The Secret of Successful Relationships: Rupture and Repair – Free Ebook

Many tensions within relationships can usefully
be looked at through the prism of a concept

much used within psychotherapy: the idea of
‘rupture’ and ‘repair.’ For psychotherapists,

every relationship is at risk of moments of
frustration or as the term has it, of ‘rupture’,

when we suffer a loss of trust in another
person as someone in whom we can safely deposit

our love, and whom we believe can be kind
and understanding of our needs.

The ruptures are often quite small, and to
outside observers perhaps imperceptible: one

person fails to respond warmly to another’s
greeting; someone tries to explain an idea

to their partner who shrugs and says off-handedly
that they have no idea what they’re on about;

in front of friends, a lover shares an anecdote
which casts the partner in a less than flattering

light. Or the rupture can be more serious:
someone calls someone a stupid fool and breaks

a door. A birthday is forgotten. An affair
begins.

The point about ruptures is that they say
nothing – in themselves – about a relationship’s

prospects of survival. There might be constant
rather grave ruptures and no break up. Or

there might be one or two tense moments over
a minor disagreement – and things head towards

collapse.
What determines the difference is something

that psychotherapists are especially keen
to teach us about: the capacity for what they

term ‘repair’. Repair refers to the work
needed for two people to regain each others’

trust, and restore themselves in the others’
mind as someone who is essentially decent

and sympathetic and can be a ‘good enough’
interpreter of their needs. As psychotherapy

points out, repair isn’t just one capacity
among others, it is arguably the central determinant

of one’s mastery of emotional maturity;
it is what identifies us as true adults.

Good repair relies on at least four separate
skills:

  1. The Ability to Apologise A sorry may not
    be as easy as it sounds, for it isn’t just

a few warm words one has to say, the true
cost is to one’s self-love. If one is already

on the verge of finding oneself somewhat intolerable,
then the call to concede yet another point

– to own up to being still more foolish,
emotionally unbalanced, controlling, hot-tempered

or vain – can feel like a demand too far.
We may opt to dig in and avoid a sorry not

because we are overly pleased with ourselves
but precisely because our unworthiness feels

so painfully obvious to us already – and
lends us no faith to imagine that any apologies

we did make could arouse the kind of forebearance
and kindness we crave – and yet so badly

feel we don’t deserve.

  1. The Ability to Forgive There can be equal

difficulty around being able to accept an
apology. To do so requires us to extend imaginative

sympathy for why good people (which includes
us) can end up doing some pretty bad things

– not because they are ‘evil’ but because
they are in their varied ways tired or sad,

worried or weak. A forgiving outlook lends
us energy to look around for the most generous

reasons why fundamentally decent people can
at points behave less than optimally. When

this kind of forgiveness feels impossible,
therapists speak of a manoeuvre of the mind

known as ‘splitting’, a tendency to declare
some people to be entirely good and others,

just as simply, entirely awful. In dividing
humanity like this, we protect ourselves from

what can feel like the impossible dangers
of disappointment or grown-up ambivalence.

Either someone is pure and perfect and we
can love them without reserve or – quite

suddenly – they must be appalling and we
can never ever forgive them. We cling to rupture

because it confirms a story which, though
deeply sad at one level, also feels very safe:

that big emotional commitments are invariably
too risky, that others can’t be trusted,

that hope is an illusion – and that we are
basically all alone.

  1. The Ability to Teach Behind a rupture,
    there often lies a failed attempt by one person

to teach something to another. There was something
that they were trying to get across when they

lost their temper or got into a sulk: something
about how to behave around a parent or what

to do about sex, how to approach childcare
or how to handle money. And yet the effort

went wrong and they forgot all about the art
of good teaching, an art which relies, to

a surprising extent, on a degree pessimism
about the ability of another person to understand

what we want from them. Good teachers aren’t
after miraculous outcomes. They know how resistant

the human mind can be to new ideas. They swallow
a very large dose of pessimism about successful

interpersonal communication in order to stay
calm and in a good mood around the inevitable

frustrations of relationships. They don’t
shout because they didn’t from the outset

allow themselves to believe in total symmetries
of mind. When they’re trying to get something

across, they don’t push a point too hard.
They give their listener time and know about

defensiveness – and as a fallback, accept
that they may have to respect two different

realities. They can in the end bear to accept
that they will always be a bit misunderstood

even by someone who loves them very much.

  1. The Ability to Learn It can feel so much

easier to get offended with someone than to
dare to imagine they might have something

important to tell us. We may prefer to get
hung up about how they informed us of an idea

rather than address the substance of what
they are trying to convey. It isn’t easy

to have to imagine that we are still beginners
in a range of areas. The good repairer is

ultimately a good learner: they have a lively
and non-humiliating sense of how much they

still have left to take on board. It isn’t
a surprise or a cause for alarm that someone

might level a criticism at them. It’s merely
a sign that a kindly soul is invested enough

in their development to notice areas of immaturity
– and, in the safety of a relationship,

to offer them something almost no one otherwise
ever bothers with: feedback.

In the Japanese tradition of kintsugi, broken
pots and vases are artfully mended using a

gold inflected lacker and displayed as precious
works of art, as a way to emphasise the dignity

and basic human importance of the art of repair.

We should do something of the same with our
love stories. It is a fine thing to have a

relationship without moments of rupture no
doubt, but it is a finer and more noble achievement

still to know how to patch things up repeatedly
with those precious strands of emotional gold:

self-acceptance, patience, humility, courage
and a lot of tenderness.

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