Relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman calls repair attempts the happy and emotionally intelligent couple’s “secret weapon.” Even if you’ve never heard of them before, it’s possible you and your partner already use repair attempts during conflicts.

But hopeful partners be warned; using a repair attempt doesn’t necessarily guarantee it will work. Keep reading to learn more about this handy tool and how to ensure it works effectively in your own marriage.

What Are Repair Attempts—And Why Do They Sometimes Not Work?

According to The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A practical Guide by Gottman & Silver, a repair attempt is “any statement or action, silly or otherwise, that prevents negativity from escalating out of control” during conflict. The relationship repair attempt used in the book, for example, was a couple sticking their tongues out at each other so they would laugh and lighten the air. Repair attempts can include phrases, expressions, or other types of audible, visual, or tactile cues that communicate to your partner you don’t want an argument getting out of hand.

When they work, repair attempts are like hitting the reset button. The argument may not be over but the hostility and aggression disappear even though the conflict remains. Like we’ve said before, the secret to a happy marriage is not avoiding conflict; it’s learning to face and resolve conflict together as a team even when it’s hard.

Gottman and Silver use an example where a couple makes funny faces at each other to bring comic relief to a moment of conflict, de-escalating tension so that their emotions to make them say something they will regret later.

Words have meaning, and when they are thrown around as though they are insignificant they can cause real emotional pain. This is especially true when it comes to marriage fights.

Now, would sticking your tongue out at your partner in the middle of a fight work for you and your spouse or make it easier to fix your marriage problems? Maybe—and maybe not. This is where Gottman urges his readers to consider that it’s the couples who have strong friendships and an overall positive attitude about each other and their marriage who have the most success with this strategy.

In other words, couples with other strong friendships tend to more easily notice when their partner is offering a repair attempt, and therefore are more likely to respond in kind. Conversely, couples with weaker friendships or a more negative attitude about their relationship are less likely to use and/or notice repair attempts, even the more “obvious” ones such as a simple, “I’m sorry.”


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    • If it feels contrived to practice or rehearse certain repair attempts ahead of time, that’s okay. But you might find it helpful to have a few favorite repair attempts in your proverbial back pocket, so they’re readily available when you need them.

      Argument Repair Attempt Phrases to Practice with Your Partner

      Here are 10 examples to get you started:

      1. “Let me try that again.”
      2. “I see what you’re saying.”
      3. “Please give me a minute. I need a break.”
      4. “The story I’m telling myself about this is…”
      5. “I’m feeling defensive. Can you say that another way?”
      6. “I’m getting overwhelmed.”
      7. “Can we talk about something else for a while?”
      8. “This is important to me. Please listen.”
      9. “We’re a team. This is our problem.”
      10. Lastly, you might try an unusual physical action—such as sticking your tongue out or doing a goofy dance

      Of course, in addition to memorizing some useful repair attempts ahead of time, it’s also important to work on improving the bond you share with your partner, since research suggests that a strong friendship between spouses is a major powerhouse when it comes to mitigating and handling inevitable conflict. Repairing relationship problems is easier when you’re in a loving, trusting relationship and both parties have mutual respect for one another.

      Experience the Power of Imago Therapy for Couples

      Would you like to strengthen your friendship with your spouse, learn about tools that can boost your communication, and gain clarity about your marriage? Contact us today to schedule a free session with Rabbi Slatkin.

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