You’re hanging out with someone you really care about when it happens…
You say the wrong thing.
He goes silent. His jaw tightens. Tension floods the room.
You’re desperately trying to think of a way to take it back when he stands up. “I gotta go. Catch you later.”
He’s gone without a goodbye kiss.
You’re alone, ashamed and angry at yourself. Why did you do that? Just when it was going so well?
It can happen to anyone. Even if you make a point of being the kindest, most thoughtful person on the planet, you can still end up upsetting the man you want to be with.
The words you said meant one thing to you but something completely different to him. Instead of asking you to clarify, he took it the wrong way. His feelings were hurt, you had no idea what you did to cause it, and it’s all a big mess.
This happens in all kinds of relationships, from romantic relationships to professional ones. So, it pays to take a closer look at what we can do when we upset each other. Let’s talk about how to feel close again.
The Dance of Intimacy
The perfect relationship should be a harmonious dance. He puts his hand around your waist, you gaze into his eyes, and you swirl around the dance floor with sweet music guiding your steps.
A wonderful fantasy, but nowhere close to reality.
The reality of relationships isn’t easy to watch. You move together in step for a short while, then break away. The music comes in snatches, and you’re not always hearing the same rhythm. It’s easier to step back, because moving as one is too much work.
What do you do when you find yourselves on opposite sides of the dance floor? How do you find your lost rhythm and restore the closeness?
The answer is what psychologists call repair attempts.
Dr. John Gottman defines a repair attempt as “any statement or action – silly or otherwise – that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.”
It’s how you recognize you’re no longer in sync. Instead of pulling him back, you draw attention to your distance. You invite him closer. You wait to move until you’re in harmony again.
How Repair Attempts Work
When you notice a man pulling back from you, what do you do?
Maybe you frantically search your mind for ways to “undo” your mistake. Maybe you blurt out something, trying to explain yourself. Maybe you change the subject, hoping a distraction will erase what just happened.
All the while, you’re feeling that hot flush of shame.
You know what you said hurt him. You wish you could take it back, but you’re committed now. You’re obliged to stand by your words. Perhaps you reassure yourself that you did nothing wrong; it’s his fault for taking it the wrong way.
None of those responses repair the situation.
To heal the hurt, you need to acknowledge it. That’s what a repair attempt does.
Here are some examples:
“Can we do that over again? I didn’t say that very well.”
“I notice you’ve gone quiet. I feel as if I may have hurt your feelings.”
“I wonder if what I said made you uncomfortable.”
Don’t cover up what just happened. Get it out into the open.
Repair attempts are risky. When you reach out, you open the space for him to tell you exactly what he’s feeling. You may not want to hear it.
If you find yourself getting defensive, bite the impulse to lash back. Instead, try saying, “I can see how that would have made you feel.”
The point of a repair attempt is not to take all the blame on yourself, either. It takes two people for miscommunication to happen. Feeling guilty doesn’t help.
Instead of beating up on yourself, reach out to repair the situation. Let him know you see him withdrawing. Give him the space to respond. Hear him out.
Repair attempts don’t fix what went wrong or make it okay. He may still feel hurt. But as long as he feels heard, the damage is contained.
Even in the most perfect relationships, we fall out of step sometimes. We say the wrong thing. We hurt one another’s feelings.
We can’t turn back the clock, but we can reach out. We can acknowledge the tension, strain, or awkwardness. We look at the pain instead of running from it.
Get good at repair attempts, and the reward is a stronger relationship. You’ll trust one another more. You’ll feel safer together.
You’ll know that, no matter how far you’ve been driven apart, you will come back together. Wholeness is just a repair attempt away.