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Repairing the Rips in Our Relationships

Repairing the Rips in Our Relationships

A Guide to Addressing Our Relationship Problems

Carlos Martinez  

An excerpt from the Onsite Journal Vol. 1

Relationships are tenuous, glorious, difficult, painful, and amazing things. 

This is true for our friendships, partnerships, marriages, and connections with colleagues.  The ways we connect are complicated by things like what we’re feeling, what we’re thinking about ourselves, or even how much sleep we’ve gotten on any given day.  To make it more complicated, friendships have lifecycles, the same way that trees, animals, really, anything living has.  Research tells us that most friendships last about 7 to 8 years.  We move to different cities, graduate; we get different jobs; we marry, have kids; and find that the people who sit around our dinner tables today tend to be different than those who were there 10 years earlier.  Unless we are intentional, it is difficult to maintain long-term, thriving connections without our fair share of relationship problems.

Yet relationships are what keep us fully alive.  Our closest friendships are what sustain our health, help us feel connected, and keep us grounded.  Not having satisfying relationships is more damaging to our health than being a lifelong alcoholic, not working out, or smoking 15 cigarettes a day.  Dr. Edward Tronnick said that we need human connection like we need oxygen; it’s that vital.

What are Rips and Repairs?

The truth is that all relationships will “rip” at some point in their lifecycle. We are human, and we will always do something that will cause a rip in a relationship. Sometimes those actions will be intentional, but more often, they will be accidental.  Miscommunication, lack of communication, or misplaced expectations all contribute to feeling like there has been a rip in our relationships.  Something as small as a perceived slight or as huge as an intentional betrayal will need to be repaired if there’s hope for restoring connection.  If you’re willing to do the work, the prognosis for reconnection is good, but not guaranteed—and that’s part of the repair.

“It’s never about the rips; it’s always about the repair.”

As important as relationships are, and despite the fact that all of us will deal with relationship problems, few of us have had the skill of repair fully modeled for us. How many of us were taught by parents how to make something RIGHT with someone else?  When I would get into fights with my sisters, we would sometimes be made to shake hands or hug when we didn’t mean it.  Being told by a parent to “Say you’re sorry,” when you don’t mean it is not repair.

Repair happens in a moment of my willingness to be vulnerable and take responsibility.  We get a chance to say, “I thought about how what I did affected you, and I’m really sorry for my part in it.  I’m sorry I hurt you.”  A repair looks like a mended moment.  Mended doesn’t mean, “It never happened.”  It means recognizing the rip and acknowledging the effect it had on someone else.  Much of what was modeled for me growing up was an inability to take ownership of behavior or consequences; there were always reasons why someone acted the way they did, and they were GOOD reasons, so we thought.

RELATED: Couples Intensive 

Repairing Relationship Problems

In thinking through some of the dynamics of repairing relationship problems, keep these things in mind:

Put their eyes on

As we say at Onsite, “What would it be like to put the other person’s eyeballs on?”  What did they experience?  What was it like for them?  How did they feel when you did that?  What might they have been thinking?  Sometimes when we get defensive about what we’ve done in making a rip, we tend to hype up our side and become our own best apologist.  It’s really hard to see someone else’s viewpoint when we are convinced that we are right.  Putting on the other person’s eyeballs (the skill of empathy) means “I’m willing to consider how you are feeling.”  Saying with sincere honesty, “I can see how that would be really painful for you,” becomes a moment when the other person feels truly seen.

Be willing to take ownership

One of the hardest things to do is to take ownership of something; to say, “That was my fault.  I’m sorry.”  The most important thing we can do to repair a relationship is to take ownership of our part in the rip.  If you’re seeking to repair a relationship, what won’t work is for you to give reasons or excuses as to why you did what you did.  It’s tempting to explain away our behaviors when we have perfectly good reasons (in our minds) for why we did or said something.  But ownership means you’re willing to say, “I’m sorry that I did that; I was wrong.”  This takes an intentionality to be fully responsible for whatever happened on your side of the street, regardless of what they did on their side of the street.  By being intentional with your repair, you are taking ownership of your relationship problems. Consider it this way: once a rip exists, it doesn’t go away. Sometimes it widens and gets worse; sometimes it’s simply sits there, always present. In either case, the rip won’t magically repair itself.  Unless you’re willing to use the needle and thread of intentionality and ownership, the rip won’t improve and will either expand, get worse, simply remain open, leaving the relationship stalled or disordered.

Be patient when repairing rips

Remember that taking ownership is not a magic or immediate solution. It’s just a step. Sometimes the rip we’ve caused will need time to mend if the person is willing to forgive you.  After a set of rips that I had contributed to with a longtime friendship, I circled back and took ownership for my part of the rip. I said all of the things to show I understood my role in creating the rip, and I meant them.  I was sorry. I realized I had let time slip and by not addressing the rip, it got wider and wider.  And even after all that, my friend told me that they completely accepted my apology, and despite that, they couldn’t see maintaining the friendship. Part of taking ownership of something is accepting that the other person is their own person, with their own boundaries, their own choices, and their own freedom to decide what they want to do with the relationship. If someone is not ready to accept your effort to repair rips, that is also part of the repair: you must be willing to accept their response. NOT accepting their response or request for more time or a break is not really accepting ownership at all.

Today: Invest

Realize that the relationships we have in life are tenuous, glorious, difficult, painful, amazing things.  If there is someone who needs a repair from you, be willing to explore what the repair might cost you, and what it would cost not to give it.  Be gentle with yourself as you explore what it takes to cultivate your relationships. Rips can be repaired, and it’s worth the effort for our most vital human connections.


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