Mistakes are to be expected in all relationships. It’s what we do about them that determines the course that a relationship will follow over time. This principle applies whether the rupture arises between any two people, or on the international stage.
Attunement and misattunement (ruptures)
Humans need relationships. From the moment we are born, we need others to ensure our survival. For the first few years of life, we humans rely entirely on others for our day-to-day care and to learn how to live in a community of humans. Through relationships, we initially bond with kin in our family and the wider group, then we learn to bond in friendship, and then extend our ties to others around us. Learning how to weave relationships, and how to make those relationships with others work in a sustainable way, is a significant determining factor of quality of life beyond immediate survival across the duration of the life cycle.
Beyond their utilitarian value, people invest in relationships because, when they work well, we love feeling heard, seen, understood, valued and cared about, accepted, respected, having an ally, having a playmate, and the feeling that the other person has our back. When things are going well, like the instruments in an orchestra that work harmoniously together, we feel in tune with one another – we feel ‘attuned’. Over time, this sense of being attuned to one another contributes to a sense of strong bonds being built between people.
However, thanks to the many ways communication can break down between people, there is constant and ample opportunity for misattunements to occur in a relationship, whether it’s between parent and child, siblings, friends, partners, colleagues or strangers in a one-off encounter. These mistakes or missteps cause a rupture, in a sense, to the fabric that bonds people together in
Repairing relationship ruptures
What matters is not so much the fact that mistakes occur; that’s a given. Ruptures are going to happen. It’s inevitable. What matters is whether these ruptures are recognised in a timely
Whatever the nature of the
Recognising that a rupture has occurred
Some researchers have said that two-thirds of the time in secure mother/ infant relationships, there is misattunement[ii]. The same has been found in adult relationships – about 70% of the time, we get it wrong.
What form does rupture take in relationships? We might not understand what the other person is saying and fail to check out if we have the correct understanding. We might miss the significance of something that the other person is saying, why and how it matters to them. We might not respond to something important for the other person in an empathic manner. We might not hold in mind important issues or sensitive concerns of theirs and end up being insensitive in how we approach an issue. We might not validate their feelings when they share something sensitive with us. We might betray their trust and share sensitive information they had entrusted with us. We might breach an agreement we had with them. We might make a unilateral decision that clearly shows we are not taking them or their needs into account, or only what we think are their needs, rather than consulting with them. It might be that we make a decision about something we want to do or not do, and ignore that this may not be what would be in their best interests. We might push too strongly for our point of view and what we want or how we think we are right, and not really allow them to speak their view or truly listen to their viewpoint.
A rupture can also occur through what we don’t do that we said we would do, or if we actively choose not to share something with them that they consider important.
What’s on the line – impact of ruptures
At those times, it is like a micro rupture (sometimes a macro one) happens to the fabric of the relationship – in those moments, all bets are off. The other can no longer count on us. In effect, what’s on the line is trust and our credibility – the trust the other person has in us, their trust that we will fully inform them, that we will be sensitive to their wishes and interests, how safe they feel with us, their sense of being able to count on us or rely on us to hold their best interests in mind, their sense of being respected and cared about by us. In addition, it is common for the other person’s view of us, their perception of who we are, our motives in relation to them, to begin to be redefined, or at least, up for question.
Effectively, we have lost some relationship credit. Left unattended, this can completely alter how the other person perceives us and even radically alter the relationship.
What matters is not only what is done or said
If left unaddressed and unrepaired, as more of these ruptures occur, the situation creates the conditions in which the other starts to redefine what the relationship is about and our place in it.
Gradually, typically, people might react with becoming more defensive and protective, to withdraw, to withhold and not share intimate material about themselves, and be less trusting. The brain’s tendency to confirmatory bias (to see what it already thinks and believes) means they start to watch out for more examples of what they are starting to think is so, and miss or ignore examples of evidence that contradicts their new perspective. Through this new lens about us and who we are to them, the other begins to reinterpret both past and present interactions with us as examples of what they take to be the new truth about the relationship.
