Relationship Ruptures are inevitable. They happen in all relationships.

A bid for connection gets ignored, a project goes sideways at work, angry words are spoken, a misunderstanding occurs, a promise gets broken…

We cause hurt in our relationships both actively and passively.

Actively, we wound our partner with hurtful words or deeds, sometimes entirely unintentionally.

Passively, we wound them by omission – not taking the time to spend with our loved ones or overlooking or dismissing their feelings, needs, or expectations.

The important skill is to be able to navigate those rough waters when the connection and bond has been broken or frayed. Then reconnect before moving forward.

This is the lifeline for all long term and healthy relationships

The research shows that often the repair can have a strengthening affect on the relationship if done well. The process can make the sense of connection even stronger than before.

The Components of a Successful Repair Process

In my work as marriage and family therapist, much of the focus of our sessions is on repairing these relationship ruptures. I work hard to help couples, family members, or team members rebuild trust once they experience relationship ruptures. I call them attachment wounds:

  • Those times when we reach for our partner (or a parent, sibling, or friend) and they just aren’t there for us
  • When they disappoint us by their words or actions
  • They can be big betrayals like an affair or dishonesty
  • Or small ruptures like an unkind response or exclusion

Many of us never saw a healthy process of repair happen in our homes. There may have been harsh punishment meted out or stonewalling silences that hurt just as deeply.

A positive process of repair can strengthen a relationship and instill renewed vigor and creativity into a relationship.

 It often begins with the hurt party being willing to be vulnerable enough to share their pain.

So my job is to help clients to communicate their pain in a way that moves away from blame and judgment and speaks to the heart of the hurt underneath the anger or blame.

The Job of the Wounded

Now we all know what the anger and blame feels like, right? That self-righteous indignation feels better than the hurt so we stay with that because it feels more powerful. I know I’m in deep trouble when I begin that “judgey-blamey” kind of inner dialogue. When I hear it in my clients I try to help them slow down the process.

When you start to feel it…

  1. Take 3 deep breathes
  2. Channel YOUR inner guru and get down underneath the anger or self righteous indignation
  3. Connect to your core feelings of hurt or shame or just sadness and loss
  4. Go back to the moment the event happened– right before you moved to anger or defense- that’s where the magic lies– and right where we want to begin

It hurts to be forgotten or disregarded or just plain betrayed. It’s a loss of trust and a loss of security and connection. When we can speak that truth it unlocks our partners/co-workers/friends compassion and they are much more able to respond in connecting and repairing ways.

It’s about speaking a powerful message with a soft delivery.

Always affirm the relationship first and then speak to the behavior. We want to privilege the relationship over the event or the action, and over deciding who’s right and who’s wrong. So it might sound like this:

“Our friendship is really important to me and I count on being able to share my confidences with you. When I heard that you had shared my diagnosis- I felt hurt and exposed. I had hoped to be able to take my time and decide for myself who I would tell.”

OR

 “When I found the receipts for those purchases and we had agreed not to spend any more money until next month- I lost the confidence that I could trust you and worried that we weren’t operating as a team any longer.”

It’s important to be as specific as you can about the impact so your “other” knows what it meant to you and can address that.

The Job of the Wounder

The next step is for the party who has been the “wounder” to weigh in.

And here’s where things often go south. It’s VERY hard not to be defensive when someone you care about is disappointed or angry with you. ESPECIALLY SO IF YOU DIDN’T INTEND to hurt said party, which is often the case.

But here’s the kicker… IMPACT ALWAYS TRUMPS INTENTION.

That bears repeating so I’ll say it again: IMPACT ALWAYS TRUMPS INTENTION.

You may not have intended to run over my foot with your car tire, but the impact is the same whether you meant to or not. Context does help. If I became aware that you were rushing to the hospital to be there for the birth of your baby, I might feel differently about the situation. But the fact remains – my foot hurts just as much. That is still valid despite the context, however relevant it may be.

Remember, it’s not the intention, it’s the impact that is felt most. So always begin by acknowledging the impact on your friend, co-worker, or partner.

 “I’m sorry I was so late…” (this is where you LEAVE OUT THE “BUT”……you know the myriad of reasons why you were late)

And focus on the impact for the other person.

 “I’m sorry I was late… I bet you were worried about me, or maybe unsure about whether to start without me. I feel really badly I inconvenienced you in this way”

And here’s where the next step of restitution comes in:

I’d like to buy your lunch to make up or it you.”

Or… “I won’t let that happen again.”

Or… “How can I remedy the situation now?”

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN IT’S A BIG HURT OR MISTAKE??

Now what about if it’s not just an “I was late” or “I forgot to take out the trash” or one of those everyday misses? What if it was a real doozy like an affair or a missed deadline or a BIG mistake at work?

Those repairs might need to happen a number of times.

This is where it gets into the hard work category. You might think, “We’ve been over this before? I already said I was sorry? What do you want me to do?”…..can you feel the defensiveness creeping back in?

When there has been a major betrayal- it often takes repetition and deeper exploration to get to the bottom of the pain.

 A continued exploration of impact might be needed. An apology may need to be said a number of times and in a number of ways until the hurt party REALLY gets it and knows that YOU REALLY UNDERSTAND SPECIFICALLY WHAT IT WAS THAT HURT THEM.

You may be apologizing for the event… but what really hurt was the loss of trust, or the feelings of insecurity that are still there. Listen well to their words of hurt and try to empathize with their pain. Speak it back to them.  There may be specific things you need to do to help your partner trust again, like open your Facebook page or be available by phone when they call.

I can’t give you a magic formula, but if you keep at it in a sincere way you can rebuild and strengthen the bond.

Now Back to the Wounded – You’re Not Off the Hook Yet

Here’s where the work comes in for the one who has been wounded. There comes a point at which you need to accept the apology and begin to move forward and risk trusting again. If you hang on to old resentments or use their mistake as a whipping rod, you will disrupt the repair process and erode any good will.

You can permanently damage the relationship.

It’s important to think about what you would need to do to accept the apology and move forward. That’s where trust can begin to get rebuilt. Trust is not an on and off switch – such as you either trust or you don’t. It’s more like a dimmer switch – it’s built up or down one interaction at a time.

The Repair Process is the Same in All Relationships:

  1. Risk staying with the more vulnerable feelings of hurt and pain and speak from the heart, clearly and without judgment.
  2. State your apology without excuses – stay with the impact on the other person.
  3. Make restitution – say what you will do to make it right moving forward and follow through to rebuild trust.
  4. Finally, be willing to accept the apology and open to a process of rebuilding trust once encounter at a time.. It doesn’t mean you have to forget the hurt, just that you are willing to begin to offer another chance to move in a new direction.
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Cynthia Benge MSW-LMHC is a veteran therapist with a private practice in the Fremont community of Seattle. Working from an Emotion-Focused therapeutic framework, Cynthia offers a safe container for clients to be able to be vulnerable enough to explore their own truths and develop the emotionally resiliency to experiment with the change process.

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