Why is Repair a Bedrock Skill in Couples Therapy?
You may not realize this, but we’re not so good as a species at this new-fangled intimacy stuff. The fact is most of us don’t know how to repair with our partners. after a fight
Did you know that, on average, both spouses in a committed relationship are only emotionally available to each other less than 10% of the time?… (well…9% to be exact).
In his book, The Science of Trust, Dr. John Gottman explains that because of this deficit, 91% of our time spent together as a couple is spent as a foursome…because when you’re not emotionally available with your real partner, you may be in deep communion with the partner in your head.
That’s why this post talks to you about one of the most powerful interventions in science-based couples therapy…the Gottman Repair Checklist.
It’s Not Only What You Did Wrong…It’s How You Repair
The Still Face Experiment…Negative Emotions…Stress…and Repair
The difference between good mothers and bad mothers, is not the commission of errors, but what they do with them. Donald Winnicott.
Parents (and spouses) both contribute to an emotional field…and that field directly impacts the quality of the attachment bond. A resilient Secure Attachment style is directly related to the degree in which a conducive environment for secure attachment was reliably provided for the child…or the adult partner they eventually became for that matter.
The Gottman Repair Checklist helps couples manage secure attachment moment by moment by teaching effective and reliable repair skills.
What is the Gottman Repair Checklist?
The Gottman Repair Checklist is a couples therapy intervention which creates a list of tested repair phrases that will help a couple to de-escalate and become better emotionally regulated. Couples fine-tune these repair attempts in couples therapy and practice these repair attempts at home.
The Gottman Repair Checklist…Accepts Existential Failure as a Given…
The difference between happy and unhappy couples is the skill of repair. Because failure and disconnection are baked in the cake.
Some therapists explain this by reassuring us that “failure is not the problem.”
But that’s clearly not the case.
If you failed at being emotionally available 100% of the time you wouldn’t have much of a relationship.
But what is true is that failure is not as big a deal as you might think. Mother nature is very forgiving as we’re learning how to emotionally attach.
The Importance of Friendship
The Sentiment Override in the relationship is the tipping point. A repair attempt is only successful when it lands safely and is welcome. For this reason, couples in Negative Sentiment Override have a harder time making and accepting repair attempts. That’s why interventions such as the Gottman Repair Checklist are so essential.
To effectively make and receive repairs, a couple may first need to spend some time doing the following:
How well do you understand how your spouse moves in the world? What are their greatest stressors? How well do you understand what a typical day for them is like? Who are their allies… and competitors at work? And how well do you understand their daily experience?
Expressing fondness and admiration first requires understanding the importance of doing so. Too many spouses notice good things, but never mention them to their partner. If it’s good enough to notice, it’s good enough to share.
This is another part of the Friendship System that has a massive impact on making repair attempts more effective. How effective? When Gottman was researching newlyweds couples that were still together at the critical 6-year mark turned towards one another 86% of the time. Newlyweds that had subsequently divorced turned toward one another only 33% of the time. Turning Towards your spouse is a powerful way to improve your repair attempts.
The Principle of “Good Enough”
“Good enough” means having suitable resources to satisfy the need at hand. It first emerged as a cultural trope in 1953. In that year, the British pediatrician, D. W. Winnicott, famously described the “Good Enough Mother.”
The essential idea is not that there is a baseline of emotional engagement which is “good enough.” The key idea is rather that the very lack of maternal perfection introduces a sorely needed reality principle and helps the infant to develop both resilience and a healthy, secure attachment.
The very deficit that renders a mother only “good enough” introduces an infant to the notion that they won’t always have a perfect outcome, and that dose of reality is both authentic and healthy. In other words, good enough is part of the natural order of things and is perfect.
Gottman has been famously influenced by the notion of “good enough.” He describes the end goal of Gottman Couples Therapy as a “good enough” relationship…no doubt these couples know how to make a “good enough” repair attempt as well.
Unpacking the Gottman Repair Checklist… and a “Good Enough” Repair
Each spouse is given the Gottman Repair Checklist handout.
The Repair Checklist focuses on the six distinct categories of partner interactions; I feel, Sorry, Getting to Yes, I need to Calm Down, Stop Action, and I Appreciate.
