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How to Talk About Mistakes in a Relationship

Brooding or avoidance don't usually help.

Key points

  • Researchers developed a scale to measure three forms of communication between partners after a misdeed.
  • The types of communication were related to co-rumination, a discussion that happens often or takes more time.
  • Co-reflection was related to beneficial responses, and co-brooding and co-avoidance to negative responses.

Please note that the content in this piece refers only to non-abusive relationships.

Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels
Source: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

When I teach my class on the psychology of close relationships, at some point I get around to talking about the “not so bright and shining” moments that partners have. You know, those moments when someone inevitably takes a wrong turn and does something that’s likely to feel upsetting to their partner. To be clear, even though not all misdeeds are inevitable, it’s a certainty that, generally speaking, an offense of some type or another will happen because we’re all human and everyone makes mistakes.

For instance, perhaps you promised to do your partner a favor and then lost sight of it. Maybe you’re regretting those inconsiderate words you uttered a couple of days ago. Or your partner might have been really opening up to you in a vulnerable way, but you closed up and weren’t listening. No matter whether we’re talking about a mistake that’s more significant or a smaller misstep, stumbles are going to happen in a couple's journey together and, as long as that couple chooses to remain together, it’s healthy and important to be able to repair hurts in an effective way.

This brings us to the question of how couples might be able to fruitfully repair interpersonal wounds. In a recently published study, a team of researchers examined this question as they created a new questionnaire with the idea of “co-rumination” in mind. Co-rumination is “the extended and or recurring discussion of issues in social relationships.” They drew upon past psychological research suggesting that how an individual person thinks about difficult experiences is linked with that person feeling better or worse. More specifically, they referred to two concepts that have been linked to the idea of rumination: Reflection and brooding. Reflection involves thinking about the problem to try and work it out, whereas brooding involves repeating the same types of thoughts about what’s wrong and how upset a person feels, and magnifying the problem.

As you can probably guess, the former is useful and gets you somewhere, and the latter can be harmful, even though it can seem compelling. Although these elements of rumination have been applied to relationships (that is, co-reflection and co-brooding being two sides of co-rumination), the research team pointed out that these ideas haven’t really been used to understand how romantic partners might talk in the wake of a misstep and whether co-reflection and co-brooding may be connected to how the conversation goes.

First, they created and studied a measure of co-rumination and found that it mapped onto three forms of communication: Co-reflection, co-brooding, and co-avoidance. Co-reflection involved trying to reach a shared understanding and address an issue, whereas co-brooding involved focusing on one’s own views and feelings and not making headway on an issue. Co-avoidance involved staying away from the issue altogether. Then, the research team looked at how these three elements were connected with how partners feel after discussions about relationship mistakes. Co-reflection was the only style that was linked with better experiences for partners, such as more dedication to the relationship, more goodwill, and a person’s ability to truly take responsibility and forgive themselves. For co-brooding and co-avoidance, these styles were connected to experiences such as less goodwill, more vindictiveness, less dedication, and less of a capacity to really take responsibility and pardon oneself.

Certainly, no study is perfect. The team correctly highlighted the need for more research with more diverse groups of people. Also, the investigators were right to state that their research doesn’t make it possible to say that co-reflection, co-brooding, or co-avoidance causes a particular outcome, and other studies should clarify the link between how partners talk about relationship errors and what emerges from their conversations. All the same, given that co-reflecting is connected with more beneficial experiences for partners, it’s probably not a bad idea to try it the next time you and your partner are addressing a stumble and hurt feelings.

What could this look like? Based on the team’s research and their questionnaire, here are some possible ideas:

  1. Try to really acknowledge, accept, and support how your partner feels (for example, hurt, hopeful, scared, angry, sad, confused).
  2. Try to set aside your own position for a moment. Instead, try to really listen to your partner and see if you can understand where they’re coming from.
  3. Try to be open and receptive to your partner in the conversation.

Facebook image: Zmaster/Shutterstock


Thai, M., Wenzel, M., & Okimoto, T. G. (2023). Transgression-related co-rumination: Scale validation and prediction of relational outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 37(3), 335–346.

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