No More Fake Repairs
The five "A"s of effective repairs.
Posted January 16, 2020 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Saying sorry after a thoughtless comment, apologizing for how someone else feels, or avoiding hurt you caused leaves the relational bond you have with others damaged. The relational bond, an invisible tether that keeps people connected, is durable and resilient, yet needs to be maintained on a consistent basis. If people leave the relational bond in disrepair, having undergone damage, the bond will become strained and will not hold over time.
Therefore, those who enjoy healthy relationships with their partners, kids, parents, friends, co-workers, extended family members, and community members, are in the habit of making what psychologist and author John Gottman calls repair attempts. They practice a natural rhythm of repairing relational damage by recognizing disruption, when it has occurred, and promptly to reconnect, to sync up, to check-in, to make sure "we" are OK.
To repair is not to assume guilt or occupy the position of the aggrieved. It is, rather, to be the one motivated by relational wholeness; to show up, to acknowledge rather than deny. Certainly, it may also entail taking responsibility for hurt caused. If the relational bond is damaged, for any reason, repair is necessary. And there are many ways in which the relational bond is damaged which are not always obvious like in the case of a blow-up. The relational bond can be damaged by subtle aspects of daily life, like: misunderstanding one another, misdirecting a grumpy mood at someone, careless wording, being inattentive to bids for connection, lacking appreciation for effort, missing opportunities to support and empathize.
Repairs are an essential dynamic in any intimate and meaningful relationship. Yet, many people do not know how to effectively repair relational damage. Some may notice the disruption but feel intimated to repair because they don't know how. Some offer quick apologies and only achieve fake repairs, while others may not even notice a disrupted bond and therefore never repair. Do not be one of these people. Be a skilled repairer. In working with couples in counseling, I've observed five steps in how to do this. I call them the five As of repair.
Acknowledge: The chief task of the repairer is to acknowledge what happened and how that caused the other person's feelings. Acknowledgment is a shared burden since there are often two sides of the story, but if you are initiating the repair, play the role of active listener intent on empathizing.
Many people skip over acknowledgment and offer quick apologies feeling like they're done with repair. These are fake repairs. Saying sorry isn't enough. A quick apology earns shallow forgiveness. An apology must always follow acknowledgment; it should never precede it.
Acknowledgment does not, I repeat, does not mean agreement. It is possible to acknowledge and validate another person's perspective without agreeing with said perspective. The repairer purposefully steps outside of their perspective and steps into the perspective of the other person.
Apologize: Once a person feels heard and understood, they are ready to receive an apology if one is necessary. Not all repairs require an apology, but many do. You can apologize for how things happened that caused the disrupted bond. You can take ownership of the hurt you caused.
Actively Listen: Acknowledgement and apologies can often surface a number of related feelings. Therefore, do not be surprised by the expression of additional feelings. Many people make the mistake of saying, "I've already apologized! Why are you still going on about this?! Can't you let this go?" They interpret the expression of additional feelings post apology as antagonistic and punitive, when really its more about catharsis and processing. Take care to drop any defensiveness and remain empathetic. Their processing of feelings is for the purpose of releasing emotions, so as to clear the way for the bond to be reestablished.
Ask: Inquire how the damage that disrupted the relational bond can be avoided in the future. Ask what the other person thinks is a positive way to resolve this issue, so that it doesn't come up again and again. This is an opportunity to make a request rather than a complaint of what you didn't do right, or what you did wrong, versus what you could do, in the future, that would make them feel loved and cared for.
Action: Don't ask for feedback that you aren't willing to take action on. What will make your repair go the distance will be measured by your consistent implementation of the suggestions offered. If your partner, child, or friend sees you putting into practice the ideas gained from the repair attempt, your bond will be immensely enhanced, trust will be restored, and respect will flourish.
It's not a matter of if you will need to repair but when. Make repairs a common practice in your intimate relationships. Good people, in healthy relationships, damage the relational bond. Yet, they are quick to repair.