THE RECIPE OF SUSTAINABLE RELATIONSHIPS, Part 1: Rupture + Repair

Lesley Glenner

PART I: The Ingredients of RUPTURE + REPAIR

Relationships make the world go round. Honestly, they do! I have dedicated my life to working in the human realm, and I’ve found that relationships are the glue that holds human life together. Relationships are foundational to being people, to being human. We want to cherish and hold on to the relationships that mean the most to us, but paradoxically that instinct makes it really difficult to handle disagreements. It can be painful and upsetting to find ourselves disagreeing with a partner or a friend or experiencing a distance between them and ourselves. We might feel like our entire relationship is at stake in one disagreement. This is something I have encountered time and time again, not only working with couples and families, but in my own personal life as well. Especially now, with the pandemic and quarantining, I have had to navigate difficult relationship changes and engage in conversations where implicit feelings—which could usually be brushed over and left unresolved—became explicit and needed reconciliation.

Healing with others and repairing the ruptures in our relationships is one of the hardest things to learn. However, having worked with relationships professionally and personally for so long, I truly believe that navigating our differences form our core deep, enriching, valuable relationships.

This three part series is about living harmoniously with others. This work is informed by hours and hours of working with these difficulties as a couples and family therapist and as a person in the world. I hope that this recipe for sustainable relationships can expedite the process of repair and communion within your relationships, and save you some time in learning to engage with your differences. The astronomer, cosmologist, and humanist Carl Sagan once remarked, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” We don’t quite have to invent the entire universe to make sustainable relationships, but we do need to investigate our own histories, adjust our perspectives, and dive into the unknown for the ingredients that we need.

Learning to heal quickly and responsively is not about skipping steps, it is about getting to the heart of the matter. This is a recipe, after all—it requires looking at every step, assembling the ingredients, and putting in the effort to bring it all together into something remarkable. As you follow the recipe the process becomes more natural and intuitive every time.

And rich, emotional, meaningful relationships—with all their ruptures and repairs—are remarkable.

IT CAN BE PAINFUL AND UPSETTING TO FIND OURSELVES DISAGREEING WITH A PARTNER

From a young age, many of us are told a “happily ever after” fairytale promising flawless relationships with no conflicts at all—but complete agreement isn’t what makes a relationship work. Actually, we are in relationship at the point of our differences.

Contrary to popular opinion, we are not most connected where we are the same, but where we differ. Imagine that you are sitting side by side enjoying a crisp Fall sunset with your partner. Your fingers are interlocked to the webbing, and all feels right in the world. It is easy to think that you and your loved one are having the same experience, but you are not! You are having a shared experience with two distinct, subjective perspectives partially overlapping. Even your clasped hands are separate—10 fingers from 2 different hands intertwined to the highest degree possible—but not merged. Separate but connected. COnnected but separate. Even when your hands are tightly clasped they are capable of separating and distancing themselves from each other. The embrace can rupture, but that rupture does not mean it is impossible to reconnect—stronger than before—in the future.

When we talk about rupture, we mean that feeling of disconnect from our partner or relationship. It does not have to be a betrayal, an injustice, or a bleeding emotional wound; like a pebble in your shoe, it can simply be bothersome. It can be as simple as a tone of voice that does not sit well with you or a feeling of being misunderstood despite your attempts to communicate where you are.

Another term for rupture could be disagreement or differing preferences. It is a place where you do not see eye to eye. But even if it’s a slight emotional sourness, it can trigger a sense of “me vs. them”. A feeling of anger, disgust or even contempt or hatred can creep up from these discomforts and disconnects, alerting us to the rupture that has occurred.

A mature relationship holds an implicit understanding that disconnection is part of relating and is good at navigating rupture and repair without a lot of collateral damage. For every rupture there must be a repair; this is the formula for loving connection, no other way about it.

 

HAVE YOU EVER FELT WORSE BECAUSE YOU WITHHELD YOUR FEELINGS?

Many people believe that success in a relationship is achieved by never rupturing. In my sessions, I often hear, “I had a great childhood and my parents never fought, so what’s wrong with me??” or “my partner and I agree on everything, but why does it not feel right??” This is concerning for a couple of reasons.

If we are not disagreeing, we are likely capping our ability to connect. If you’re not willing to disagree, you are probably refusing to communicate something important to you. While this could potentially avoid a conflict, it decreases your connection with others. When we disagree well and navigate our disagreements with respect, we increase trust in the other person, in ourselves, and we get to experience a success that bodes well for future ruptures. It is encouraging to get through a disagreement with care and trust. Experiencing such a deep connection is truly powerful—it can change our entire worldview. The more we learn to trust in ourselves and our partners in conflict, the less we have to fear when disagreeing.