This domino effect happens very quickly, and in no time, the safe context of the relationship is destroyed, or at least, damaged.
Most ruptures are unintended
And yet, most of the time, in my observation, the mistakes that people make in a
I’m not for one moment saying that this means I think that ruptures don’t count. Or that they’re not significant, and people should ‘toughen up’. What I am saying is that ruptures are common and to be expected, and I do not believe that they are intentional – most of the time.
Whether you meant to or not, if you broke it, you have to fix it
Nevertheless, because of their damaging impact on the fabric of relationships, intentional or not, if we want to retain and count on healthy relationships over time, it is essential that we get skilled at detecting and recognising when ruptures occur. We need to:
- cultivate the courage, integrity and skill to name that this is what we think has happened
- have the courage to own our part in the rupture and in how it impacted on the other person
- make room and time to explore and validate their feelings about it
- then set out to repair the relationship as soon as we can.
For most people, it’s not until there is a gradual withdrawal into silence, narky remarks are made, passive aggressive behaviour leaks, or a fight erupts, that they realise that a rupture has happened. At this point, an opportunity opens up to clear up misunderstandings and old hurts.
As a couple therapist, I notice that most people’s reaction to me pointing out that a rupture has happened is to get defensive. In the moment, they insist on telling me they didn’t mean it ‘that way’, or that it was not their intention. It’s as though they want their partner to drop their reaction to what they did or said (or didn’t do or didn’t say), they want their partner to stop feeling bad, and instead, proceed seamlessly with what they have now clarified was their intention all along.
Most of us would get self-conscious if we were to examine our dirty laundry in the presence of others. Similarly, it’s uncomfortable to address the ins and outs of ruptures. Most people want their partner to skip the painful bits and re-focus instead on the more important part (to them), namely, what they are intending to communicate, and remember their track record as a generally good person, partner, or friend. In short, they want the relationship trust and intimacy counter to return to the high levels they think it ought to operate at.
Without first taking seriously and making room for the other person’s hurt, however, that’s not how the world works.
Doing the work – the autopsy
When I help people with fights and ruptures that have happened in their relationships, I usually tell them that we are going to do an autopsy. The ‘body’ (the conversation, the event) is already dead – it’s happened, it’s on the slab. By going over the details of what happened as finely and precisely as we can, we open ourselves up to a chance to find out what led to the body ending up on the slab. I propose to them, this way, we have a chance to learn what ‘killed off’ their intimate connection last time this happened, to learn from it, so that it (hopefully) does not happen again. Or at least, we can know what to do next time it happens.
Even though we might be talking about an event or a fight that has happened in the past, in the act of talking about it, both parties inevitably revivify their reactions in the present moment in the room with me. The thoughts, feelings, body reactions are all there, re-awakened the moment we open up to talk about what happened. By slowing things down and giving space for both people to speak about what happened for them, how they felt, what they made things mean and how things impacted them, both parties get to see and hear the very real impact of ruptures that happen. Most importantly, they learn to repair them as they present in real time.
I’m very interested in helping people learn more effective and refined ways of communicating with others so that they might catch a moment that’s a possible rupture before it solidifies as such, and give themselves a chance of repairing the rupture as soon as possible, thus giving the relationship’s intimacy the best chance possible to thrive.
Learning to privilege the process over the agenda
As we process conflicts in sessions, I am struck by how often people insist on going on with what I term the ‘agenda’ – the story of what they feel is crucial for them to express. It is as though most of us believe that, if we tell others enough words about what we think and feel, why we think and feel that way, what we ‘know’ happened or ‘know’ to be true, and why we are right, the other person will come around to our way of seeing things.
It doesn’t work that way.
