The 1-2-3’s of Relationship Repair

Repair and restore your damaged relationship with these three basic steps

Posted Dec 21, 2013

The ending of any close relationship, whether through  breakup or simple disuse, brings about a certain amount of pain.  Depending on the circumstances, you may even feel relief but even then, before long, relief may turn to sadness if not regret.

You're ready to try to repair the damaged bonds, but the question is how? You might contact your ex directly, send out the word to friends or family you have in common, or start to play out different imaginary scenarios, none of which seem very realistic. There is no one absolutely right way to get the process started, so instead we'll look at your options. You can adapt according to your own specific situation.

Step 1: Examine your motives

What do you hope to accomplish by reaching out to your ex? Trying to relieve your own guilt if you caused the breakup could actually cause more grief. Your ex is trying to move on, and by re-establishing contact, you're sending out confusing messages. If you're the one who was left, though, your attempts to repair the relationship will only keep the pain active and alive.

What if the relationship was between friends, and has just dwindled over time? In this case, perhaps you find yourself missing the fun you used to have together or just having the closeness that you once shared. You would like to have that person back in your life, even if only on an occasional basis. If there were no bad feelings involved in the dissolution of your ties, and your motivation is simply to get back some of what you lost, then your situation seems relatively uncomplicated.

Some individuals seem better prepared than others to repair broken relationships, however. Georgia State counseling psychologist Don Davis and his colleagues (2013) studied college students who'd been rated, at one point in time, on the psychological quality of humility. For the next six weeks, they rated their levels of unforgiveness. Over the course of time, the young adults with higher levels of humility found it easier to forgive their partners.

If you're someone who has a down-to-earth view of yourself, then, you may be more motivated to overcome a relationship breach and try to seek some form of restoration. If your ex was as well, you’ll be met with more of a welcome.

Step 2: Take stock of what you have to gain and lose

Restoring a broken relationship comes with costs and benefits. The costs are that you'll be rejected if you initiate the repair (especially if your ex is low on humility). If you're trying to re-establish the relationship out of feelings of guilt, you may also make some bad decisions. In research on a completely different type of relationship, that between customer and salesperson, University of British Columbia psychologist Darren Dahl and his colleagues (2005) found that customers who didn't make a purchase initially from a salesperson later felt so guilty that they then were more likely to feel that they owed the salesperson and then made a purchase to alleviate their guilt.  Translating this to romantic relationships, this study's findings suggest that if you continue to feel that you owe your ex, you may make decisions that ultimately hurt you both emotionally and perhaps even financially.

An honest appraisal of your situation, then, has to include balancing the pro's of maintaining contact with someone who was important to you versus the con's of putting yourself, or your ex, into a vulnerable position. If the balance sheet weighs more heavily toward the pro's, then you can start to plan your strategy but if you have even an inkling that you could stand to lose more than you gain, you might want to put your repair efforts on hold.

Step 3: Plan your strategy                                                                                

You've done the calculations, and now you're ready to venture out and start the repair process. Before you make a move, you need to set aside your feelings and start mapping out a plan of action based on the results of Steps 1 and 2. Because you knew this person well, you should have a good sense of how he or she might react to different ways of reaching out.

If you think direct contact is most advisable, you could send an email, text message, or even pick up the phone and try to talk in person. However, if you sense that this approach will create even more resentment or pain, then you should back off and see if you can find a common friend who could send out a few feelers. You might be able to approach a former pal with whom you simply lost touch through Facebook, but in general social media can be a bit too impersonal. If you’re still not friends with this person on Facebook, a direct message won’t even appear in the message feed but will go to “other” and maybe never actually be read.

The most important thing to consider at this point is to recognize that your efforts may be rebuffed. You have to be willing to accept an outcome that includes complete rejection, at worst, or restoration, at best.  Your ex may not respond at all, leaving you wondering whether you even should have tried. Whatever the outcome, you’ll have gained important knowledge about yourself and your relationships, and know better what to do should you find yourself faced once more with this dilemma.

By being willing to take the step to contemplate, or act on, your desire for reparation, you can take comfort in knowing that you’ve put someone else’s feelings ahead of your own.  Whether you were motivated by guilt, loneliness, or just a desire to get back some of what you had, by taking the time to stop and reflect on what’s best for your ex, not just you, you’ve shown that you have the potential for fulfillment in a relationship- if not this one, then in those you can have in the future. 

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013 


Davis, D. E., Worthington, E. L., Jr., Hook, J. N., Emmons, R. A., Hill, P. C., Bollinger, R. A., & Van Tongeren, D. R. (2013). Humility and the development and repair of social bonds: Two longitudinal studies. Self and Identity, 12, 58-77. doi: 10.1080/15298868.2011.636509

Dahl, D. W., Honea, H., & Manchanda, R. V. (2005). Three Rs of Interpersonal Consumer Guilt: Relationship, Reciprocity, Reparation. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 15, 307-315. doi: 10.1207/s15327663jcp1504_5