Relationships Are About Repair, Not Perfection

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There’s a simple fact of life: when you enter into an intimate relationship, you are guaranteed to experience some hurt. So the skill of relationship repair becomes an essential tool in your keeping your romantic unions healthy.

Intimacy requires us to be vulnerable, to open up to someone and let them into our tender places. Occasional hurt is therefore unavoidable. Unfortunately, people spend so much time avoiding hurting or being hurt, they lose out on a great deal of intimacy.

What is the Benefit of Relationship Repair?

In relationships, we often try to be perfect and expect perfection from our partners. When we do something that our partner finds hurtful, we quickly defend ourselves, apologize, or try to talk our partner out of their feelings. In the reverse situation, we go into attack mode, or distance ourselves and try to “solve” our feelings on our own.

Read about the 4 Steps You Can Take Right Now to Improve Your Relationship

But here’s another idea: feelings are not in need of fixing. They just are. When a challenging feeling such as anger, frustration, or sadness arises in a relationship, it offers us an opportunity for deeper understanding, empathy, mutual support and, most importantly, relationship repair.

Couples who are most joyful in their relationships still have conflict. They have just learned and accepted that hurt feelings are a normal part of it. In their day-to-day life, they understand that misunderstandings happen and old wounds can be triggered.

Here are 7 steps you can take to minimize the hurt, maximize intimacy, and repair your conflicts.

Couple struggling with relationship repair

Step #1: Shift Communication Gears

If you have been in a relationship with your partner for any amount of time, you begin to be able to read their moods. You feel when there are shifts in their nervous system. You can tell there is a hurt feeling based on tone of voice, facial expressions, clipped words, silence, body tightness, and lack of breathing.

As soon as you see an emotional shift in your partner, it’s time to shift gears and move to emotional communication.

Step #2: Name The Emotion

If you or your partner are stuck in facts and figures, accusations or debates, you can shift the mood by naming the emotion.

For example: you come home and find an empty house. You were looking forward to your partner being there, so you may feel frustration coming up. Your partner may say, “You seem angry that I wasn’t home when you got here”. Your response could be: “I know I have been telling you all the things you did wrong – but what I really mean is that I feel alone when I hope you are home, and you aren’t.”

Just naming the emotion (in the above case, loneliness) often begins the process of relationship repair.

Also read: How to Deal with Jealousy: Understanding Its Triggers, Meanings, and Coping Strategies

Step #3: Stop Trying to Defend Your Reputation

Usually when we hear our partner is distressed about something we did, we feel bad about ourselves. We either disconnect and retreat, try to instantly solve the problem, or defend our reputation.

It is very difficult to hold the idea that our partner is upset and we are still a good person at the same time. This occurs when we don’t feel particularly good about how we handled a situation.

However, when we start to make ourselves the bad guy or defend ourselves, we make the issue about us. Instead, we should just allow our partner to have the feeling they are having.

Couple practicing empathy during relationship repair exercise
Love honestly, love deeply. Shot of an affectionate young couple sharing a romantic moment in the bedroom at home.

Step #4: Empathize By Playing The Best Friend

Role playing can be a great tool for fostering empathy.

Once a week, play-act as if you’re your partner’s bestie or confidant. You can sit down together, and pretend to “gossip” about your significant others. This is a great way to hear about your partner’s difficulties with something you’ve done – without going into fix-it mode or defending your actions.

Your partner could say, “I heard your significant other was a big jerk this week. Tell me all about it!”. When you’re done venting, they could say, “Yeah, I know they can be a big pain in the ass, too. What was the deal this week?”

In these conversations you are making space for each others disappointments, frustrations, and emotions.

Step #5: Put Yourself In Your Partner’s Shoes

A big part of empathy is taking a moment to imagine what it would be like to come home with one expectation, and find a different situation, entirely.

Even if you have a good excuse or didn’t mean to hurt the other person – they are still allowed to have their feelings. And though you maybe wouldn’t feel the same way in their situation, you might still be able to imagine how they can feel that way.

Let yourself be open to hearing their feelings and empathizing with them. This step is extremely important and can be used for the smallest to biggest issues – everything from not taking out the garbage to processing an affair. The only difference is that, in an affair, there may be numerous feelings each partner has to empathize with before repair can happen.

Don’t just say, “I understand”. Say WHAT you understand! For example: “I understand that when you came home and I wasn’t here, you had a flashback to the time I went behind your back and went out on a date with someone else. I can imagine how scared and alone that must have made you feel.”

Related: 9 Ways to Successful Relationships After Cheating

Step #6: Reassure when Necessary

Once you have listened and deeply understood the other person, you may feel close, comfortable, and connected again. You may feel there is nothing left to do.

If it still feels like something is stuck though, it may be time for some reassurance. You don’t want to ever jump to this step, however. If you reassure before you fully understand what the feelings are and where they came from, your reassurances will not hit the target. Your partner may not receive what they need – and you will still feel disconnected.

An example of a reassurance might be, “I can see how scary it might have been for you when you came home and I wasn’t here. I’m sorry I dismissed your feelings at first. And I want you to know, I never want you to feel alone. I always care about how you feel.”

Step #7: Check On Your Partner’s Counter-Emotions

In the many emotional instances in a relationship, each partner has feelings they need to share and have understood.

Don’t assume that just because you are making the initial complaint that your partner is only supposed to listen to you. Make space after you feel heard to also listen to their feelings. When you make space, you might hear something like, “I feel like ever since I went on that date behind your back a year ago, I have felt mistrusted. Every move I make is monitored. Sometimes I feel a little hopeless. Like there will never be anything I can do to win back your trust.”

Then it’s your turn to put yourself in their shoes. Any good relationship makes space for BOTH partner’s emotions. And true relationship repair only happens when each of you feels heard and understood.

Relationship coach with couple in relationship repair session

How to Get Help If You Are Stuck in the Relationship Repair Process

Despite your best efforts, you might still sometimes get stuck in any of these relationship repair steps. To avoid dragging the conflict into the dark corners of festering resentment, anger and disappointment, consider hiring a professional relationship coach.

They will be able to help you with communication issues, identify the root causes of your feelings, and provide a neutral, safe space to ensure you’re heard and understood.

Find your perfect relationship coach near you now.

Find a professional sex coach near you or by expertise now.

Danielle Harel
Danielle Harel
Dr. Danielle Harel is the the co-creator of the Somatica® Method and the co-founder of the Somatica® Institute. She has a Ph.D. in Human Sexuality (DHS), a graduate degree in Clinical Social Work (MSW), and a Bachelors (BA) degree in Psychology and Educational Counseling.

As a somatic sexologist, professor, and author, Danielle has devoted the last 20 years to resolving her client’s sexual challenges, training sex & relationship coaches, and empowering people. Harnessing her extensive training in sexology, psychology, and body-based modalities like Hakomi, attachment theory, character theory, and neuro-patterning, she guides people in reaching their fullest personal, professional, and sexual potential.

In addition to being faculty at Esalen and teaching the Advanced Somatica Training and Mastery Classes, Danielle has most recently embraced the adventure of co-producing the TV series Here She Comes – an episodic based on the Somatica Method (currently in production).

Before that, she published original research on Orgasmic Birth, and co-authored 3 books with Celeste Hirschman: Cockfidence, Making Love Real, and Coming Together.

She has also written extensively on sex, relationships, and dating, and is frequently quoted as an expert resource in publications.

To everything she does, Danielle brings her unparalleled passion, depth, intuition, and magnetizing personality.

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