Stan Tatkin calls perception, memory and feelings the Troublesome Triad[iii]. By this, he means that they are notoriously unreliable reporters of what is real. A situation arises, and, thanks to a plethora of factors including our history, our family of origin experiences, trauma history, our mood, the context, what we make things mean, our cultural/religious and class background, our gender and sexual orientation, to name a few, we will inevitably pay attention to certain things as significant and ignore others. We will make certain things mean a particular thing and this will be different
To make matters worse, neuroscience research into emotions has shown us that our bodies relate to things that happen in the unfolding moment at lightning speed, mostly out of our conscious awareness. We experience this as shifts and changes in our physiology experienced as tension patterns, changes of breath and heart rate, and neuro-chemistry, that we then interpret as us feeling a certain way. In effect, our mind makes up stories to explain to itself why we ‘feel’ a certain way. Once we have come to the conclusion that something IS as we think it to be, we act as though that is true and assume there is no other possibility.
Whether we acknowledge our internal experience consciously and openly or not, intentionally or not, in addition to the words we speak, we constantly ‘broadcast’ something of our inner experience to others through our non-verbal communication as well as through our language. The other’s body/minds pick up on our broadcast and they, in turn, react to and adapt to whatever meaning they make of our signals. Bear in mind: they too may not be aware that they have just ‘made meaning’ out of whatever it was we were broadcasting. But the relationship proceeds anyway.
Put this way, we see that communication is a very complicated dance between very sophisticated nervous systems. In our society, by learning to privilege our words and intentions, rather than include this other body-informed layer of communication, it is no wonder that so many opportunities arise for ruptures and misunderstandings to occur in relationships.
By learning to pay more attention to this body/mind process as it unfolds for us both as we talk about an issue, we give ourselves a better chance at truly understanding what is happening between and for each other, how we are inadvertently impacting each other, and what things mean for each of us. Perhaps most importantly, like a captain of a ship, we give ourselves a chance to course-correct as the process inevitably blows us off course from our original intended path.
Venting versus repair and healing
I will often ask people in therapy: What’s your priority here? To prove you were right and they were wrong, or to restore your connection? To heal this, or to pay them out for what you feel they did to you, how they treated you? To repair and heal your relationship, if it can be done, or to shame them, and make them feel the way you felt as a result of what happened? To bring them close to your heart again, or to push them away? To rebuild and learn to make a stronger and more secure relationship, or to destroy what’s left altogether?
These are confronting questions, I know. I have found that it is only by holding these questions in mind, and continually asking them, that we can challenge and remind ourselves to consider what our priorities are when addressing a rupture that happened with someone else.
It is wise to think carefully about our answer to these questions, because we cannot have both. We cannot take revenge, and make someone pay through an onslaught of shaming and blame, AND rebuild a stronger relationship based on love, respect, openness and trust.
Sometimes, people tell me they need to ‘vent’. I’m aware that there is a popular idea that it’s important for people to have a ‘right’ to ‘vent’ and to be heard (in the form they choose to vent) by the person with whom they have a conflict, or with whom there has been a rupture. In my experience, such venting often leads to things getting worse. No-one does well in the face of a tirade, or a barrage of accusations and blame, or an avalanche of words and highly emotionally charged accusations. It is natural to want to defend oneself, to shut down, to want to move away from such an onslaught. Ask any parent of a three-year-old in the throes of a major emotional meltdown. It is even more challenging when we are faced with an adult in the throes of such an emotional tornado.
People get frustrated with me because I interrupt what I see as non-constructive dumping. I interrupt long monologues about what happened and how awful the other person was. I challenge the use of inflammatory language and language that vilifies the other person. Instead, I insist on people learning new ways of talking about their experience that don’t involve making the other person endure a torrent of verbal and emotional prodding.
I invite people to learn to make their communication in smaller chunks – both so they can learn to get better at getting their point across, and for the other person to have a better chance at digesting what is said. Slowing communication down, and making it in much smaller chunks, allows both people to track their body/mind responses as well as the other’s. In doing so, we give ourselves a better chance to address the rupture and unpack it and its ramifications. We also get a chance to avoid or course-correct any new ruptures we might be making as we set about repairing the initial rupture on the table.
