Chapter 1.Relationships: Conflicts


On ‘Rupture’ and ‘Repair’

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. 

2. 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. 

3. 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.

4. 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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