Married At First Sight, Australia’s most recent reality show, has been declared a ratings success in spite of the controversy that the show attracted prior to being aired. It is little wonder, given that human beings are ‘wired’ for relationship and as such, long for and pursue the relationship that will meet their need for a life time of love and happiness. So it is with fascination that we watch the relational dynamics between each of the four couples, no doubt overlaying our own commentary and judgement about what we witness on our screens.
My attention has been particularly drawn to the unpredictable and frequently volatile relationship that is the ‘beautiful and feisty’ Clare and the ‘grounded and more laid back’ Lachlan. I am intrigued to observe how readily conflict erupts and what repair attempts, if any, are made to de-escalate and resolve their issues. Try as they might, Lachlan spends the night alone on the couch with his dog for company- which is not what he signed up for when he put up his hand for the arranged marriage.
A repair attempt can be any gesture that attempts to calm, diffuse, or end the fight peacefully. Dr Gottman says that even if someone says, “Uggh, I need a break,” it can be an attempt by that person to calm themselves rather than further escalate the fight. When we don’t know how to calm ourselves, conflicts can easily escalate out of control, and result in an emotional state that Gottman calls ‘flooding.’ As the word suggests, conflict has the potential of overwhelming or flooding the ‘river banks’ that normally contain your emotion, so that feelings of anger, fear or sadness take centre stage. Your threat system is activated, your breathing becomes constricted, your muscles tense, your heart beats rapidly, and when upon reaching 95-l00 beats per minute, your adrenal glands are activated delivering a rush of increased excitement, so listening and the understanding needed to re-establish trust and intimacy is near impossible until the flood has receded. With so much going on internally, is it any wonder that couples find themselves locked into perpetual conflict? Given that Clare and Lachlan do not know each other well, it is a difficult ask for them to navigate their conflict without some guidance.
So what, I wonder, would I be suggesting to Clare and Lachlan that might assist to effectively repair a conflict and avoid another night on the couch for Lachlan?
One of my favourite repair attempts is the use of humour. My husband, Duncan, used to be easily angered whenever he felt frustrated or irritated or tired, which often became a precursor to our conflicts. Holidaying in New Zealand, we were driving a long, narrow, windy road somewhere on the Coromandel Peninsula. Uncertain as to whether it was the correct road to our destination, night had long since fallen and we were both tired, making the odds for conflict fairly high. As I was the map reader, it was easy enough for my husband to take his frustration about the situation out on me. Aware that our conversation was escalating I took inspiration from Duncan’s best mate Rob (who shared their own invented language from their early childhood years together) and said, “In the words of Rob, ‘Get moogied’ Duncan.” I can’t really give you a definition for the word ‘moogied’ but it worked; Duncan broke out in laughter and we were okay once more.
In John Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work he describes a number of repair attempts that couples can try. He acknowledges that these can feel forced at first, but as you and your partner learn some ‘damage control language,’ you’ll come up with your own versions of what he’s given. Here are some of them:
- “Please say that more gently.”
- “That felt like an insult.”
- Open your arms to invite your spouse in to be held.
- “Just listen to me right now and try to understand.”
- “Can you kiss me?”
- “Can we take a break?”
- “Let me try again.”
- “How can I make things better?”
- “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
- “I agree with part of what you are saying.”
- Reach your hand out gently to touch theirs.
- “One thing I admire about you is…”
- “We are getting off track.”
- “That’s a good point.”
- “I love you.”
Of course, when one person makes a repair attempt, the responsibility is upon the other to respond by graciously accepting their attempt to repair the conflict.
As for Clare and Lachlan, Lachlan most certainly has been putting some of these repair attempts into practice but will Clare respond? We can only stay tuned to find out.
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