When we have been deeply hurt by someone with whom we are in relationship – partner, lover, parent, child, sibling or friend – we often don’t know what to do. Do we lash out and trade tit for tat? Do we go silent to avoid the conflict and potential loss of the relationship? Either approach doesn’t repair the relationship – the first cause more injury and the second can lead to backlash at another time. Neither addresses the underlying hurt or leads to repair.
Relationship repair is a delicate dance where each party opens up to the truth of what was going on at the time of the injury. Some of this is internal: what was I thinking, feeling, expecting, perceiving in that moment where I felt or caused hurt. This will not be the same truth as the other party because they have a parallel process with the same dimensions, but rarely the same content. A repair process discovers what was going on for oneself and the other party at the time. Together this exploration can get past the surface and hurt into what really matters to each other.
The first part of the repair dance is owning our own stuff. Not through self-judgment or put-down, but with compassion for our human nature. The second part is deeply listening, clarifying and trying to understand the other person’s experience. Understanding does not mean you have to agree with what they are experiencing, only that you accept that what they say was their experience makes sense to them (and you if you can extend your compassion).
So often we get caught up in the minutia of the interaction: you said… I said… This focus on content fails to address the impact or the unmet needs that caused the conflict in the first place. For example, one partner may say – I need you to have my back. To which the other might respond – I do, by telling you how you need to do something different. This may completely miss what the first partner was really meaning: I don’t feel safe and I need you to support me. In this case, he or she could feel invalidated by the partner’s “fixing” response. People are often unaware of the unintended consequences of their words and actions as they are caught up in their own interpretation of the situation.
As a counsellor my job is not to take sides, but to reveal each partner’s experience to the other in a way that is supportive and safe. As I say to all my couples, you’re both right and you’re both wrong! I don’t see myself as a referee, but a coach, who can see the best in people, recognize their growing edges, teach them the skills of communication and promote team work. Our attitude is “us against the problem”, rather than focus on individual blame. It is the pattern of interactions that can be changed. When there is genuine mutual understanding and acceptance, all the minutia doesn’t matter any more and a deep connection is built that can weather the storms of life.