. Did I get that right?
Speaker: Not the part about being a child—I never said that. I think you expect me to pick up your clothes.
Listener: I hear you saying that you think I expect you to pick up my clothes. Did I get that right?
Listener: Is there more?
Speaker: No. That’s it.
Then switch roles.
Notice how nothing is happening but listening—no fixing, no trying to get another to see it their way, and no defending their viewpoint. The goal is to listen and parrot back what you hear. It sounds easy, but it is actually very hard and takes practice. After you try this exercise, take a moment to notice how it feels for each of you to be understood.
Once both people in a relationship feel heard and fully understood, connection is often restored. At this point, feelings of closeness, appreciation, and mutual gratitude start to emerge. This is the time to solve problems together remembering to put the relationship first. Below is a list of approaches to solving disagreements, negotiating needs, and resolving conflicts. Try out a few of these and see what works best and feels right:
Make a concession
Apologize with the three-pronged apology approach that rarely fails.
Compromise by meeting in the middle when possible.
Take turns when no compromise is possible.
Agree to disagree and allow each other feelings like disappointment, sadness and anger without making each other feel worse with blame, name calling, yelling, or abandoning.
Give space to recover from triggered emotions and assure each other you’ll keep talking as needed.
Sometimes I ask my patients caught in a conflict, "Would you rather be right or be in a relationship." If the answer is, "I'd rather be in a relationship," then adapting a philosophy of rupture and repair will transform your couple in ways you can’t even imagine. And, practicing rupture and repair actually puts you first because humans are generally happier when we are connected to those we love and need.
Congratulations for working to repair your ruptures. This approach will test and expand your awareness. And it will feel better.
Good luck and A+ for trying.