“Why does he make light of things while we’re in the middle of a disagreement? Does he not know how much this matters to me?” I used to wonder.
Has this thought ever occurred to you?
It certainly has to me. More than once.
And every time, it was the same. I was in emotional anguish, and there he was laughing it up, or worse yet, making light of my all-too-real concerns. He would make a bad joke, my stomach would turn, and I would roll my eyes. Getting more frustrated by the minute.
“REALLY?!” I would think. “Read the room, buddy! This is NOT the time for making jokes!”
“He obviously doesn’t get it”. I would conclude.
Naturally, this led to yet another explanation of my feelings and the serious situation I felt our relationship was in.
“Why does he do this? Why now?” I used to wonder.
Now I don’t wonder anymore, because now I have the answer.
As a Certified Family Life Educator I’ve learned some nifty little facts about relationships, and what the truly successful couples do.
And I’ve gotta say, friends, this one tiny tidbit of knowledge has made me a better wife!
So of course, I have to share it!!
The situation I described above was always something that annoyed and confused the living daylights out of me.
Did he think this whole thing was just a big joke?!
Well, as it turns out, my husband was actually trying to do something helpful.
And me? Not so much.
He was engaging in what relationship experts call “repair attempts”, which according to John Gottman, are the “secret weapon” of successful couples.
According to the Gottman Institute, a repair attempt is “any statement or action verbal, physical, or otherwise — meant to diffuse negativity and keep a conflict from escalating out of control.”
Repair attempts are a person’s way of reaching out in the middle of a tense situation to show fondness or affection, emotionally connect, and lighten the mood. It’s a request for you to briefly call a truce.
The same way sailors would tether themselves to their ship during a storm, these repair attempts keep you tethered to one another amidst a tumultuous disagreement. They keep you from being swept away in negativity.
There are multiple ways that someone may make a repair attempt. Some of them might be:
Referencing an inside joke
Poking fun at one or both of you
Bringing up a fond memory
Holding your hand
Asking if you would move closer to them, or of they could move closer to you
Making a joke about the current situation
Referencing something funny that happened earlier that day/week.
Quoting a movie
Flirting with you
Being sarcastic (in a silly way, not a hurtful way)
Saying “I love you”
Changing the focus of the conversation
My mistake? I wasn’t willing to make room for these repair attempts in our conversation.
I turned away from him and his repair attempt instead of turning toward him.
To me, it seemed out of touch with my emotional reality. It seemed like he was disregarding everything I had just said.
But that could not be farther from the truth.
It was BECAUSE he was in touch with the emotional dimension of our conversation that he felt compelled to reach out to me with his good-natured humor.
I just didn’t appreciate it.
(Side note: I'm not advocating for a free pass for either of you to be inconsiderate, or disregard important feelings, just for you to be open to one another's bids for connection in the midst of an argument.)
So this is one of those cases where I say “Do as I say, not as I do!”
...Or at least “not as I did.”
Because if you can see the heart behind the ill-timed jokes, romantic gestures, etc. You will be able to appreciate them.
So please, learn from my mistakes!
When your partner makes a repair attempt (and it seems out-of-touch with the rest of your conversation) do NOT:
Roll your eyes. This is condescending and will make them defensive.
Ignore it. It’s rude, and it communicates that you’re not interested in repairing things.
Treat them like a child. (No matter how childish they may seem in the moment!)
Take it as a sign you need to say everything again. He heard you the first time.
What to do instead:
Recognize it. Think to yourself: “I know what this is. This is a repair attempt. He doesn’t want us this conversation to push us apart.”
Realize he cares. Acknowledge that the only reason he’s doing this is because he’s concerned about the well-being of your relationship. He’s not trying to annoy you or ignore the gravity of what you just said.
Let go of your urge to control the conversation. This is a hard one. You probably have an idea of how you’d like this conversation to go, and it doesn’t involve XYZ… But he is part of this conversation too. Let him steer for a minute, and allow yourself to give up control of the discussion. Remind yourself that you can get back to the “important stuff” in a minute. This detour will be helpful.
Engage in the repair attempt. This isn’t a “wait it out” or “let him do his thing” kind of moment. This is something you want to engage in. Laugh together. Get lost in a favorite memory, or a silly memory. Go down the rabbit-trail for a moment. Let him hold you close or give you a kiss. (Yes, even if you’re arguing and it doesn’t feel totally natural!) Put a pin in your negative emotions, and allow yourself to feel something other than upset for a minute or two.
Allow yourself to adopt a positive attitude! For heaven’s sake, don’t be stubborn like me. Changing your attitude is not admitting defeat, or that the problem isn’t important. It just means that your spouse is also important.
The great thing about repair attempts is that they really DO help to de-escalate the situation, and relieve some tension between you. It reminds you that you’re on the same team facing this problem together (and that you actually like each other!).
Plus, it helps put you in a better frame of mind for continuing the conversation! You will be more at ease, feel more connected, and probably be better equipped to articulate what needs to be said.
The more familiar you get with recognizing these actions in your partner, the more you will start to realize that YOU do this, too! You probably have your own set of things you do to reconnect and repair things when conversations get tense. And yes, you probably feel best when these repair attempts are welcomed instead of pushed aside.
Isn’t it great that we can notice these things and appreciate them for the relationship-savers that they are?!
I know that for us, just recognizing these moments - just figuring out what they are has been so beneficial! For me, recognizing my husband’s repair attempts has helped me be much more patient in our tough conversations, and has helped me understand why he does what he does in those tense moments.
It's also brought much-needed moments of peace, joy, and rest into our most heated discussions.
Hopefully this information is the missing puzzle piece for you, too.