I have been reflecting on the nature of relationship repair work and how critical it is for our work lives, within our families, and among our friends.
My thinking has been influenced by my involvement with an incredible local organization – Collective Justice – and the psychological healing work they have been facilitating for people who are incarcerated. Through this work, I have come to see repair as a multi-layered process. Frankly, repair is rarely a feel-good destination characterized by closure and “letting go.” For me, it has a few interrelated elements:
Paying Attention to Intent and Impact: For repair to proceed, the person who commits a harm must fully recognize that their action has caused harm. If we hurt someone, the fact that we didn’t mean to do it does not absolve us of responsibility for its impact. However, it's difficult to entirely set aside intention. For example, I’m generally willing to repair things with someone who unintentionally hurts me. I’m far less inclined to do so when the person set out to do me harm. I think repair means talking about both intent and impact.
Staying Connected: Once harm is acknowledged, we need to remain within the circle of relationship. It can be rough processing feelings with someone and giving voice to our inner workings. For repair to be effective, we need courage to allow and accept how we feel. At times, repair is nothing more than simply staying connected to someone while making our way through the emotional muck we feel. Ultimately, repair can yield deeper self-insight about our emotional landscape as well newfound confidence in our ability to hold difficult feelings. Mindfulness practices can help us with this.
Not Predicting the Future: One of the most powerful things I’ve learned in my own personal work - as well as in helping others navigate their relationships - is how much capacity we actually have to engage in repair. We frequently imagine that moving toward someone who has harmed us will be deeply distasteful or triggering. Overall, though, human beings are bad at predicting our emotional response to future situations. We single out isolated past events – and not the whole of our histories – to predict how we will feel about something in the future. (And, interestingly, this applies to personal apologies, which are less satisfying in reality than we expect they will be.) While it is essential to be kind and compassionate with ourselves in the repair process, we should also realize that we don't know how we will feel in the future and that we are stronger than we imagine.
Ultimately, for repair to succeed, it must be grounded in honesty. Honesty about what the ruptured relationship actually means to us, honesty about how we might have come to be the person who committed a harm, honesty about the hurt we feel, and honesty about the need for, and work surrounding, repair.