Relational repair

Ruptures in a relationship are a normal part of life. Skillful repair requires both partners to work together for the good of the relationship. The method that I prefer is based on Terry Real‘s work, and is documented with lots of examples in chapters six and seven of The New Rules of Marriage. This formal repair process isn’t necessary for all of the little bumps in the road. Where this tool is useful is when there’s been a significant rupture.

Let’s use Alice and Bob, a fictional couple, as an example. Say Alice feels hurt by something Bob did or said. It’s Alice’s job to initiate repair. She shares with her partner how she feels hurt and what she would like to be different in the future. Alice’s aim is to teach Bob how to give her what she needs, and to help him succeed. Her aim is not to unload on Bob and tell him what an awful person he is.

Asking for what you want

Both parties must be receptive for repair to be effective, because they both have to give a little, putting aside individual egos in service of the relationship. So Alice checks to see if Bob is in a good place for a difficult conversation: “Bob, I’ve got some feedback that I’d like to share with you. Is this a good time?” If Bob is feeling centered and can put up his boundaries and listen in a healthy way, he’ll reply, “Yes.” Otherwise he should let Alice know that he’s not ready and propose another time.

When Bob is ready, Alice’s next step is to take a breath and remember that she loves Bob. When we’re feeling hurt, it’s often difficult to be measured in our words, so taking this step to remember love is crucial.

Now Alice takes four steps to explain herself, briefly, to her partner. She speaks from her own experience, uses “I” phrases, and owns her own thoughts and feelings. Preferably keep each of these to a single sentence. Allowing this to turn into a lecture will defeat the purpose.

  1. What I saw and heard.
  2. What I made up about that.
  3. What I felt about that.
  4. What I would like in the future.

When saying what she saw, Alice imagines what a video camera might have captured; this will have the highest likelihood of matching Bob’s experience. She avoids exaggerating and embellishing.

When saying what she thought about it, she’d be wise to say, “What I made up about that was,” which leaves lots of room for other interpretations. This is where Alice stays in her lane, owning her own thoughts, and allows that Bob might have other thoughts about what happened.

When saying what she felt, Alice speaks from the first person, “I felt ____”. It’s tempting to blame our feelings on others and use phrases like, “You made me feel ____”. Avoid using “made/makes me feel” here. Own your own feelings, because your experience is uniquely your own, and many of the feelings you are having likely have more to do with you than with your partner.

When Alice says what she’d like in the future, she’s coaching her partner on how he can succeed. She’s rooting for the relationship. “In the future, I’d prefer it if you would…”

There’s one final step in all of this – Alice lets go of the outcome. She knows she won’t always get what she wants. She knows that she doesn’t control Bob, and that it’s up to him to give whatever he can give.

This is not easy. But it works much better than most typical strategies of trying to control your partner, yelling, screaming, nagging, withdrawing, being passive/aggressive, and so on. The more I practice this, the more natural it feels.

Listening without being defensive

What’s Bob doing during all of this? He’s listening to understand. He’s putting aside his own thoughts and feelings, and being fully receptive to what Alice has to say. He knows that repair is a one way process. It’s not his turn to talk about what he thinks or how he feels; if he has something to share, he can do that at another time. This is Alice’s time, and he gives her that gift because he values the relationship.

When Alice talks about what she saw and heard, if she’s skillful, Bob won’t find much to disagree with here. It’s when she moves into what she thought and felt that Bob will have to hold a strong boundary. If Bob pays attention, he will get a better understanding of Alice’s thought process and how she feels about things. It’s critical that Bob spends this time listening to Alice instead of focusing on building his own defense. Otherwise he’ll miss out on some important learning. And though Bob may disagree with much of Alice’s reasoning, there’s almost always a seed of truth in there. As a skillful listener, Bob is looking for those seeds. This is the most difficult part, and it’s where Bob’s internal boundary really matters. Bob listens and pays attention to what Alice’s story is, and he doesn’t have feelings about anything that is not true for him. He knows that this is about Alice, not about him.

When Alice talks about how she felt, this is Bob’s chance to be empathic. Since Bob has heard the story in Alice’s head (what she made up), he’s much more likely to understand her feelings. He’d probably feel something similar if he had that same story in his head. If Bob listens empathically here, he’s likely to soften up and feel compassion for Alice.

