NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, June 26, 2020

Making and Receiving Loving Gestures to Repair an Argument

In his book, The Seven Principles For Making a Marriage Work, relationship expert John Gottman discusses what works in successful relationships and what ruins relationships (see my article: Are You a Stonewaller?). Being able to make and receive loving reparative gestures is an important part of successful relationships (see my article: The Challenge of Preventing Small Arguments From Becoming Major Conflicts in Your Relationship).

Making and Receiving Loving Reparative Gestures in Your Relationship

As John Gottman describes it, when both people in a relationship can make and receive sincere and genuine gestures as a way to repair an argument, it can make all the difference in the relationship.

What I'm referring to in this article is common arguments that spouses often have.  I'm not referring to ongoing abusive behavior.

Also, Gottman emphasizes that when there is a dynamic of contempt between spouses, this is one of the most destructive aspects of a relationship and often ends in divorce.

Clinical Vignettes: Responding to Your Spouse's Loving Reparative Gestures
The following vignettes illustrate the difference between spouses who are able to give and receive reparative gestures and spouses who are unable to do it.  These fictional vignettes aren't about any one particular couple. Instead, they are common dynamics seen in many relationships.

Vignette 1: Tom and Betty
Tom and Betty were married for two years. When Tom came home from work, he often needed time to himself. Not only did he have a stressful job, but his long commute made him feel tense and irritable.  By the time Tom came home, he wanted 15 minutes to himself before he was ready to interact with his wife. But when he got home, he experienced Betty as nagging him about household things that weren't pressing. Although he told her many times that he needed time to himself, he felt that she ignored his need by bombarding him with demands the minute he walked through the door.  

One day, when Tom came home from a particularly difficult day at work, he snapped at Betty when she berated him for making demands of him about household chores rather than allowing him to have time to himself. After he snapped at Betty, he went into the bedroom to compose himself and let go of the tension of the day.  Then, when he felt calmer, he approached Betty in the living room to apologize.  He sat next to her and, as he apologized for his behavior, he touched her shoulder in a loving gesture as a way to repair things between them.  But Betty pulled away from him and said, "I don't like the way you spoke to me, and apologizing doesn't change anything." 

Over the course of the next few days, Tom approached Betty several times to try to repair things between them, but Betty refused to accept his apology. Instead, she responded to him with contempt. These interactions between them were emblematic of the dynamics in their relationship. Betty was unable to let go of her hurt and anger and she refused to take in Tom's loving gestures to make amends with her. She also turned down Tom's pleas to go to couples therapy. After another year of this, Tom decided that he didn't want to be in a marriage where arguments couldn't be repaired and he felt Betty's contempt. So, he told Betty that he no longer wanted to be in the marriage and, within six months, they were divorced.

Vignette 2: Alice and John
Alice and John were married for two years.  This was the second marriage for both of them. Sometimes they had common arguments about household chores. Alice tended to like the household to be neat and John had more of a tolerance for messiness. They each learned to make compromises in this area. But one day when Alice felt particularly frustrated to find dirty dishes in the sink again, she confronted John in a harsh way, "Why are you such a slob!?!" 

When she saw the hurt look on John's face, Alice knew she had gone too far, but she wasn't ready to apologize yet. She went for a walk to try to calm down, and she realized that her reaction was out of proportion to the situation and that she had displaced some of her anger about her workday onto John. When she returned from her walk, Alice felt a lot calmer.  She approached John, who was sitting on the couch reading a book.  As she sat next to him, she took his hand in hers, looked into his eyes and said, "I'm sorry I overreacted about the dishes. I shouldn't have called you a slob. I realized while I was out walking that I allowed my frustration about work to affect my response to you. I'm sorry."  

John smiled at Alice and put his arm around her, "Yeah, it made me feel bad, but I also knew that you didn't really mean it. I know that I can do a better job of cleaning up after myself and I'll try to do better from now on." After that, they each let go of their annoyance. They watched a movie together holding each other and later that night they made love. Similarly, John was able to apologize for things he said that he regretted, and Alice was able to accept John's apologies.  They were each able to let go of their anger to work things out in their relationship. Over time, their love for each other grew and they felt closer to one another.

Discussion About the Two Vignettes
In Vignette 1, Tom made attempts to make amends with Betty, but Betty was unwilling to let go of her anger to accept Tom's gestures for repair. Not only did Betty ignore Tom's need for a short period of time for himself when he came home from a stressful day, but there was never a way to make repairs, as far as Betty was concerned, because she took a hard stance against accepting apologies and reparative gestures. Betty's unwillingness to accept Tom's reparative gestures resulted in the demise of their relationship because the relationship deteriorated over time, and Tom was unwilling to remain with someone who showed contempt and could never forgive.

In Vignette 2, Alice and John would argue over common issues that couples often argue about, but they were both able to make and accept reparative gestures soon after the argument. They were able to move on from these arguments and let go of anger so that resentment didn't build up. This allowed their relationship to grow and deepen over time.

There are many people in relationships who are unable to make or take in repairs in their relationship. This is often the result of a childhood where mistakes weren't tolerated or where, as children, they didn't see their parents resolve their problems. Successful relationship skills weren't modeled for them.

The ability to make and receive reparative gestures in a relationship is crucial for the survival of a relationship. The alternative is a destructive dynamic that grows over time and often leads to the demise of the relationship.

Getting Help in Therapy
Being in a relationship often takes skills that people haven't developed.  Often these people haven't seen models of successful relationships when they were growing up.

Individual or couples therapy can help one or both people to develop the necessary relationship skills to salvage an otherwise good relationship (see my article: What is Emotionally Focused Therapy For Couples?).

Rather than continuing in a negative cycle that might be ruining your relationship, you owe it to yourself to get help from an experienced therapist.

Learning successful relationship skills will help you to feel better about yourself and improve your relationship.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, Somatic Experiencing and EFT For Couples therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Therapy).

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.