There is no difference in what we're doing in here That doesn't show up as bigger symptoms out there
- Alanis Morissette
How are you doing? I know you’re “fine,” but I mean how are you doing really? How’s your heart?
I understand if it’s heavy. Our hearts are holding so much right now. So many feelings and thoughts. So much to be angry about – enraged over. And sad about. And scared of. It’s overwhelming.
Our collective rough spots have been rubbed raw, and we’re hurting badly. Some of us more than others, and some of us for very different reasons.
It’s clear we have no idea how to heal our wounds. We’re trapped re-enacting our collective traumas and injuring each other over and over. We don’t know how to resolve conflict or get beyond rupture. We just know how to be in it – to be in chronic, perpetual war with each other. Exhausting, infuriating and relationship-destroying battles.
Out there mirrors in here.
When I think of these battles, I go micro to wrap my head around them. I can’t see a way out otherwise. The overarching and underpinning lens in my work – and I have a strong, clear one as a gay social worker – is social justice, but I defer to my macro-level colleagues as the experts on justice at a policy level.
For me, it helps to break conflicts like this down to smaller scale versions. I think of couples in crisis. Or families. Any relationship really. I start there because I can see a path to broad scale change through small scale interventions.
I can see my way out and help others too when the focus is on me and you rather than us and them.
Think about it - we’ve all been there – or here - to some extent and in our own ways. Circling around the same problem, over and over, and never getting anywhere. In couples work, we describe this with phrases like “demon dialogues” and “gridlock issues.”
These are the back breakers. The seemingly insurmountables and unforgivables. They’re what bring you and me to therapy.
Look at us break our bonds in this kitchen Look at us rallying all our defenses Look at us waging war in our bedroom Look at us jumping ship in our dialogues
- Alanis Morissette, "Underneath"
I’m thinking of a couple I worked with recently. They clearly loved each other but couldn’t stop wounding one another. As they told me their story in our first session, it was clear they knew how to hurt but they were at a loss on how to heal.
When I asked them “how do you repair your relationship after a rupture – after a fight?” Crickets. They had nothing.
“Repair? What do you mean? We just fight, walk away, don’t talk to each other for a while, and then come back when the coast seems clear.”
Got it, I said. Then I asked my favorite question “and how’s that working for y’all?” Considering they were sitting in a therapist’s office (Zoom office anyway), I already knew the answer.
They’d never learned what do after they’d hurt each other. No one had ever shown them the next step - how to help each other treat their injuries. They just knew how to retreat, nurse their own wounds and come back later with more armor.
Rupture and repair.
This is therapist jargon for the cycle of healing after – and through – conflict.
Conflict is healthy in relationships. It’s inevitable. We all miss the sensitivity mark sometimes. I don’t call you back when I say I’m going to, and you hurt my feelings when you tell me “just let it go.”
We do these things. We’re human. In therapist jargon, they’re called “empathic failures.”
Empathic failures hurt. They lead to arguments. And they can ruin relationships. When handled effectively though – when faced head on - they’re opportunities to build trust, get closer and set boundaries.
While conflict and ruptures are inevitable, they’re only valuable if we know what to do next.
We have to know how to repair the rupture. Otherwise, we leave every fight with more ammunition tossed into our emotional warchest.
Learning to repair.
Back to the couple, they were greatly relieved to know they were missing a major piece of the relationship success puzzle. Once they got the rest of the playbook, they started moving the ball down the field. Score!
Ok, that was a random “sports games” reference, but I think it worked.
Can you relate to this couple’s story? Do you get trapped in conflict?
If so, check out my video on how to resolve relationship conflict using the ‘rupture and repair’ playbook or read the steps below...
1. Name the blame game – and, stop playing it, of course. Learn to recognize when you’re in one of those fights and say “ok, we’re here. Let’s pause and pivot.”
2. Acknowledge you’re a player too – the root of so much conflict is partner change. We focus entirely on what “you’re doing” and how “you need to change.”
Instead, try saying “I can see this started when I got angry and started accusing you. What did you see happen? Well I see how I started to armor up and check out.”
When we both own our moves, we’re less defensive. We both have skin in the game. Then, we can self-soothe, tolerate discomfort and listen.
3. Claim your feelings – if you’re one of the few who was taught how to identify, feel and share your feelings, congrats. Your parents deserve a medal. If you’re like the rest of us, now’s your chance.
Feelings are where it’s at in terms of repair. Attuning to them, sharing about them, and knowing how yours affect other people. Even though it’s hard, we get relief when we finally say “I’m really sad or I’m afraid or I felt shamed.” Learn to see, share and manage your feelings.
4. Be curious about their feelings – other people have feelings too. And, newsflash, they’re different from ours. Dammit. When we own our feelings, we’re less distracted by avoiding them and trying to Hail Mary them across the sofa. Then we have more space in our hearts to empathize with others' feelings.
There’s more to it, but these will get you started. Any one of these takes serious commitment, courage and grit so you know where to find me if you need more help with them.
Zooming back out, imagine what’s possible if we started using this playbook on a macro level. I wonder what could happen if we did some collective skill building and learned to repair rather than just rupture. Like the couple, I bet this could be a game changer.
Your repair shop technician,