We ask each spouse to imagine that they are in a difficult conversation with their partner, and their partner just noticed that they were not pleased with what they just said.
We ask the couple…look at each phrase on this list, one at a time. Imagine that your spouse just said that particular phrase that to you in an attempt to repair with you, and calm things down. Do you think it would work?
If they do think it would work, we ask them to put a checkmark next to it. It’s also important that each spouse put their name at the top of the checklist.
The Gottman Repair Checklist…6 Specific Categories of Repair
Both spouses review each of the phrases and check the phrases that, if their partner said it to them, would probably calm them down. Let’s look at each category:
Your partner isn’t a mind reader. They won’t necessarily know what you’re feeling unless you tell them. What words work best when sharing difficult feelings with your partner?
Saying you’re sorry is a basic repair we learn as children. It’s still just as important now. How does your partner want to hear you apologize?
Getting to Yes
Focus on what you can agree on. These phrases will move toward a “yes” or a “good enough” compromise. What does your partner need to hear that will help them collaborate more quickly?
I Need to Calm Down
In science-based couples therapy, these phrases help our clients learn how to regulate and co-regulate their nervous systems. What is the most powerful thing you can say to your spouse to help them calm down?
Sometimes the most important thing to do is stop the conversation immediately and de-escalate. What’s the best thing to say to your partner to accomplish that?
Appreciation not only builds the Friendship System, but it also is a powerful de-escalator. How does your partner want to be appreciated? What does your spouse most want to be appreciated for?
Auditory Check-in… Applying Neuroscience to the Gottman Repair Checklist
We then ask the spouses to exchange sheets. Then we say:
You now have in front of you a list of phrases your partner thinks might tend to calm them down if you used them to make a repair attempt. Let’s hear you actually say it and see.”
We then ask the spouse who is speaking to read each repair attempt with an appropriate degree of emotion. The listener “checks-in” to their body and gives a thumbs up or down with each phrase. We are only focused on the phrases that were checked in advance.
What We’ve Learned About the Gottman Repair Checklist
We’ve done the Gottman Repair Checklist many times and we’ve noticed some typical reactions to hearing their partner say the words that they thought might calm them down:
- Most typically, they say yes, and confirm the phrase as useful in calming them down.
- Sometimes they seem puzzled as if ambivalent. This often means the phrase needs to be re-worked in some way. We help our couples to do that.
- They recognize that the repair phrase wouldn’t calm them down, and it is scratched off the list.
- They have an unusually positive attitude toward the phrase. Sometimes clients laugh, or cry, at some of these phrases. When a phrase has been recognized as eliciting an unusually powerful de-escalated response, we have the speaker put a star next to that particular repair phrase.
- Once both have completed the exercise, we ask each partner to look for “themes” in the calming repair phrases. What kind of repairs does your spouse respond to most? Common themes that emerge from the Gottman Repair Checklist have been Validation, Collaboration, and Acceptance.
If You Want to Make Rapid Repairs…Don’t Rush!
- Don’t rush this exercise. Each spouse can become an expert in co-regulating their partner’s nervous system, and the Gottman Repair Checklist is their most fundamental tool toward that end.
- Couples are encouraged to leave copies of their Gottman Repair Checklist in any room in the house they might squabble in.
- You don’t get points for spontaneity. You can say “I need to get that sheet to make a repair attempt…where is it? Even if you read the repair right off the sheet instead of reciting it from memory…it can still be effective.
- At the end of the intervention, “You now have in front of you a tested list of phrases that will help your spouse calm down. You may be daunted by the task of memorizing them, but you don’t have to, although you probably will eventually. You’ll come to rely on 5-6 of these phrases and they will work in a “good enough” way for you to repair with each other quickly. and effectively.”
Final Thoughts on the Gottman Repair Checklist
We tend to view our own emotional reactions as universal, when in fact, they are often idiosyncratic.
The Gottman Repair Checklist requires us to focus on our partners and compile a body of knowledge about their unique emotional responses.
We get a lot of feedback from our clients about how the Gottman Repair Checklist has completely transformed how they manage conflict. Making effective repair attempts is an essential skill…may we teach it to you as well?