Making a Good Repair, Part Two: Five Steps for Speaking to Your Partner

In the first of this series, I described the internal steps you can take to prepare yourself for making a repair in your relationship. Once you’ve taken those steps, the next project is actually sitting down with your partner and having a tough conversation. This is where the rubber meets the road in terms of making your repair. 

Anyone can say a quick and half-hearted “I’m sorry,” but if you want to make a repair that lasts, it’s worth taking the time to do it well. A good repair can go beyond fixing the problem; it can lead to a new level of intimacy and trust between you and your partner. 

In this second blog post, I’ll be describing the steps you can take in conversation with your partner to help you address what went wrong, understand your partner more deeply, and set yourself up for a strong and lasting repair. 

  1. Access curiosity about your partner’s experience. This part is not optional, and it is the part that usually isn’t done sufficiently deeply to facilitate healing. Your goal here should be to understand your partner’s perspective well enough that you really get how this was so hard for them. You want to be able to rephrase what they say, and have them let you know what you missed. Ultimately, you want to get it so right that your partner agrees that you understand how they feel. The key here is that you want to go deeper than the facts of what happened; you want to know how your partner perceived what happened. What is their perspective on it? What about it was hard? How did they interpret the situation? How would they have preferred you to handle this situation, and why? It can be challenging to stay grounded and steady while you hear your partner share in-depth about how they were hurt by something you did (or didn’t do). Keep your feet on the ground, breathe steadily, and maintain your curious attitude. Focus entirely on putting yourself in your partner’s shoes. This isn’t the moment to try and explain your viewpoint, tell your partner their perspective is wrong, or patch things up with a quick apology. The deeper you’re able to dig into this conversation, the more likely you are to be able to make a strong and lasting repair. Stay with the conversation until you have a feeling of “Oh, of course! Knowing you as I now do, It makes perfect sense that you felt that way.” Note: this is NOT the same as agreeing, nor is it the same as coming up with action steps. All you are doing is understanding your partner far better than you did before. That’s all.
  2. Show empathy. Now that you’ve gained a deeper understanding of your partner’s experience, this is the moment to show your compassion: “Oh!! I see now”. When it goes well, it sounds something like this: “I now understand that when I did (x), this is what happened for you (description of your partner’s internal experience in depth). I see how you felt (x), and it makes total sense to me that you would feel that way, given the combination of what I did, and what it meant to you.” This is easier for some people than others, and it’s easier in some situations than others. Don’t lie. If you don’t feel it, don’t pretend. Instead, go back to step 1 and try again to really understand your partner. Making a good repair is tough, and it wouldn’t be surprising if you need the help of a coach or therapist.
  3. Apologize. Explain to your partner why you are sorry. Focus on their experience, and resist the impulse to explain your perspective. It will be much better if you save your point of view for later.
  4. Explain what you plan to do differently in the future (if anything). The “if anything” is important here; if you make an agreement now that you can’t or don’t want to follow through on, all the work you’ve put into making a good repair will be for nothing, and the next conversation you have will be even harder. This is not a moment for appeasement. This is a moment to be very, very honest about what you think, and what you intend to do, even if it’s not exactly what your partner wants to hear.
    • If you do intend to behave differently in the future, be very specific and very honest about how you intend to handle future situations. This should go beyond “It was a mistake, and it won’t happen again.” Exactly what happened, step-by-step? What were the individual moments in which you made a choice, and how might you make those choices now? Why is it important to you to change the way you handle similar situations, if that’s what you intend to do?
    • If you don’t feel like there’s anything you want to change in handling future similar situations, you will have to say so now. If that is the case, can you help your partner understand your perspective without getting defensive? An impasse at this point is another great opportunity to find a therapist or coach; that’s a far better strategy than sweeping it under the rug with a blithe but empty promise.
  5. If you’ve expressed a plan to act differently in the future, acknowledge that your partner might have some doubts about your ability to follow through effectively with your plan. This is a concept that comes from Pete Pearson, whose mentorship has strongly influenced my practice. It will probably be hard for your partner to believe that your actions will really change just as a result of one conversation. You can take responsibility for your choices while demonstrating real empathy for your partner’s position by acknowledging that they may be wary to trust you–especially if recurring dishonesty has been an element of the problem. It takes a lot of strength to acknowledge that your partner may have legitimate doubts about your follow-through, but by doing so, you’ll be showing them that you’re paying attention, you care, and you don’t plan to sweep this under the rug. Taking responsibility for your choices and actions is the underlying concept in a good repair, and will go a long way to strengthening your relationship.

Putting Clients At Ease With Sensitive Topics

A lot of my clients come to me specifically to work on sex-related issues. Nonetheless, I find that even those clients are often quite uncomfortable talking about their sex lives.

That’s perfectly understandable. Most people were taught not to talk about sex openly–not even with lovers, in some cases, let alone strangers or therapists. Because of this, lots of people don’t have comfortable or accurate language to discuss sex, and some don’t know enough about sex to be specific about what is going on when things go amiss.

At the same time, I am a much more effective helper when my clients are comfortable enough to share unreservedly.