Giving what you can

When Alice asks for what she wants in the future, Bob will listen to see what he can give. Often what Alice will ask for will be easy for Bob to give, sometimes not so much.

Once Alice is done speaking, Bob gets a chance to ask questions, to be curious about what he heard. It’s important to focus on understanding, and not being defensive. This helps Alice feel like she’s really understood, and it helps Bob get a better understanding of where Alice is coming from, and how she arrived at the story that’s playing in her head.

Now it’s time for Bob to step up and say what he’s willing to give. If he’s skillful, he’ll give as much as he possibly can without overcommitting himself. Making a promise you don’t intend to keep is a recipe for disaster.

Resources

This article is a brief summary of an effective repair process. For further study, I recommend Terry’s book, The New Rules of Marriage. Terry offers a 2-day Relationship Boot Camp from time to time, but if you don’t want to travel, you can watch an online course which covers a subset of the material called Staying in Love. Mari and I have read the book and taken the online course, and we’ve found both to be great resources.

And once again, remember that this is not just about marriage – repair is a critical tool in any relationship. An intimate relationship such as marriage is the most difficult place to be skillful, because the stakes are so high. And so are the rewards!

Relationships are cyclic

Just like the circle of life, a relationship between two people is cyclical. Since I discovered this, I’ve found that I have more courage to stand strong and compassionate when the other is going off the rails. Here’s what it looks like:

The Auspicious Cycle

1. Harmony

2. Rupture

3. Repair

When my relationship with Mari is in harmony, I feel a deep sense of peace, abundant joy, and safety. This is the normal state of affairs these days. Then the stresses of life kick in and tickle us in just the right way that there’s a rupture. Now I experience a variety of hurt feelings, and maybe even some distrust creeps in. Once things have calmed down and we both are back (somewhat) from being triggered, one of us will initiate repair.

If the repair is delivered skillfully and received skillfully, both of us feel heard and understood, and, while we may not get all that we want, we return to harmony again.

If the repair is either not delivered or received skillfully, we will develop resentment for the other. In the early days of our relationship it was more likely that we’d simply put on a happy face, pretend we are okay, and move on, burying the hurt. This is what it used to look like for us (and I think this is the norm in many relationships):

The Vicious Cycle

1. Tolerable

2. Rupture

3. Bury the hurt

A mentor of mine once shared with me the phrase, “Tolerably intolerable”, and I think most of us live in that space in many of our relationships, because we aren’t good at repair (many people have no clue what harmony looks like, because they’ve so rarely experienced it).

These really aren’t just cycles, but rather spirals, because with each pass, the relationship is either strengthened or weakened. The auspicious cycle spirals up: with each successful repair we develop more trust and repair becomes easier next time, while the vicious cycle spirals down: with each hurt we bury, we add another brick of resentment to the wall that we are slowly erecting between each other.

These cycles apply in any relationship, not just intimate ones, so even if you’re not married, you’ll find that a study of relationship skills can go a long way toward helping you develop long lasting relationships with family, friends, and colleagues.

Next up, an article dedicated to relational repair.

The sexual boundary

This is the third in a three part series. Here is a link to part 1.

While my physical boundary protects me from, among other things, unwanted closeness or touch from others, the sexual boundary takes this one step further.

My sexual boundary protects me by allowing me to control where, how, when, and with whom I will be sexual.

I have the right to protect myself this way, and I show self respect and self compassion for standing up for this right.

And I contain myself by giving you the same respect.

This boundary implies asking whenever in doubt of what another wants sexually. Even with a partner that you’ve been sexual with for years, having a conversation like this can be refreshing.

The words, “be sexual”, are pretty vague, and everyone will have a different definition. My wife and I have had conversations about this and I have learned a lot about what is sexual for her. And it’s different from what I find to be sexual. I remember after having those conversations how respected I felt that she would be willing to honor my boundaries. And after years of violating hers, she now feels much more respected by me that I’ll ask when I’m not sure.

This material on boundaries comes from Pia Mellody’s work. Please support her efforts at The Meadows by purchasing her audio CD on the topic. She provides a lot of examples that will help you really get your head around these ideas.

