Have you ever felt afraid to fail? I have. As a relationally wired individual, I am most impacted by those failures that affect the quality of and connection in my closest relationships. It is in these relationship ruptures that I often feel true regret, true remorse. Yet even with a thick mass of anxiety at the center of my gut—like I’ve endured a sucker punch to my soul—I will sometimes lack the courage to acknowledge and address a relational rupture. I might tell myself, “Certainly it wasn’t that bad,” or, worse yet, “I had a good reason for acting that way or saying that.” Sometimes, I have a gap in my proclaimed value of relational care and my lived-out value that parades, “Fear and fatigue are my boss today.” What can I do?
Dr. Edward Tronick, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, helps us understand human connections through both his Still Face experiment and supporting research. In this under-3-minute video, he refers to the good, the bad and the ugly of relational attunement, rupture and repair, and no repair at all. While his video focuses on an infant and her mother, I believe this model of person-to-person relating applies to every relationship.
The good is connection, in which we see and share one another’s emotional state, hear the meaning behind one another’s mood, and feel the pulse of another’s soul.
The bad might be those misses when we fail to tune in to the person next to us, when we fail to recognize what it feels like to be in their world right now. However, we catch it somehow, keeping this bad situation from turning ugly. We catch ourselves not being tuned in, being a poor listener, not comforting, or saying something insensitive. The other person may toss us their need to be seen and felt, so to speak, and hopefully we catch their emotional toss and respond with connection and repair that helps overcome the momentary break in relationship.
Ugly is when there is no repair, no way to get back to the good. This can occur when we don’t notice we’ve tuned out or hurt someone, or we don’t want to notice we’ve hurt someone—we fail to catch their emotional toss and want for connection. This also happens when the other person for some reason does not feel safe enough to toss us their emotional desire to be seen and felt by us. It is here in the ugly places that relationships lose trust. People get confused and begin to distance themselves from others as a way of protection.
But let’s get back to repair, because that is where we all have hope when a relationship experiences a rupture, no matter who may have caused the break. What if we saw some ruptures as an expected part of life? Not necessarily enjoyable, but normal—like weeds in a garden, the holes that show up in our jeans, or even the occasional fender-bender. What if both involved parties were honest about their occasional clumsy humanity that contributes to our relational ruptures? (It is crucial to note that this is different from patterns of relational neglect, abuse, self-centeredness, etc.) What if the focus was not defensiveness or blame that leads to shame and fear of repair, but instead the focus of repair became mutual understanding? The relationship becomes the project–not me or you—and it’s a project we can work on together. We can see this as relational connection, trust, understanding or honoring that needs to be the center of attention. The more we hold these sacred vulnerable places with others, the more we understand the deeper world where their needs, values and stories hide. The more we cherish this soul in another, the better equipped we become not to default to relational clumsiness. This hard yet tender work results in invaluable emotional intimacy.
The heart of repair goes way beyond the lip service of a simple “I’m sorry.” Repair invites us to put our perspective aside long enough to truly feel the heartache (or other emotion) that the other is experiencing. We ask ourselves, “If I were that person, what would this have felt like?” Real relational intimacy, closeness and trust are grown here, where we surrender pride for the sole purpose of feeling alongside someone. This is genuine empathy. We understand the other’s experience, validating how it must have been for them, empathizing and then apologizing if that is appropriate. This is connection at its finest—and then our relationship can get back to the good stuff.
In his experiment, Dr. Tronick found that good parents were only attuned to their children 30% of the time, and the other 70% was rupture and repair. Repair is powerful. Repair builds emotional trust; we learn we can trust ourselves by being our own advocate in tough times, and we learn that we can be vulnerable, trusting in another’s care for us. Repair teaches us that we belong in our world and with our people, that the relationship is worth returning to and rebuilding together. Repair results in resilience, innovating ways to survive in a rupture and knowing we have what it takes to share our needs, seek another’s best and get to repair. Repair is like a good relational scar, stronger than the unwounded skin. It also leaves us with a satisfying sentiment of making something good again.
Let’s look at an example. Brad and Tina are dating and spending the day in the snow. Brad starts a snowball fight. Tina engages. It’s fun, and there are laughs, dodges, smiles and perfectly hit targets. Then Tina gets quiet and slows her play.
BRAD: (wondering if he should ask. He takes the chance…) Hey, is something wrong?
TINA: (choosing whether to hide her feelings, be brave and share, or get mad and yell. She takes an emotional risk…) Yeah, that last one hurt, and there’s a lot of cold snow down my back.
BRAD: (evaluating…am I in trouble? Should I defend myself? How about laugh it off? He chooses validation and empathy.) Oh dang! I threw it too hard and I hurt you. Let me see it…
TINA: (softened and comforted by his kindness, allows him to come close and see the welt on her neck) Here it is…it really hurts.
BRAD: (in seeing the damage, wonders if now is the time to defend himself or keep empathizing. He chooses to keep empathizing.) That looks like it really hurts! Mmmmm. Can I warm it with my un-gloved hand?
TINA: (soothed by his validation and empathy as well as by his touch) Thank you, I know you didn’t mean to.
BRAD: (relieved that he is not in trouble, now feels safe to be vulnerable and has no need to be defensive) You’re right, I didn’t mean to, but I wish I had not hurt you. I’m sorry.
TINA: (completely comforted by having her feelings seen) It’s okay… (kisses his cheek and bends down for a handful of snow and works hard to get it down the back of his jacket)
Laughs, dodges and smiles continue.
Each one made it safe for the other to be vulnerable by seeing the heart and soul of the other and giving them the benefit of the doubt. So much so, that on the way home, they shared parts of their stories with one another—times that, without this incident, they may have never felt a need to share. Tina told Brad about growing up with two older brothers and feeling pressure to be tough, but she could never be as tough as they were. This often meant she was left out. Brad was able to share his high-school love of baseball and how he competed so hard to make the team. He told her that he would pitch for hours, feeling the need to be the best, but never believed he was.
Tina learned she didn’t have to be tough for Brad to accept her. She learned she could trust him with her pain. Brad learned that he didn’t have to compete with Tina to win her. He learned he could trust Tina with his vulnerability.
So next time we fear our relational failures, let’s remember we have a choice—the choice to accept that silent invitation to initiate a repair. Your safe relationships are worth the risk—and the reward.
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