Tony and I are leading a … wait for it… #staymarried group right now. We are meeting weekly with 10 other couples and working through John Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. If you’ve not heard of Dr. Gottman, you might want to look him up and start paying attention to what he says. He is the foremost researcher on marriage, with decades of experience. He is most renowned for being able to watch an interaction between a husband and wife and within five minutes predict with 96% accuracy whether or not that couple will eventually get a divorce.
Tony and I agree that the overarching idea he shares about how to actually make a marriage work simply has to do with manners. But, there’s clearly more to it than that if there are so many books, so many years of research, and still so many couples getting divorced, right? Dr. Gottman is not exactly an advocate for a couple not to fight, but he does spend quite a bit of attention on how they fight. One thing he’s noticed that affects whether or not a couple will stay married is how they make and receive, what he calls, repair attempts.
This topic came up in just the second week of our group – the week we met with just the wives. So we asked, “What are some common repair attempts between you and your husband?” Some of the responses we got include:
– Even if he’s grumpy, he’ll say, “I love you.” What am I going to do? I have to say it back. Even if I’m still mad, it definitely diffuses things.
– He hugs me. I usually resist at first, but ultimately it softens me up and we both calm down.
– We hold hands. We heard about this somewhere… that you can’t stay mad at someone you’re holding hands with. We’ve tried it, which is hard when you’re mad, but it makes a big difference.
– He farts. No matter how mad I am, I turn into a fourteen year old boy when he farts. I can’t stop laughing.
You have never heard a room full of women laugh louder and longer than when one wife shared this last one. I, also, can’t stop laughing when Tony farts. I don’t think he’s ever specifically tried that repair attempt with me, but I’m sure it would work.
Foundationally, a repair attempt is any gesture that attempts to calm, diffuse, or end the fight peacefully. Gottman says that even if someone says, “Uggh, I need a break,” it can come across as stonewalling, but it is actually that person’s repair attempt to calm themselves rather than further escalate the fight.
What he’s noticed with couples whose relationships eventually dissolve is that either they aren’t willing to make repair attempts, or if one spouse makes the attempt, the other spouse rejects it. For instance, if Farting Husband was rejected by his wife as being rude or gross instead of received by her with laughter – that would be a failed repair attempt. Or if the wife reaches for her husband’s hand but he rejects her and refuses to hold hers back, it is a failed attempt.
Can you think of your own common repair attempts? As I think of ours, I’m embarrassed to admit I have rejected Tony’s repair attempts a time or two. I’ve been frustrated or hurt and not willing to believe or remember that he and I are on the same team. I remember him trying to crack a little joke and responding to him with, “Don’t try to change the subject!” Those fights took a lot longer than necessary to de-escalate. Reading through this book and thinking about our own history of fights and arguments, I can see Dr. Gottman’s point. The way a couple ends a fight is a telling indicator of the quality of their relationship and the stability of their marriage.
There is a long list of repair attempts found in Seven Principles to Making Marriage Work. The author admits these can feel forced at first, but as you and your spouse begin to learn some “damage control language,” you’ll come up with your own versions of what he’s given. These are just some of the rehearsed repair attempts he mentions.
15 Possible Repair Attempts
1. “Please say that more gently.”
2. “That felt like an insult.”
3. Open your arms to invite your spouse in to be held.
4. “Just listen to me right now and try to understand.”
5. “Can you kiss me?”
6. “Can we take a break?”
7. “Let me try again.”
8. “How can I make things better?”
9. “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
10. “I agree with part of what you are saying.”
11. Reach your hand out gently to touch theirs.
12. “One thing I admire about you is…”
13. “We are getting off track.”
14. “That’s a good point.”
15. “I love you.”
So, how about you? Since some kind of fighting is inevitable, what do your repair attempts look like? Are you willing to receive your partner’s repair attempt? Are you likely to reject it? Take some time over the next couple of days to talk about these with your spouse. We’d love to hear about your own unique versions of repair attempts in the Comments section below. You never know, another couple might read your repair attempts and they could be just the thing to help them de-escalate their own fights and #staymarried.
P.S. If you enjoyed this post and think it could benefit someone else’s marriage, please consider sharing. Also, if you’re new here, welcome! You might like to check out why we started this blog and my first entry to get a little background. Thanks for stopping by! ~ Michelle