Something’s wrong. You can feel it in your gut. Or your heart. Your relationship is off track. Broken. And in need of repair. You’re tempted to bury your head in the sand, doing little and hoping things will get better — but you’re smart enough to realize that unless you do something to turn things around, things are only going to get worse. Where to begin?
Maybe it’s time to break out The Relationship Repair Kit (RRK)?
Like most “kits,” the RRK is suitable for repairing the flat tires and cracked windshields. But it’s also good for making sure you change the oil, keep the tires inflated, refill the wiper fluid and change out old wiper blades. Repair kits cannot take the place of sound professional care when you’re (automobile or relationship) is in need of a major overhaul — or when it has crashed and burned — and is long past repair. But the RRK has eight essential tools I’ve found very useful in helping couples in need of roadside assistance. Accompanied by patience, good listening, a respectful tone, humility and genuine concern for how the other person feels, they are guaranteed to put things on a better track.
1. Make a Calm (Well-timed and Gentle-toned) Declaration That There’s a Problem — and an Opportunity to Effectively Address It
Somebody has to call time out, pull over to the side of the road and acknowledge there’s a problem. This is best done with a calm sense of assurance — and by framing your concerns as “opportunities” to clear the air and grow your relationship stronger. Take a deep breath and, with the exhale, remove even the slightest tone of anger, impatience, blame or resentment from your voice. Delivery is critical. Acting like a prosecuting attorney, arresting officer or a bad Dr. Phil with your hair on fire will send the absolutely wrong message. Opening with a clear statement of good intentions, on the other hand, will almost always get things off on the right foot.
2. Open a Civil (Non-inflammatory, Humble, Empathetic) Discussion/Conversation About What You Are Both Feeling
Using a positive, blame-free, fault-free tone, tell your partner how you’re feeling. Talk about the pain, frustration, anger or disappointment that’s been affecting you — and inhibiting your ability to be effective in your relationship. Beginning the conversation with “You…” will almost always set your partner back on their heels. Use “I” statements to articulate how you feel and what you want.
When it’s their turn to talk, listen quietly and patiently to what they’re saying. Catch yourself trying to deny, justify, excuse, rationalize or defend your position — and bite your tongue. Good listeners (especially parents) have scar tissue on their tongues from practicing this. If you feel yourself getting defensive, ask for a break, step back, come up for air, gather your calm and slow down.
Draw each other out by asking honest, open-ended questions. And by listening. Once you’ve begun to get a handle on how the other person feels and have established a new level of understanding, the hard edges will likely soften. When this occurs, the love, trust and affection that’s been in self-storage will begin to return.
And if, despite your best efforts, the conversation deteriorates into an ugly argument, character assassination or complete communication breakdown, do not turn your home into a war zone. Get help! Schedule a session with a great coach or counselor. There’s no shame in making every effort to find out what’s causing the problem and trying to repair it. Sometimes the car is not starting because it’s flat out of gas. You never know when a breakthrough might be just around the corner — or within driving distance.
3. Undertake an Emotionally Honest (Rational and Open) Discussion About What You Both Perceive as “The Problem”
If you’ve made it to this point, you’re probably ready for a constructive, confidence-building conversation about what’s causing the pain and/or disconnection. Take turns owning up to what you’re both doing, or neglecting to do, that’s causing things to go sideways. Go slow! Lead with humility and empathy for your partner. By not polarizing into right vs. wrong, good guy vs. bad guy or victim vs. persecutor, you are setting the table for some big picture thinking and problem solving.
Since we don’t always look at things the same way as our partner, no matter how much we love one another and want to work things out, we need permission to be stuck. This is called an impasse. It’s OK to agree to disagree about some things. Sometimes you just need to let go and focus on the wonderful things you do have in common/agree about/see the same way. It’s ok to have a different point of view. Things don’t always have to be perfect for them to be good.
4. See if This Might Also be a Good Time for an (Sincere, Remorseful) Apology and “Good Faith” Assurance
Respect, understanding, compassion and forgiveness are the intangible elements of successful relationship repairs. The power of a simple apology and attending to OUR PART in the problems that have arisen sets the tone for healing and renewal. “Good faith” assurances that you are committed to becoming the new, upgraded version of yourself can make your relationship even stronger in the broken places.
5. Explore Concrete Suggestions/New Agreements/Action Steps for Change and Rebuilding Trust
Reach down into your RRK and ask, “What can I do (or stop doing) to make things better? Working together, how can we avert a disaster?” Make a list of 25 relationship repairing actions and agreements — and read your lists to one another. This is the new basis for your 2014 game plan.
6. The Creation of a (Realistic, Mutual) Plan/Agreement for Moving Forward
Solidify all your hard work into a master document called “2014 Game Plan for Making Our Relationship Better.” State in very specific terms exactly how you’re willing to improve your relationship in the coming year. This is your organically-grown blueprint for success. Follow it!
7. Constantly Remind Yourself That You and Your Relationship are “Works in Progress”
Even the most significant progress can be slow and uneven. Forward movement in small increments is best for enduring change. Make kindness, encouragement, support, patience, gentle reassurance and compassion a daily practice for your relationship. Beating yourself and your relationship up with harsh criticism and judgement is erosive and counterproductive. All relationships are a work in progress. Change takes time and practice, so you’ll want to keep your RRK handy and accessible.
8. Stay Ahead of The Pain Curve
Preventive maintenance is, of course, the best medicine. It’s also the most cost and energy-efficient approach to keeping a relationship well-tuned and performing optimally. Don’t wait until something’s wrong. Get regular tune ups. Look under the hood every so often just to make sure all the moving parts of your relationship (i.e. communication, conflict resolution, good planning, sex and affection, solid agreements, etc.) are running smoothly. And get out in front of potential problems.
There, you’ve done it! If you find yourself out of gas or in trouble, get out your RRK and change that flat tire, check the oil, refill the windshield fluid or refill the gas tank. Take the high road and give it your best shot. Whether you bring your relationship in for a tune up, a 40,000 mile check up or major overhaul, do whatever you can to get it running smoothly. And trust that, no matter what happens, it will be well worth the cost and effort.
Ken Druck, Ph.D., founder of The Jenna Druck Center in San Diego, is a renowned resilience expert, speaker, organizational and family consultant, and award-winning author of several books including, The Real Rules of Life (Hay House). Follow Ken’s blog or find him on Facebook.