We all know the power of a heartfelt apology. As Joellen Poon explained in her popular article about atoning, a sincere apology helps both the victim and the person who asking for forgiveness. But sometimes when we have been hurt over and over again, saying "I'm sorry" (no matter how sincere) can feel like too little, too late.
In romantic relationships, "I'm sorry" is often a dramatic event that takes place at the end of a long and painful journey—after a fight where we can't take back the hurtful things we said, after weeks or even months of withdrawing from our partner emotionally, or after just one snide comment. But it's doesn't have to be that way. This is where "repair attempts" come in. A way to mediate regret and hurt, this might be your best strategy for healthy conflict.
By the time you say ‘I’m sorry,’ the damage is already done.
Happy couples have to say "I'm sorry," and they say it a lot. But instead of saying it after the damage has been done, happy couples say it to prevent the relationship disaster in the first place.
According to Dr. John Gottman, marriage researcher and author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, the happiest couples repair chasms before any real damage has been done. These "repair attempts," as Gottman puts it, could mean saying "I'm sorry," but it could also be a goofy grin or a pointedly ridiculous toddler insult ("butt head" is always a winner). What matters is that it stops tension in its tracks and allows both people to take a deep breath—before they have to ask for forgiveness.
Apologies are less effective when a couple is experiencing negative override.
If you're still not convinced, Gottman points out in his book that if repair attempts are sparse (or non-existent) and negative communication behaviors persist, even a sincere apology isn't going to mend things.
For happy couples to stay happy, they need to maintain a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative sentiment. While things like physical touch, words of affirmation, and repair attempts build positive sentiment, things like contempt, criticism, and stonewalling contribute to negative sentiment. If the positive sentiment is not constantly maintained, a couple could go into what Gottman refers to as negative sentiment override. This is how a couple lands at rock bottom. As Gottman explains, once negativity rules communication, repair attempts might not even be heard or acknowledged.
Having to say ‘I’m sorry’ is rarely fun.
Sometimes saying "I'm sorry" is necessary, but in those moments you are rarely laughing. Repair attempts, on the other hand, can be kind of fun. The aim is to relieve tension, and this can be done in a serious manner. But for many couples this can be done with goofiness and laughter. Most couples who have mastered repair attempts aren't even conscious of what they are doing—it just works. My husband and I have fallen into talking while moving our lips as little as possible, we call it "tiny mouth"—it's weird and hard to explain (especially to people who might witness it), but it makes us smile and often laugh—and he just looks so cute when he does it that I can't stay mad.
Effective repair attempts are born out of friendship, and their purpose is to remind one another of your bond. As tension build over finances, burnt dinner, or a chore that has been neglected, repair attempts are there to remind us that none of those things are bigger than us. These moments are fun, they draw us together with an eye roll and a chuckle (or full on belly laughter) and it builds positive sentiment that hangs out there, ready to help out when we have to face another burnt dinner—because you know it's not the last time.
Now, obviously, learning how to apologize well is important. But wouldn't be nice if apologies were few and far between? With a strong foundation of friendship couples can become masters at repair attempts and leave all that drama far behind them.
Photo Credit: Jordan Voth