While I recognise the importance of addressing when a hurt has occurred, I do not consider it useful to then allow the person who identifies as being the hurt party to engage in a form of retribution as a way of them feeling vindicated. This kind of thing only perpetuates conflicts and adds fuel to the fire.
Revealing, checking and asking – not blaming, accusing and shaming
As we utter various sentences, certain words, as we adopt certain tones of voice, show certain facial expressions, adopt certain postures and make certain gestures, our previous relationship history, as well as our history with the person we speak to plays itself out, and in turn, evokes their own. Unfortunately, most of us have histories that are loaded with shame, and at least some terrible stories about who we were told we were. When a partner ‘vents’, it’s likely these old stories will be triggered. In hearing about ourselves through those old stories, our capacity to empathise, to take responsibility for pain we may have caused or at least, contributed to, goes out the window as our old pain and insecurities take over.
Before long, I am convinced that, if we don’t slow the whole process down, and examine and attend to what each person’s experience is as we go along, the piece of theatre that unfolds between us and the other, risks becoming more about one person speaking with their eyes and ears covered while the other has multiple reactions to things along the way, sees no avenue to express or check them out, so goes into shame and either withdraws into silence or erupts into rage and counter defensive blame. And nothing changes.
What it takes to heal a rupture
1. Time and willingness to be open and vulnerable
If we truly seek to heal a rupture, then we need to be willing to take the time it takes and be willing to be vulnerable to express what happened for us – what we made things mean, how we felt (and may still feel), and what we still need now in order to move on from the rupture if we are to rebuild. This is a far cry from working our way through either a blow by blow account of what we are convinced happened (which will inevitably be different from the other person’s experience of and therefore, their account of what happened), or an agenda list of what we want them to hear and what we expect them to admit to.
2. Awareness of each person’s process through tracking, asking and reporting
Whether we are the one who has felt hurt by an exchange we had with someone, or we are the person who has dealt the blow that ruptured the relationship in the moment, we are both challenged to use our awareness of our own process as well as track what is happening for the other person.
We need to track – did what we said land for the other person? Did they hear it? Do they believe us? If they are speaking, do we believe them? Are we both being clear about what our experience is and what we have made things mean? Are we both using language that is about our own experience and perception, and not telling, blaming, accusing the other person of being a particular kind of person?
3. The past is here and now: stay in present moment experience
As we speak about a past event, and report on how things impacted us in the past, we need to simultaneously stay close to our present moment experience and track what is going on for us now: how we feel, what thoughts and images are coming up in the present moment, and what body sensations are there (particularly heart rate, tension, and breath as these are good indicators of safety in any given moment between people). The past arises in the present when we refer to it, so this is the moment that offers the greatest chance of healing.
We particularly need to be willing to both give a weather report about our internal state to the other and ask for a weather report from the other person. That will help us gauge what is going on, to stay truly connected to what is happening now as we engage in our attempt to heal our rupture, and not fly off into a long retelling of events past.
4. The data is available right now – stay in the now
This is the process that we need to attend to, moment by moment. We need to be willing to suspend our need to ‘get something out’ in favour of having what is said be heard. If the other person is too provoked by what we are saying or how they are hearing it
I have found that, when people track both their own and the other’s facial expressions, skin colour, breath patterns, tension, posture and gestures as they process a rupture, they develop a powerful sense of what is
5. What did you make it mean? What did they make it mean?
In the face of hearing how someone interpreted our comments, our facial expression, our silence, our choice of words, or our response to something, we get an insight into their world and how a rupture occurred, how it might be happening again even as we try to repair.
As humans, we are meaning-making creatures. We constantly make things mean things in our own internal world that they may not necessarily mean in the other person’s world. Our past history, our own filters all contribute to
By being willing to share what each person made things mean in their mind as events happened in the past, and as they happen in the moment, there is more opportunity to understand why hurt happens, more opportunity to empathise and apologise and clarify, more opportunity to clarify and course-correct, and more opportunity to gauge what is real and genuine and what is not.
