by Cheryl A. Rowen
Author of "When 1+1=3: Discovering God’s Plan for You and Your Stepfamily"
We saw in Part 1 of this series how easily our re-marriage can become plagued with the Four Horsemen: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling or withdrawing. We learned that criticism has no place in a marriage filled with honor and love (1 Corinthians 13:3-4, Proverbs 15:33). We found, however, that if we restate our criticisms into complaints, recognize when we are becoming defensive and try to understand what our mate is saying to us before defending our own position, and if we can call a time out if we start to feel ‘flooded’, then we are on the right track to protecting our marriage from these deadly predictors of divorce.
Another step we can take to protect our marriage against divorce is to learn the "art" of the repair attempt. Repair attempts, or statements and actions that prevent negativity from getting out of control, are the secret to keeping the Four Horsemen at bay. John Gottman, researcher and expert in the field of marriage found that he could predict divorce with a 94% accuracy rate if the Four Horsemen and failed repair attempts were present in the marriage1! We must find a way to eliminate this type of communication from our marriage.
Many of us living within a stepfamily know how easily our conversations can turn from ‘discussions’ to ‘debates’ to ‘demands’ in a matter of minutes. Repair attempts are those words or actions we can take to deescalate or control the negativity of a situation. Some examples of repair attempts are:
- "I’m sorry."
- "Let’s take a break."
- "Wait, I need to calm down a little before we continue."
- "Please listen to me.
- "Would you please stop interrupting me?"
- "We’re off the topic."
- "Please let me finish."
- "That hurt my feelings."
- "Go on."
- "I love you."
- "I understand how you feel."
- "O.K. Maybe you’re right. Can we compromise?"
- Love gifts
You can see from the list above that repair attempts don’t always have to be verbal. They may take on the form of a loving or even silly act. That foolish grin, the flowers sent to her office, or arranging for some quite time to talk about the issues calmly may be just what the doctor ordered.
When is it a good time to use repair attempts? Any time you feel that your conversation is taking on a negative tone, or you feel the situation is escalating out of control. Chances are, if this starts to happen, the Four Horsemen (or at least some of them) or close at hand. Beware!
We must note, however, that it is not enough for a couple simply to learn how to use repair attempts effectively. Couples must learn to recognize when repair attempts are sent their way! Remember, your goal is to communicate your feelings and needs, and to hear and understand those of your partner.
The wisdom of Proverbs 10:19 warns us, "Don’t talk too much, for it fosters sin. Be sensible and turn off the flow!" We must learn when to turn off the flow! When our discussions are becoming negative or disrespectful, we need to use repair attempts.
Let’s look at an example where repair attempts would have stopped the escalation of negativity:
Bob: I feel like you’re on my case all the time about how I parent.
Carol: You never keep the same rules. You say one thing, and then if you’re upset you change the rules and I never know how to enforce them when you’re gone. I don’t know if they’ve changed from one day to the next.
Bob: It’s amazing that I raised her all by myself for all these years before you came along. Most people think I’ve done an excellent job with her. All I hear from you is criticism.
Carol: And that’s all you’re going to hear from me until you follow through on what you say.
Bob: I probably should just let you run the household!
Carol: Maybe you should!
Whew! Bob and Carol could benefit from using repair attempts. Let’s take a look at what happened here:
- Bob did a good thing at the beginning by using "I" statements, and telling Carol how he felt;
- Carol has a legitimate complaint about the inconsistency of Bob’s parenting, but uses the First Horseman, Criticism, to voice that complaint. Notice the "you" statements instead of "I", and the absolute language "You never keep the same rules.";
- Bob and Carol then become defensive (the Third Horseman);
- Finally, based on how the conversation ended, I’m sure one of them will withdraw or stonewall (the Fourth Horseman).
Let’s take these same issues now, and apply repair attempts. Notice how the use of repair attempts stops the Four Horsemen, and the negativity from getting out of hand. Repair attempts are in bold:
Bob: I feel like you’re on my case all the time about how I parent.
Carol: Really? I’m sorry. I don’t mean to get on your case. I guess I’m just frustrated with the inconsistency of the rules of our household.
Bob: What do you mean?
Carol: Its very hard for me to enforce the rules you set because I feel that when you get upset, you change the rules or the consequences. I’m not sure what rules are in place from day to day, and I don’t think that shows consistency to the kids, which we’ve both agreed was important to us.
Bob: I didn’t realize I did that. Thanks for pointing that out to me. I’m sure that can get frustrating. What can we do to change that?
From here, Bob and Carol can start to calmly discuss parenting strategies for their stepfamily.
Can’t you just feel the tension and the anger melt away when repair attempts are used? Also, Bob and Carol did a great job recognizing when the other was using a repair attempt. Bob, instead of taking personally Carol’s comment about inconsistency of the rules, recognized her apology or repair attempt, and asked for clarification ("What do you mean"). This kept the conversation moving forward.
God very explicitly tells us that repair attempts work: "Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing" (Proverbs 12:18). He also guides us by telling us "If you keep your mouth shut, you will stay out of trouble" (Proverbs 21:23).
Recognizing and avoiding the Four Horsemen, and learning the "art" of the repair attempt will restore honor to your marriage, and bring healing to that which the tongue has hurt!
1 Dr. John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999), p. 40.
Cheryl A. Rowen is Director and Founder of America’s Family Resources, a national organization focusing on the preservation of today’s family. She is author and facilitator of the seminar and small group study "When 1+1=3: Discovering God’s Plan for You and Your Stepfamily". She and her husband Thom live in Johnston, Iowa and have two children.
If you'd like to contact Cheryl, please email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.