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When Is It Worth Repairing a Relationship?

Fraught relationships are often worth saving. Here’s why, and 5 key ingredients.

Key points

  • Ruptures are inevitable in relationships. Repairing them is a skill worth learning.
  • Key ingredients for relationship repair include an agreement that each person matters and an openness to communicate and do things differently.
  • Connection, belonging, and the art of repair are sorely needed in our increasingly isolation-and-addiction-prone world.

In our fast-paced age, complicated relationships often seem expendable. After all, popular self-improvement sites recommend surrounding ourselves with “quality” people who further our goals or lift our spirits, and distancing ourselves from those who slow us down, demand too much, or otherwise seem “toxic.” In my clinical experience, however, all meaningful relationships have their hiccups. Understanding how to effectively navigate relationships when they feel challenging can significantly deepen our sense of connection in a world that too often leaves people isolated and hungry for belonging.

Ruptures are inevitable in close relationships, and learning to repair those ruptures is considered by contemporary psychoanalysts to be one of the most growth-promoting and healing aspects of the therapeutic process. Such healthy repair need not be confined to the patient-therapist dynamic, however; repair is an art and skill that can be learned and applied to all meaningful relationships. To repair rather than discard our social ties is an act of courage, respect, generosity, and forgiveness, the virtues that have always been fundamental to human well-being and to a peaceful and humane society.

Connection, belonging, and the art of repair are sorely needed in our increasingly isolation-and-addiction-prone world.

Rupture Is an Opportunity for Repair

Ruptures may be great or small. The smallest ones are relatively easily resolved with an apology, a willingness to forgive, and perhaps some sort of negotiation. Larger ruptures occur when someone (often accidentally) hits a deep nerve in another, usually by failing to respond when a response is needed or expected, responding in a way that is tone-deaf to the needs of the other, or responding with criticism. The injured party either lashes out in anger or withdraws (standard involuntary responses to a perceived threat), and in extreme cases cuts off the relationship.

In new relationships, such a decision may (or may not) be of consequence, but in families or friendships of long-standing in which there are deep bonds of attachment and love, deciding to jettison a relationship can be severely damaging and destructive to one or both parties. While cutting off relationships may feel empowering to the person who makes such a choice, it is not considered an adaptive solution by mental health professionals except in cases of abuse and neglect (e.g. domestic violence, child physical or sexual abuse, etc.).

Cut-offs preclude communication--the very essence of healthy relatedness-- preventing the restoration, development or deepening of trust between the two parties. Trust is essential for health and wellness. Genuine repair deepens and strengthens trust because it is a demonstration by both parties that one is seen and heard, that one is worth the trouble, that in one small corner of the world one truly matters.

5 Key Ingredients for Repair

The process of repair is an art and skill through which one may develop deeper, more resilient, and/or more trusting relationships. Repair is a challenging process, though, one that requires the participation of both parties (and sometimes the support and guidance of a trained professional). Here are five prerequisites to successful repair:

  1. Though angry or hurt, both parties agree that the other person matters, that the bond between them matters even if the dynamics of the relationship need to change. It takes courage and generosity to acknowledge that the flawed person who has hurt us, disrespected us, or overstepped their bounds still matters to us.
  2. A healthy relationship is an evolving relationship. Just as a broken bone, once healed, is stronger than it was before, the purpose of repair is to build something stronger and sturdier than what had previously existed. Repair does not mean reverting to a former, out-grown way of relating.
  3. Repair requires a willingness to communicate openly, sometimes emotionally, sometimes in a way that looks and feels messy, revealing the vulnerabilities that are utterly intrinsic to the human experience. Our individualistic society has shamed people into concealing their vulnerability, but the need for connection, the need to feel loved and valued, is fundamental to our social species. Engaging each other as two feeling human beings promotes healing and growth.
  4. The process of repair may require more than one conversation. If the conversation becomes too heated or overwhelming to one or both parties, it may be necessary to try again in a week or a month. Ideally, with each conversation there is an increased capacity to hear the other person, to truly register their complaint.
  5. Repair requires the capacity to empathize with the other party as well as the capacity to acknowledge when one has behaved unkindly or unskillfully. These capacities are innate to most of us, but their expression is often unhealthily blocked by layers of self-protectiveness.

These prerequisites may seem simple at face value, but each represents a potentially insurmountable obstacle to repair. In a world consisting of billions of distinct individuals, it is a wonder that we sometimes experience a meeting of hearts and minds, and some relationships may not be salvageable. But historically, relationships with extended family, friends, and neighbors have been indispensable for our social species, and no less so in times of great stress and upheaval. For one's own personal growth and healing, as well as for a stronger, healthier social fabric, it may be time to rethink our approach to challenging relationships.

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