The internal boundary

This is part 2 of a three part post. Here’s a link to part 1.

While my physical boundary protects me externally, I also need a boundary that delineates my thoughts and feelings from yours. This is the internal boundary.

Inside the internal boundary is a peaceful, safe space. Mine is the deck of a ship on a glassy ocean, with my wife Mari next to me. I smell the ocean. I see the peaceful water and an occasional seagull floating by. I hear the flapping of sails and the creaking of wood. I can feel the support and warmth of the lounge in which I’m reclining. I feel the warmth of Mari’s hand in mine. Here I am safe. Nothing can get to me. With practice, I’ve been able to get to this place remarkably quickly.

My boundary is a force field. I imagine that it creates waves in the atmosphere around me, and I can reach out a finger and touch it, “Zzzzzttt”. Yours will be different – you just have to imagine something that feels right. Mari has a set of hula hoops that spin up around her. Just make sure there’s room for something to get through so you don’t end up with a wall.

When someone speaks to me, my internal boundary keeps me safe from their words. It’s like an inspection station – as I hear those words I’m constantly asking, “is this true for me?” Pia proposes that there are three answers: yes, no, and “I’m not sure.” If the answer is yes, I take the words in and have feelings about them. I let the words touch me. I may even change my mind about something as a result. This is part of my continuing development as a human.

If the answer is no, I don’t take them in. I don’t have feelings about them. I imagine them going “plink, plink” off my boundary and just sliding off. There’s something about that visualization that really helps me – I suppose I’m so focused on “plink, plink” that I don’t have time to have feelings about the words.

If the answer is, “I’m not sure,” I say something like, “I’ll have to think about that and get back to you in a few days.” And that’s a promise that I must honor if I am to remain trustworthy.

Can you see the difference between this and a wall? A healthy internal boundary is strong, and at the same time, it’s porous. Using a wall only makes sense when you’re trapped in a situation with an abusive person and you have no way to flee.

One downside of “plink, plink” is that, like all of us, I have blind spots. I find it helpful to imagine grabbing those “plinked” words before they completely disappear and queuing them up for awhile. That way I can look for patterns, “Wait, I’ve heard this from several people. Maybe I have a blind spot. I should talk to a trusted friend about this instead of just ignoring it.”

Boundaries are a daily practice, and I sometimes get caught with my guard down. Recently Terry Real gave me some advice for this situation. I now visualize a way of getting something OUT of my boundary if it got in by accident. I imagine a vacuum cleaner sucking the ick out of my safe space. Like “plink, plink”, this helps let those feelings go when they are from words that I’ve realized aren’t true for me. And on my worst days, I don’t do any of this stuff and I’m just damned hard to be around. As time goes on I’m having less of those days 🙂

Okay, so that’s the protection bit. Now let’s talk about containment, which is just as important.

Containment is all about being thoughtful. It’s an inspection station for my outgoing words. As I’ve become more mindful, I find myself slowing down a little. In my head, I’ll play the words I’d like to say and imagine how the recipient will experience them, given what I know of her reality. And if I think it’ll be hurtful, I’ll back up and play some different words. With difficult topics, I find myself doing this many times before I find the right words to convey my meaning. Once I think the words won’t be hurtful, I’ll share them. This thoughtfulness has increased the harmony in my relationships.

Even on my best days, others may still feel hurt when they hear my words. I can never know the entirety of another’s reality. Even with a healthy containment boundary, there will be situations where my words are interpreted by the other as hurtful. And there are plenty of times when, in the heat of the moment, I forget entirely to follow this process (I’m “boundaryless” in those moments). The delightful thing is, relationships cycle in and out of harmony all the time, and I have learned an effective repair process. I’ll write about that in a future article.

And finally, part 3, the sexual boundary.

This material on boundaries comes from Pia Mellody’s work. Please support her efforts at The Meadows by purchasing her audio CD on the topic. She provides a lot of examples that will help you get your head around these ideas.

A potent recipe

This blog post is a work in progress. I’d love comments as I work this out in my head.

