Dr. John Gottman’s research demonstrates the importance of not attacking or being defensive. This can prevent conflict from occurring in the first place. However, when conflict begins to escalate, couples can repair conflict while it’s occurring. Dr. Gottman found newlywed couples use humor, affection, and empathy to bring escalated conversations back on course. However, he had difficulty teaching couples the concept of repairs.
I discovered in my work with couples that repairs can be taught. One way is to filter through the criticism. Let’s say a partner is criticizing you for not picking up around the house, e.g., “You’re such a slob.” Rather than criticizing the partner for doing the same or denying that you do this, one can filter through the criticism and respond to the intent of the comment, e.g., “I can do a better job of picking up after myself.” This is challenging to do in the heat of the moment but possible.
The second type of repair is to give one’s partner good feedback on how he or she is communicating towards you, e.g., “I feel like you are criticizing me.” For the repair to be successful, the partner also needs to be responsive to the feedback, e.g, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to criticize you. I just wish you would do a better job of picking up after yourself.” In this way, the initial critical comment is being corrected.
Repairs are an important tool for couples to have in the toolbox. They may be advanced tools, but they can be learned.