I’ve developed a few strategies that help put my clients at ease when talking about sensitive topics, including but not limited to sex. Whether or not you frequently work with sex issues in your practice, these tips may come in handy with clients who struggle to discuss topics that are sensitive, emotionally charged, and/or somewhat taboo.

  • Remind clients that you’re comfortable. Often, a client’s discomfort comes from a fear of freaking you out or putting you off. I see this all the time, even when the thing they’re afraid of sharing is far from freaky! I can’t tell you how many clients have told me that they were too afraid of being judged by their previous therapists to bring up the topic of sex. That, to me, implies that you need to be proactive. Reassure your clients that you want to hear whatever they have to tell you, or else they are likely to assume otherwise. Personally, I like to tell my clients that I’ve pretty much heard it all, and that they’d have to work pretty hard to shock me. That might be more true for me than it is for you. But even if you think your client MIGHT tell you something that could shock you, get clear in your mind why it is important for you to create a safe space for honest disclosure, and don’t make a big fuss. Probably you will hear things that are very easy for you to hear, but in case you hear something that rocks you a little, control your facial expressions, stay calm and normalize (or at least remain neutral and don’t pathologize). Get some consultation or supervision if you need to (certainly before deciding there is a problem). If you can tell you’re way out of your depth, you can always refer the client to a certified sex therapist.
  • Focus on the process, not the content. This is one of the most useful strategies in my toolkit. Focussing on process–by which I mean how an interaction plays out, and how both participants feel about it, rather than what specific activity is involved–keeps clients from feeling pathologized, while also keeping therapists from getting overly unsettled by uncomfortable explicit information. It also means that often clients can share just as much as they’re comfortable with, telling you everything you need to know about a sexual interaction, without going into details that feel too personal.
  • Ask permission before asking a question about specifics. Although focussing on process rather than content means that I let clients determine how much they’re comfortable sharing, sometimes I need to know something really specific in order to understand an interaction or figure out what the problem is. In those instances, it helps to gain consent for the deeper conversation, and explain why I need the information. I might say something like, “Would it be ok with you if I ask you some very specific detailed questions about this? This is a situation where some specific information will help me figure out what is going on, and then I’ll be more likely to be able to help”. Once in a while, a client is quite reserved and says they don’t feel comfortable. I always let them know that is fine with me. We can continue in vague terms, and focus on process, and probably make some good progress. However, this doesn’t stop me from gently inviting deeper or more specific disclosures, never with any pressure. My comfort with the topic, combined with this absolute permission not to tell me anything they don’t want to reveal, often ends up making my client comfortable enough to open up.

Why I Hate the Concept of “Compromise”

What can you do to help a couple shift from an adversarial stance to a collaborative alliance?

Couples often come to therapy with at least one big difference or disagreement, and an expectation that I will “fix” it. They hope that I will verify that their partner is wrong and they are right–problem solved!

I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear that this is not my agenda at all. Not even close.

In this and the next blog post, I’ll let you know more about my perspective, and how I work with impasses. Much of this material is drawn from the Bader/Pearson Developmental Model of Couple Therapy. The rest comes from my experience with consensus process as a Quaker.

Once I let my clients know that I won’t be acting as arbiter regarding their disagreements, they assume I will be guiding them through some sort of process to arrive at a compromise. I think many couple therapists do just that. However, I do not believe in or strive for compromise.

To me, compromise can be described as “lose/lose”, as it implies that everyone will give up something of value to them in order to “meet in the middle”. I think a middle ground that requires everyone to give up something of value sounds like quite a dull place to live in, particularly when we’re discussing lifelong commitment.

I much prefer a process of creating space for a miracle.

Gridlock is not a space for a miracle to occur. Neither is polarization. However, that is how most of us learned to disagree. We learned to lock in to “I’m right and you’re wrong.” If we have to come to an agreement, and I have to give up something, so do you. Obviously one will win, and one will lose, and I’m determined to be the one who wins.

Instead, I help my clients step into another space entirely. (This strategy comes from Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson, and fits my belief system perfectly.) What kind of a person do you want to be in your committed relationship? Kind? Loving? Compassionate? Reliable? Strong? Whatever it is, my next question is, when you are a compassionate (or insert another value here) partner, how do you behave? What do you do? How do you know you’re being compassionate? What does it look like? And the next question: how far from that are you now, in your current relationship? Another question: how would it benefit you directly (not your partner but you) if you were able to act from your compassionate self more often?

Every person in a relationship ends up shooting themselves in the foot with their own behaviors now and again. Until this is looked at very directly and some motivation to change is identified, that conversation about the dishes (or sex, or kids, or whatever) is not going to shift. Even if it does, it will take many months of one-step-forward-two-steps-back therapy, and that’s frustrating and discouraging for all involved.

More importantly, the magic can’t happen until the adversarial stance is changed to something more collaborative. The abovementioned sequence is designed to switch adversarial thinking (characterized by hyper-focus on the other and the oppositional forces) to self-focus. This is so important because it leads to empowerment; a realization that there is something here that I have the power to change and it will make a difference.

Next week I’ll tell you about another strategy I have for shifting the adversarial stance and working with internal impasses.