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How to Reset a Broken Relationship

A sense of justice must be restored.

Key points

  • Relationship rifts are an inevitable feature of life, but they don’t have to be permanent.
  • Research on relationship breakdowns suggests ways to restore the lost sense of justice at the heart of a rift.
  • We can restore a relationship's quality by learning how to provide sincere apologies of sufficient intensity.
Source: RossHelen/Shutterstock

Relationships inevitably involve disappointment and mistakes. In a close relationship, it is highly likely that, at some point or another, one partner will inadvertently offend the other, creating a rift that may seem unfixable. Even small lapses from good harmony can throw things off.

Perhaps you asked your partner to comment on the new prescription sunglasses you just bought, which are, by definition, not returnable. Instead of giving you the rave reviews you were hoping for, your partner comes up with a mocking critique that is unhelpful and insulting to your general level of taste and fashion. Deflated, you walk out the door and try to find a way to cheer yourself up, but the comment penetrates too deeply.

Even in relationships that are not necessarily “close,” there can be disappointments and failures. A healthcare provider fails to address your questions with respect and courtesy, or the customer support representative at the other end of the phone line gives you a snappy comeback to your request for service. You need what you’re trying to get from them, so how can you get over your feelings of betrayal?

The Nature of a Broken Relationship

A newly-published study by University of Toulouse’s Lars Meyer-Waarden and University Jean Moulin Lyon’s William Sabadie (2023) on service breakdowns in the hospitality industry provides an excellent model for understanding what goes on when some type of failure threatens a relationship. In the case of this industry, you can only imagine how many relationships can verge on the brink of destruction. Food is overcooked at restaurants, airline computer systems break down, and hotel rooms are untidy, just to name a few possibilities. Indeed, the authors noted, “because of the ‘people factor,’ service failures in the hospitality sector are inevitable.”

Thinking now about a “people failure” you’ve experienced, what could the company have done to bring you back into the fold? According to the French authors, it all depends on relationship quality (RQ) and strength. On the one hand, you may be more forgiving when you’re basically loyal to a given company or brand. However, countering this may be the greater sense of betrayal when a company you’ve supported for years or decades fails to deliver.

Bringing this back into the sphere of close interpersonal relationships, you can see where there can be useful parallels. It can be helpful to know what to ask for when your partner lets you down; just as useful is knowing what you can do when you’re the one who’s failed.

Testing a Model of Relationship Reparation

In their investigation of reparation efforts by hospitality companies, Meyer-Waarden and Sabadie contrasted offers of refunds vs. vouchers and apologies/offers delivered by phone or in writing. RQ served as the other predictive factor. These effects were contrasted with their impact on customer responses through a sense of perceived justice.

Drawing on past theory and research, the French researchers proposed that this sense of justice would be at the heart of a dismayed consumer’s feelings after being let down; in their words: “perceived justice explains how people react when faced with conflict-laden situations.” You expect, then, that people will treat you fairly, whether it’s your close partner or a service agent on the other end of the phone line. If a relationship is going to be repaired, that sense of justice must be restored.

RQ, in turn, was defined in this study in ways that are perfectly consistent with theories of close relationships; namely, that a relationship’s quality is higher when those involved in it feel satisfied, can trust each other, are committed, expect the relationship to continue, and are willing to invest in it. Like close relationships, too, individuals seek to express their needs and become attached to certain brands.

The authors tested their model by presenting online participants with a scenario in which they received poor service from a restaurant serving them on an important occasion. At “Chez Toni’s,” they had to wait for a table despite having a reservation, received cold meals, and were not treated well by their server. The experimental conditions varied by the length of the relationship (how many times they were told they had eaten there before), the amount of reparation, and the nature of the contact in which the restaurant manager offered the reparation.

To measure perceived justice, the research team asked participants to rate whether the restaurant's response was just, balanced, and appropriate. Measures of RQ included ratings of satisfaction, trust, and loyalty intention.

The findings supported the study's overall framework in that high RQ predicted the extent to which reparation efforts on the part of the restaurant worked to restore loyalty. Customers who valued their relationship with the restaurant, in general, were more forgiving. However, to ensure complete restoration of loyalty, they also had to perceive that the restaurant manager was willing to go through considerable effort to win them back. As the authors concluded, “It is only when complainants are treated with courtesy and respect through personal phone calls that distributive justice has a positive effect on justice perceptions.”

What’s Needed for Relationship Reparation to Work

From the French study, it is clear the sense of justice is fundamental to a good relationship. When your partner insults your taste, this violates your belief that your partner will treat you respectfully. As the findings suggest, whether you can get over this sense of violation depends on what your partner does next and whether it rises to the level of sufficiently recognizing the harm that’s been done. The apology, in other words, needs to fit the crime both in amount and intensity.

In the case of the sunglasses example, this may seem like a small offense in the larger scheme of things, and your partner may not even be aware of how much it’s hurt you. As the aggrieved party, it would therefore be important for you to communicate your feelings. After doing so, you might want to prepare yourself to accept the reparation your partner offers.

All of this can be reversed, as you might imagine, in case you caused the relationship rift. Being willing to listen to your partner’s feelings of injustice and then offering a sincere apology can help pave the way back to harmony.

To sum up, relationship rifts are unpleasant and inevitable, but they don’t have to be permanent. Knowing how to restore justice can help you leave those rifts behind and strengthen your relationship’s bonds of loyalty and commitment.

Facebook image: GaudiLab/Shutterstock


Meyer-Waarden, L., & Sabadie, W. (2023). Relationship quality matters: How restaurant businesses can optimize complaint management. Tourism Management, 96, 1–18. doi: 10.1016/j.tourman.2022.104709

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