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Four Steps to Relationship Repair With the H-E-A-L Technique

New tools to rebuild trust and love in your relationship.

Key points

  • Forty-one percent of first marriages and 60 percent of second marriages end in divorce.
  • Attachment injuries occur when partners fail to hold and comfort each other during key moments of need.
  • By Hearing, Empathizing, Acting (to change), and Loving, one is actively reaching for their partner and letting them know they care.
This post is in response to
Healing the Cycles that Tear Couples Apart

The best thing to hold onto in life is each other.

—Audrey Hepburn

Romantic relationships are among the greatest sources of happiness and meaning for many human beings, yet also the cause of lasting sadness and regret. Growing up, we learn much about fairytale weddings, but not a whole lot about what it really takes to keep love and caring alive for the long haul.

According to the latest statistics, 41 percent of first marriages and 60 percent of second marriages end in divorce. And even the strongest relationships get off track sometimes, because of the stresses of living, mismatch of expectations, or what author Dr. Sue Johnson calls “attachment injuries”—ways in which we fail to hold and comfort each other during key moments of need. I have developed The H-E-A-L (Hear; Empathize; Act; Love) technique to repair damaged relationships by replacing defensive self-protection with compassionate presence and loving connection.

Hear—Stay Present and Listen

When your partner speaks, make an effort to stay mentally present and to listen. Open your heart and take down your defenses. It’s not about defending yourself, but about trying to understand your partner and learning to fulfill each other’s needs.

Listen beyond her words for nonverbal signs of emotion. Does she have an angry expression on her face or sadness in her eyes? Is his body language open and reaching towards you or closed off and guarded? What do you think your partner is feeling? What are the needs she has that are not being met (such as love, companionship, understanding, control, or respect)? The best way to soothe an angry partner is to let him know that you hear and accept his unmet needs—and are willing to make changes to help meet them.

Empathize—Allow Your Partner's Experience to Deeply Affect You

Once you think you understand what your partner feels and have checked it out with him, pay attention to what feelings YOU have when you observe him feeling this way. It is especially important to search beneath the surface for the softer, tender feelings. My clients often express anger when what lies underneath is feeling stuck, sad, or lonely.

Can you stay present with your partner, and connect with her deeper experience, perhaps feeling pain because she is in pain? Can you feel compassion, and let him know that his expression of pain or anger affects you deeply? Your first instinct in hearing your partner’s distress may be to try to solve the problem or give advice. Often, however, this advice comes across as critical or judgmental, which can make things worse. On the other hand, staying emotionally engaged and expressing compassion can provide healing comfort and connection. Many times, that is all your partner needs.

Act—Take Action to Address Concerns and Show Willingness to Change

The next step is to commit to intentional action to address your partner’s needs and concerns. These actions can range from helping more with the dishes, to calling your partner during the day to let her know you are thinking of her, to spending less money because it makes him anxious. When your partner sees that you take her concerns seriously, she will be more likely to feel valued and respected. This can create a positive cycle in which your partner appreciates you and feels more loving towards you. You don’t have to be perfect at it—just the fact that you care and are trying to change is enough to help most people feel validated.

Love—Feel and Express Unconditional Love

Make space in your life to deliberately reconnect with the loving feelings you have for your partner, even if recent interactions have made you feel distant or angry. Think about the good qualities he has that originally attracted you to him. Perhaps look at old photos or visualize special times in your relationship, or the hopes and dreams you had together. Can you find a way to forgive yourself and your partner for the mistakes you have both made that got you off track? What do these feelings of love motivate you to do? Might you want to reach out to him and express your love and affection physically or with action, such as cooking a meal or writing a note?

Love is defined as a concern for another’s wellbeing and a warm feeling you have towards another. Do not make your expressions of love contingent on what your partner does, but rather reach out and express unconditional caring, support, understanding, and forgiveness. If there are unresolved trust issues that hamper your ability to love your partner freely, think about the next steps you could take to air these issues and what it would take to rebuild trust.


Contrary to the way relationships are portrayed in the movies, they are not all sunsets and roses. A better analogy is that of an ever-changing, complicated dance. When two people come together with different life histories, sensitivities, and current stresses, you are bound to bump up against each other or get blown off track over the course of a many-year relationship.

Repair your relationship using the H-E-A-L technique. By Hearing, Empathizing, Acting to change, and Loving, you are actively reaching for your partner and letting them know that they matter and you care. This should create HEALING energy to move your relationship back to health.

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