How to Repair emotional wounds with your partner

Ester Perel gives us a great visual of how couples normally live their life through a dance of harmony, disharmony and repair.  Covid hasn’t changed that but maybe highlighted two things.  Couples that can do this well and couples that don’t.  Covid has been like a petri – dish as Perel puts it and magnified it for couples when this dance stops. 

The couples Dance
adapted from Ester Perel

For couples who do this dance well, they could move through the less distractions of life as we were confined to our homes.  These couples found the time to ask some deep questions about their relationship and their lives together, such as, “Will we move, change jobs, live closer to our parents, have another child?”  They are making decisions about things that they were meaning to do for a long time.  Many new positive things happening with these couples. 

Perel says, “I think, in general, when people live in acute stress, either the crakes in their relationship will be amplified or the light that shines through the crakes will be amplified.  You get an amplification of the best and of the worst.”

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The worst will be amplified from couples stuck in disharmony in their dance.  Like in a petri dish if it is festering off it will keep growing.  If couples are challenged by the repair part of their dance it is times like these that it becomes too painful to bear.  Unlike pre-Covid we had the distractions of going to work, taking the kids to school, being tired from work, going to the gym, functions, parties, out with friends, movies, theatre.  Hence, there are many couples now questioning, what am I doing in this relationship?  I sort of liken this to the scenario of being on a deserted island.  Would I like to spend the rest of my life on an island with this person?  People only ask questions like this when they are not in harmony or spend more time in disharmony than in harmony.

How do you do repair in a relationship?

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Repair is part of the dance.  You cannot side track it.  You cannot sweep it under the rug, you cannot ignore it. 

So how do you repair in a relationship? Here is my take on how to repair in your relationship.  I work with couples all the time and this is a huge stumbling block.   Here is a simple five step process to help you navigate through the repair process.

Easy 5 steps to repair

Step one is to hear your partner.

Step two is to acknowledge what happened

Step three is to acknowledge how it made your partner feel

Step four is to acknowledge what was happening with you at the time

Step five is to work out together how it doesn’t happen again – It’s a WE thing.

I hear quite often from a partner in a relationship “I don’t want to hear sorry, I want to see change and to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

So let’s simplify this.

Disclaimer – No relationship is simple but we need a starting point.  As you get better you could add more steps. I’ll suggest them later.

Scenarios…

Let’s say we have a couple Jane and Joe (not real).  We’ll look at two scenarios first one where there is no repair and the second one where there is instant repair.  The aim with couples is to transition through repair as quickly as possible so even in scenario one there is still a chance for repair later.  There is always a chance for repair.  Later is always better than never.   The scenario is of an accidental physical wound to help simply this example.

Joe is wondering through the kitchen hungry looking for some food as Jane is preparing dinner.  Joe steps on Jane’s toe.

Jane says, “ouch! That hurt, you’ve stepped on my big toe.”

Scenario one

Joe responds, “Stop yelling at me, it was only an accident and why were you in the way anyway, can’t you tell I’m hungry?”

Jane now yells back, “You stepped on my big toe and hurts. You should be apologising to me.”

Joe yells, “Why should I apologise, I didn’t mean it, it was an accident.”

As you can probably tell this is going nowhere fast and if you ask them at a later point in time what they were fighting about they will probably say nothing. 

Of course it is not nothing.  It is because there was no acknowledgement or responsibility taken about what happened.  This sends a message to Jane that Joe doesn’t care and doesn’t listen to her.  If this goes on over time we have a problem.

Let’s have a look at scenario two.

Joe is wondering through the kitchen hungry looking for some food as Jane is preparing dinner.  Joe steps on Jane’s toe.

Jane says, “ouch that hurt, you’ve stepped on my big toe.” (Step 2)

Joe says, “Oh did I step on your big toe?” (Step 1 & 2)

Jane – “Yes, you stepped on my big toe and it really hurts.” (Step 2 & 4)

Jo – “Oh honey I didn’t realise I had stepped on your big toe, I can’t feel anything with these boots I’m wearing (Step 1 & 4).  I was so focused on getting myself some snack before dinner, I was in a world of my own (Step 4). I’m so sorry that I hurt you (step 3).  It is never my intention to hurt you (step 3 & 4).  Is there something I can do to help ease your pain?” (Step 5)

Jane – “No, the pain is going away.  Thank you for trying to help though.  Maybe we could think of how this doesn’t happen again?” (Step 5)

Jo – “You know honey, I should have taken off my boots before coming into the house.  I know you don’t like it when I wear my boots in the house and I don’t want to step on your foot again because these are pretty heavy boots and it would be pretty painful ( Step 3 & 5).  I’ll go take these boots off now.” (Step 5)

Jane – “Thanks honey, I really appreciate that.  And just get yourself a small snack because I’m preparing a really yummy dinner for us.” REPAIR SUCCESS!