Our body/mind is a wonderful instrument of perception. While not being one hundred
6. Look beyond the words – include your and the other person’s body-based experience
If we take the time to slow down our exchanges, and really sense into our sensory-grounded experience of both our own experience and the other’s in our presence, we have a far greater chance of really communicating with one another and, through that, repairing our ruptures and building stronger relationships.
Often your body will pick up subtle ‘tells’ (like in poker) that let you know whether the other person is genuine or not, whether they are withholding something. Your body, allowed the time to gauge the other person’s embodied presence along with their words, can be a tremendously useful source of additional intel about what is going on in the present moment for the other person. It can also help us ‘verify’ our hypotheses by giving us a chance to evaluate how much (if any) confirmation exists to support our ideas in the other person’s body in front of us – provided we are prepared to look at them.
Over time, unfortunately, it seems universal that partners gradually stop looking at one another – they stop looking at each other’s eyes, and into one another’s faces. I call it, they stop relating to the Actual version of one another and start to relate to the Virtual version of the other, the version they carry in their head.
Unfortunately, as we know from Mehrabian’s’ research in the 1970s about communication about emotions and attitudes, that means that up to 93% of the communication signals are missed. According to Mehrabian, only 7% of communication is verbal. Of the remainder, 38% comes from the facial canvas and verbal tone, and 55% comes from posture and gesture[v].
I have seen people accurately read a lie as it was happening based on a mix of the other person’s tells and their own body’s reaction to what was being said. A useful rule of thumb is: if you are in the presence of the truth, both of you will breathe more easily and both of you will show signs of relaxation in the face and in body tension. I also recall seeing a woman’s hilarious reaction of frustration at feeling her own body relax in an involuntary response of trust to her husband’s affirmation of his renewed fidelity, and her intellectual reluctance to accept her own response and the evidence in front of her because it did not ‘fit’ her ideas about him being a cheater.
7. Validate – look for what you can admit in what you are being told
Most people I observe seem to react to an accusation or a reproach or an expression of insecurity as an insult, a slur on their reputation or integrity. Instead of looking for something they can own in what is being told to them, they move to defend, to justify, to counter-accuse, to get into righteous indignation about being accused of something so heinous. In short, they get critical, defensive, contemptuous and if all else fails, they stonewall. These last four responses are the four worst reactions we can have in relationship with people we care about, according to John Gottman[vi].
Instead, we are best placed when we try to see things from the other person’s point of view. This begins with empathy (if we can find some for the other person), and in trying to see how they might have concluded what they have concluded about us or the situation, or how they might have come to feel that way – even if this is NOT anything like what we actually said or meant.
The critical piece here, is to be sincere. Do NOT try to say ‘yes’ to something you don’t actually mean. If you try to manipulate the process, you’ll be found out through your involuntary ‘tells’. You’ll lose even more trust points, and the other person will feel rightly manipulated. It’s not worth it. But if you can see a piece in what they are saying about what you did or said that you can genuinely own and empathise with the other person about, then do so and see how that lands for them. Validating the other person’s position, even in a partial way, begins the process of moving out of a polarised position.
If you can apologise, do so.
8. Do NOT rush to premature solutions, or suggest you both ‘put it all behind you and move on’
It’s human to want uncomfortable moments to be over and done with quickly. Unfortunately, rushing the process of repair can actually prevent an effective repair from taking place.
So don’t rush to trying to ‘fix’ the hurt or make peace, or rush to premature solutions. Often the person who is perceived as the one who hurt the other one will want to move on from the horrible place faster than the person who identifies with being hurt. Be willing to stay in the bog a little longer. Even if it’s uncomfortable.
Wait to see the cues that the other person’s nervous system is settling down – their breathing gets more relaxed, deeper and even. Check that your breathing also settles down, and there is a sense of quiet between you that isn’t the cold war kind of quiet. Consider asking them – is there anything else that you need to hear from me, or that you need to tell me or you need me to hear? Do you feel I’ve ‘got what it’s been like for you? Is there anything else you can think of right now that you need in order to help us move on from here?