  1. Recognize your gift.
  2. Lean into it.
  3. Protect others from the sharp edges that come along with it.
  4. Recognize it in others.

Some thoughts…

(1) may remain in your shadow until you figure out how to feel worthy. Is it possible to introspect honestly when you don’t feel worthy?

People around you will give you clues to (1) if you will pay attention to how they react to you.

If you tend toward grandiosity, you’ll probably do (2) regardless, because it’s fun. If you tend toward shame, you may avoid (2) because it’s too scary. I think this has a lot to do with what Joseph Campbell calls “following your bliss”.

(3) has to do with boundaries and self regulation. Each gift has a dark side – it can also be considered a defect.

(4) was contributed by Michael – thanks! I’d love to hear more about what he thinks about that…

Boundaries

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” – George Box

A boundary is a model for a healthy relationship between two people. It allows you and I to be in relation with each other, and at the same time to be individuals with our own thoughts and feelings, needs and wants. It prevents us from becoming enmeshed with each other (not knowing what’s yours and what’s mine), without putting a wall between us. Boundaries are all about balancing between these extremes.

Lots has been written on this subject, but the model created by Pia Mellody is the one that I prefer because of its clarity and simplicity. This is the sort of thing that should be taught to kids. Like many of us, I didn’t get the benefit of that instruction (and neither did my parents nor theirs). I learned this lesson much later in life.

A boundary allows us to really know one another. It separates my stuff from yours, where stuff is not only physical (body and possessions) but also intellectual and emotional (thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs).

In Pia’s model there are three boundaries: physical, internal, and sexual. And each has an inside and an outside – one side protects me, and the other contains me (it protects you from me).

This is the first in a series of three articles on boundaries. In this first article I’ll be talking about the physical boundary.

The Physical Boundary

For my physical boundary, I imagine an invisible shell about 18 inches from my skin. The distance depends on how much space I need between me and any given person in order to be comfortable. I imagine it expanding and contracting as as I interact with different people. It’ll be closer to my skin with a loved one and further away with a stranger.

The outside of my shell protects me from physical touch by others.

If you approach me closely, as you cross my physical boundary, my body alerts me with a feeling of discomfort. When I notice this I step back. If you don’t get the hint and keep approaching me, I’ll say, firmly and respectfully, “I am not comfortable being that close to you. Please give me some space.” This demonstrates self compassion and self respect.

The inside of my shell contains me so that you can be comfortable as well. I slow down as I approach you, watching for signs of discomfort from you – often I’ll feel it in my body before I have the thought, “She is getting uncomfortable.” If I notice that you are uncomfortable, I step back from you until I feel your comfort return. This shows respect for others.

When I feel like giving someone a hug, I ask permission first. “I’d like to give you a hug. Would you be comfortable with that?” Even then, I realize that by spreading my arms apart and approaching another, I loom larger than I already am, and that can be frightening. The vast majority of women (and also many men) have been assaulted at some point in their lives, and I might be triggering past trauma in them. Nowadays I prefer simply asking for a handshake, or offering a warm smile. If she wants a hug I figure she’ll ask. In more intimate relationships (e.g., family), this is less of an issue, and an arms-wide approach triggers love, not fear.

The physical boundary also extends to personal and intellectual property. Don’t touch my stuff, look at my email, etc. without asking my permission. I will give you the same courtesy.

As a man, as is typical in our culture, I was socialized to be “tough” and was disconnected from my body at a very early age. I’ve found mindfulness meditation very helpful in getting back in touch with signals from my body. I still can’t name many of the feelings that I have, but I can at least point at where it is, for example, “pressure in my gut”, then look that up in a reference to see some possible names. When I first started doing this I felt like a caveman pointing at my body and grunting, but I’m getting better at identifying my own feelings. What’s weird (but common) is that I am much better at identifying feelings in others, because as a kid that was an important indicator that helped keep me safe in an abusive household.

It takes energy and thoughtfulness to do this work, especially when you’ve not done it in the past. I’m learning that this is just part of being a healthy adult.

Next up, the internal boundary.

This material on boundaries comes from Pia Mellody’s work. Please support her efforts at The Meadows by purchasing her audio CD on the topic. She provides a lot of examples that will help you get your head around these ideas.