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How to Protect and Repair Family Relationships

Family members often hurt each other. Relationship repair research can help.

Source: Skeeze/Pixabay

Hurting a family member’s feelings, crossing the proverbial line, or saying something that can’t be taken back are inevitable missteps in family relationships. Family members are often the people in our lives who know best. This means they know how to push our buttons and test our patience.

Research has found that when family members hurt us, it can hurt worse than when other people in our lives hurt us (like co-workers or friends).

Our response to family hurt is often to forgive and forget, bottle it up, or otherwise keep them close in our lives. When friends or co-workers hurt us, on the other hand, we are more likely to keep some distance from them and think twice before opening up or depending on them again. Because family relationships are considered “unconditional” and are often part of a taken-for-granted social support network, people keep trusting and feeling committed to them.

Repairing Family Relationships

When hurt happens in family relationships, it is beneficial to go through a process of relational repair. Relationship repair refers to reconciling and mending a relationship after one or both parties have been hurt. Apologizing and granting forgiveness are relationship repair strategies but do not always end in successful relationship repair.

Relationship repair requires an investment of time and energy over an extended period of time. Not only that, but the investment must be mutual. If the investment is not mutual at the start, the repair is still possible, as long as both parties contribute to the maintenance and rebuilding of the relationship by the end. A one-sided repair attempt will fail if the other side never buys back into the relationship.

What typically needs to happen for successful repair is for one party to set aside blame and the other party to accept responsibility for what they did to hurt the other. They may also offer an apology or some humor to lighten the mood. When both people are at fault, family members might say, “Hey, I think maybe neither of us listening to what the other is saying right now,” or otherwise shed light on a communication issue they share the blame in. Relationships repair has occurred when commitment and trust are restored.

Investing in Family Relationships

    According to Dr. John Gottman, verbal repair attempts don’t always work. Instead, the most important predictor of the ability to repair and have healthy relationships is whether the relationship has more positive than negative interactions overall.

    Gottman calls this the relationship “bank account.” If the account is full of positive, supportive, and accepting interactions, it will weather the storm when conflict inevitably happens. Relationships that are already strained or are marked by disrespect are less able to handle conflict and other negative interactions. This means people should invest in their relationship, especially when times are good, in order to prepare for harder times.

    What do you do to fill your relationship bank accounts with positive interactions? Below are 10 ideas for investing in family relationships.

    1. Call family members on a semi-regular schedule (e.g., once a week).
    2. Send cards or letters. Bonus: include photos that remind you both of the good times you spent together.
    3. Regularly and sincerely ask how your family member is doing. Dig below the surface.
    4. Keep up with your family members on social media if they have an account. Be aware of what they are up to and ask about their latest trip or kid’s soccer game next time you talk.
    5. Tell your family members you care about them and are there for them if they need you.
    6. Share a meaningful memory with a family member that you haven’t talked about in a long time. Go through old pictures to jog your memory and recount the experience from your point of view. Ask if they remember it the same way or what was special about it for them.
    7. Drop off groceries for your older family members (particularly good if practicing social distancing).
    8. Read a book or watch a documentary on a topic your family member is interested in. Share it with them and start a conversation based on their interests.
    9. Visit family members you do not live near a couple of times a year if possible and more than just on holidays when a visit is expected.
    10. Cook a nice meal for a family member who has had an especially tough or busy week.


    Rusbult, C. E., Hannon, P. A., Stocker, S. L., & Finkel, E. J. (2005). Forgiveness and relational repair. In E. L. Worthington, Jr. (Ed.), Handbook of forgiveness, 185-205. New York, NY: Routledge.

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