In addition, it is good to remember that John Gottman’s research with long term couples and how they create long term happiness shows that 69% of what couples fight about are unsolvable problems. This means that the most constructive course of action is not pushing to find the perfect solution. Rather, it is to accept and manage the fact that most solutions for more than two-thirds of the things couples fight about will be imperfect and will not ‘hold’ or solve the issue. That requires goodwill on both partners’ side, a sense of humour, a lot of flexibility, a willingness to see the fact that this is likely to be an ongoing struggle throughout the course of the relationship, and not to make ‘issues’ more important than each other’s current wellbeing.
This gives a different meaning to ‘moving on’, knowing that many issues will raise their head again in time, and not making this mean anything sinister about either the partner or the relationship’s viability.
9. If one
of us is not OK, then we’re not OK
I often hear people disclaim any sense of responsibility or care for their partner’s suffering when a rupture has happened on the grounds that “It’s not my problem. I didn’t do what s/he is saying I did, so I can’t fix it.” Well, if you want to build secure functioning relationships, then it is good to adopt the attitude that if one of us is not Okay, then we are not Okay (yet) to move on. Period[vii].
By communicating to your partner/the other person that you care about how they feel in the moment more than you care about being right, or about your reputation being seen in the light you want to be seen in, you communicate your care for them in a genuine way. This clears the path for a genuine move forward. For now.
10. Remind yourself that you are both humans, with all of the limitations and imperfections that come with that
In attempting to address and repair a rupture, it helps if you make yourself deliberately consider both your own and the other person’s humanness. With that, comes remembering that we are all going to mess up more often than not. Bearing in mind generously the fact that we are all imperfect humans, and therefore that we will get it wrong, we free ourselves and each other of the burden of having to be perfect and always get things right. Many of us struggle to admit when we are wrong or when we have hurt another because we already struggle so much with an internalised harsh voice or inner critic that attacks us for our mistakes.
This inner critic can make it very hard to listen to another person’s version of what’s wrong with us. It can also make it very easy to also forget what’s right with the other, with the relationship we have.
With this more realistic view comes compassion for both of us, and acceptance that we are invariably going to end up in messy places with one another. Taking a position that grants grace for ourselves as well as for the other opens up the possibility of much more generous responses to the inevitable ruptures that we will participate in.
So, having read this piece, I encourage you to consider:
- With whom do you currently have business outstanding – a rupture that has derailed your relationship either a little or significantly since it happened? Let yourself consider that rupture through this lens
- Experiment with seeing the rupture through their eyes – what are their accusations? Reproaches of you?
- What part of this rupture can you genuinely take ownership for?
- On your ‘side’, are you able to condense your reproaches to some clear bite-size chunks rather than a long list of overwhelming details about what they did wrong?
- If you allow yourself to consider how significant this relationship is to you, how might you begin to address and potentially repair this rupture?
- Which are you closer to – are you willing to move towards the other out of care for them and for the relationship, or are you needing to hold on to being right?
And if you think you might be ready to come and get some help in repairing the rupture in your relationship, either on your own or with your person, call me, and let’s see what we can do.
[i] The Macmillan dictionary refers to a rupture in a relationship as “an end to a friendly relationship or a peaceful situation”, https://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/rupture_1. Retrieved 05.05.2019.
[ii] Jerry M LEIS, (2000), “Repairing the bond in important relationships”, https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/pdf/10.1176/appi.ajp.157.9.1375
[iii] Stan TATKIN, (2018) We do. Sounds True, Incorporated.
[iv] Michael YAPKO (2017), APS seminar, WA, Australia.
[vi] John GOTTMAN, (2013), cited in Ellie LISITSA, https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/
[vii] I acknowledge that there are times when one person may well hold on to something and there is no moving them on. this is a topic for another time, and is not, in my experience, the general case.