“To restore to sound condition after damage or injury.” The FreeDictionary.com
Right, you might say; we already know that. What is this, elementary vocabulary blog?
But wait, I say. Did you know that repair isn’t just for houses or machines–it’s also for relationships?
In fact, the capacity to repair is possibly the most important predictor of whether or not a person will have long and satisfying relationships in their life. Also, enduring relationships are hugely important factors in happiness, and in having good mental and physical health.
Interpersonal repair is so important, it’s an integral part of Steps 4-10 of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, a hugely popular, worldwide self help program to heal from alcoholism and other addictions of all sorts.
That’s right: AA thinks repair is fundamental in keeping people sober–so much that it comprises more than half of their famous Twelve Steps.
So yeah, this is great stuff to know about! And so the following is a summary of what I think is important about interpersonal repair.
First off, both parties in the relationship have to have at least some capacity to repair. “It takes two to make it and one to break it,” as the old saying goes–probably one of the most heartbreaking facts about human relationships. (Sigh.)
Relational repair has two parts:
1. Initiating repair. This involves the courage to approach the other party and actually begin that difficult conversation. You know how when you consider doing this (particularly when the stakes are high) you might get a lump in your throat, or nervous stomach? And it might seem just soooo much easier to just not say it? Yeah, well, you gotta say it. (This may involve some self preparation beforehand.)
Initiating repair also involves the ability to speak one’s viewpoint from a place that is at least somewhat calm and non-attacking. This is typically where the use of “I” statements is helpful: “When I heard you say (x), I thought (y) and I felt (z).” That is, you are saying how it went for you, from your fallible, human perception; you are not really decreeing, “This is how it is/was and it all totally sucks!” You are leaving room for correction of misunderstanding. It’s also important to avoid the use of inflammatory words or statements. Our emotions will often leak in when we’re not looking; it’s okay, even good, to allow them to show a bit. That’s being authentic. But we must show emotion in a moderate and contained way. Otherwise, the discussion tends to degenerate into unbridled emotions and fighting. Please note that it’s completely okay to be firm about what you want/need from the other party. Stating this in a non-charged manner is very helpful, and respectful of both parties.
2. Receiving repair. This involves the capacity to really listen, hear, and be fully present, in this communication moment with the other person. It means not deflecting or avoiding the subject with anger, or a change of topic, or any attempt to shut down the other person’s concerns. Listening and hearing means having the openness to take in what the other person is saying, not just waiting for them to finish so you can talk. It means having the openness to consider adjusting one’s point of view at least somewhat, based on what this presumably valued person is saying.
See, there’s kind of a lot to this repair stuff, isn’t there?
And there’s a few more things going on here implicitly:
One has to have enough self-regulation capacity to remain calm and stable; to not get angry in an uncontained or bullying fashion. And the self-regulation to not check out (dissociate); and not become so anxious that one is unable to be present.
Also, people have to have the desire to repair, to make the relationship better. If one or both parties aren’t available for this process, it isn’t going anywhere. Note: this is all applicable even if the people don’t plan to ever see each other again. You can still leave things on better terms than they had been.
Repair involves holding the other person in sufficient esteem and value to say, hey, I would like to put at least a little effort in trying to better things. Repair is especially vital for relationships you see as vital.
And really, I think repair involves holding yourself in high value. It means you love and support yourself enough to want to at least try to clean this up a little. I mean, why live with all this unfinished stuff buzzing softly (or loudly) in the background of your life, if you don’t have to?
Lastly, I think it’s both important and helpful to see repair as a normal part of life. Repair, I believe, is an inevitable part of our imperfect, not-omnipotent selves interacting with other imperfect, not-omnipotent human beings. We can think of it as kind of an emotional oil change: routine maintenance on valued relationships with important people.
So go for it! I’d encourage sitting down with yourself first, for centering, reflection and preparation. Of course, a qualified somatic therapist or other trusted mentor can help you prepare if you’re not quite there yet on your own.