Emotional Wounds…

How to repair emotional wounds with your partner.

How much better does scenario two sound and feel?  Instant repair.  And these two are back to harmony. That is how simple it can be.  It does take practice and patience.  When it comes to emotional wounds because they are not in a physical form they can be harder to go through the five steps as outlined but it is the same.  This is where the skill of listening to your partner is vitally important. 

What often happens in couples with emotional wounds is disbelief and judgement. Let’s say Jane makes a remark on how Joe is always late. Joe snaps back at Jane saying that she is always criticising him and he feels he can never do anything right with her. Jane might say something like this, “What’s your problem Joe, come on we’re late and now you’re wasting time making something out of nothing.”

Without any acknowledgement or responsibility with this scenario a partner or both end up feeling hurt and invalidated. Jane’s belittling and judging Joe on how he feels amplifies the emotional wound and it becomes raw. Instead, this couple could have the knowledge and understanding to invite healing and repair.

A couple could blow this over and move on. But would the feelings that are arising in this situation dissipate entirely? Something is brewing with this couple… ‘always late,’ ‘always criticising.’ ‘making something out of nothing.’ How can this scenario repair? In this busy world couples need to slow down for what’s important to their success.

Step 1. If Jane can be alerted to the hurt in Joe as soon as he says, ‘you are always criticising me and I feel I can not do anything right.’ Jane needs to hear this as the ‘OUCH you just stepped on my big toe,’ moment.

Step 2. Jane would ask – ‘Joe, does it affect you when I say you are always late?’ Joe might say, yes, it makes me feel awful and incapable.’

Step 3. Jane would then acknowledge this with – ‘Oh I didn’t realise that I made you feel awful and incapable when I was trying to hurry you up.’

Step 4. Jane might apologise here and say, ‘I’m sorry Joe, it is so important for me to be on time that I always want to be early because I feel awful if I’m late and I also feel incapable if i’m not on time.

Extra steps – Explore deeper feelings. Be curious. Show understanding and be empathetic. Be open to the possibility that two people are working through issues simultaneously.

Here the couple could explore why these feelings come up for them. For example Joe might explain that it is important for him to be on time but never early. He doesn’t like being really early anywhere because he feels awkward. He might also explain that he wanted to make sure his clothes suited and took the time to make sure he was looking well presented because that was important to him. There could be any number of things that happened growing up that could influence this situation. Along with feeling criticised and incapable. Talking about these feelings with Jane helps Joe understand more about him. And this way Jane could deeply understand Joe better and be more mindful and helpful when getting ready, this leads to step 5.

Jane could also explore with Joe why it is so important for her to be on time or early and why she feels so awful and incapable if she is late.

Step 5. Work out together how this doesn’t happen again. Relationships are a continuous negotiation with each other. How would you work this out with your partner? How would you help each other next time you have to be somewhere at a certain time? What would you do differently? What would you say differently? How do you walk out the door in harmony?

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Just like renovating an old house…

If it makes it easier, think repairing emotional wounds in relationship like renovating an old house. Renovating an old house is trendy and can add value to a property. Same same for a relationship. When we are conversant with repairing emotional wounds in our relationship they will add value to the relationship. We know from longitudinal studies that couples that are happy together live longer and healthier lives together. Let’s make repairing emotional wounds trendy too! Our emotional wounds usually stem from how we learnt to survived when we were young. How we learnt to protect our heart, how we learnt to cope when we didn’t have our adult voice. We all have them. It doesn’t mean we are mentally ill. It means we lived the best way we knew how with the circumstances that presented to us. When we learn more we can do better. Yes, you might have to put your hard hat on and dig around a bit, throw out what no longer works and bring in something new that works for the both of you.

Repair is the bricks and mortar, it is the hard work, it is the digging, the heavy lifting it is the patience to understand, to study, to learn, to evaluate, to vision with each other to negotiate and construct a better more meaningful life together. Repair is part of the dance for couples. If couples go in expecting that repairs are going to be an ongoing part of the dance in the relationship they are already setting themselves up for success. Like I said earlier relationships are complex, there is more to relationship success however, knowing how to repair is a good, a very good start.

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