What I am suggesting is that we can navigate our connection through our differences. We do not need to fight dramatically or resort to lust to engage meaningfully with disagreements—while physical reconnection and intimacy can play a role in repair, this is not about “make-up sex.” We need to unlearn the “happily ever after story” that prevents us from pursuing deeper intimacy through repair to achieve conscious, mature relationships.

Baked into this recipe of rupture and repair is the reality that, from time to time, we will have complaints in our relationship. Complaints are a natural aspect of being different people who have differing needs, sensibilities, timing, backgrounds, etc. It is important that we give feedback and express our complaints when we interact with those close to us because we are different people. However, we need to disagree skillfully and maturely in order to communicate productively. Accepting that we will encounter ruptures in our healthiest, most cherished relationships means committing to working through those disagreements with others rather than letting them deepen and fester.

RUPTURE, REPAIR, COMMUNE: THE FORMULA FOR MATURE RELATING

No matter how loving or how well-suited we are for each other, we will invariably encounter places where we do not see eye to eye. Sadly, we do not get to stay in perfect communion with our partners at all times for decades on end; rather, it is a peak experience that we can build the foundations of by acknowledging and navigating our differences with curiosity, love, and respect.

And so the formula goes: Rupture → Repair → Commune. Repeat.

This is a dialectical process—an ongoing journey that finds connection through differences and differences through connection. We are deeply separate from our partners, and we are capable of deep communion. We are each the center of our subjective universe. Our experiences overlap with those of our loved ones without ever reaching complete shared reality or objectivity. We find ourselves, we find each other, we lose ourselves, we lose each other, and the dance goes on and on.

The “happily ever after” story hides that our ability to attain long-lasting connection comes from navigating our differences well and often. We so want our loved ones to know us and understand us completely, but that means we need to communicate ourselves, our truths, our experiences to them in great detail; they cannot read our minds or try to be us. It is up to us to be accountable for our own experiences and take responsibility for communicating our world to others.

Of course, how we rupture has its roots in how we are raised and taught. We learn to rupture based on what is familiar or strange, on what we have learned—implicitly or explicitly—about how the world worked. When we make the mistake of assuming that everybody has the same subjective teachings as us, that they are reacting to or thinking of things in the same way that we do, we actually stop being in relationship with our partners. Instead, we start responding to and reacting to projections of ourselves that we have put onto them. What seems obvious to us may make no sense to our partner. And that is okay, so long as we can hear each other, validate and repair when necessary. Neither side is simply wrong or right; in fact, we need to see that there is no benefit to the binary thinking of right or wrong; there is simply your experience and my experience. It is better to honor differences with validation, and sometimes apologize, than to levy accusations or blame someone in an attempt to be right.

Repair is the process of getting back into connection. It is not a simple “I’m sorry” button or lever, but a path where you walk with the other person through mutual validation and apology, listening to them and learning more about them and your relationship together.

Therefore, the way to better achieve harmonious relationships with less fallout when we rupture is to learn that it is not about avoiding ruptures in the first place. Mature relationships are built on rupturing well and repairing well. That means learning to use the tools of validation and apology to effectively, healthily, and quickly communicate, repair, and connect more fully.

I’M OFTEN ASKED: “HOW MUCH SHOULD WE DISAGREE, HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?”

There is no one answer to this question, but if we really are awake to our partner’s needs, we might need to apologize a dozen times in a day. (Yes, really)! We might be regularly, accidentally, hurting our partner: ruptures can be big or small, and it can take time to recognize these subtle ruptures in our daily lives.

Rupture and repair can be as simple as putting the wrong condiment on your partner’s food and choosing to say “I’m sorry” instead of getting snarky or defensive about it. We can know something about people’s preferences, about their likes or their dislikes, but there is always an element of the unknown. We might find ourselves apologizing quite a bit as we continue to learn more about our partners—and ourselves.

Experiencing a rupture does have to do with disagreements and discomfort between ourselves and our partners in a particular moment, but the causes of a rupture can extend far beyond a single event. They also have to do with the historical wounds that our partners and us bring to our interactions.

For example, if my partner is hurt because I didn’t express enthusiasm about going out to an experience they wanted to share, I might be tempted to feel like I am a bad person. Or to think my partner is accusing me of being a bad person. However, the source of their hurt—why this particular event feels like a painful rejection—may resonate from previous experiences, other past (or ongoing) relationships, and unstated expectations. Because of this, it is important we do not become defensive or too wrapped up in what happened. What triggered the reaction is not equivalent to what caused the reaction, and defensiveness doesn’t serve is the goal is to get to the bottom of it- curiosity does.

When we only see the event that triggered a disagreement, we can forget to separate personhood and behavior: we want to label someone as “bad”—as the villain who ruined the fairytale “happily ever after.” However, the truth is that our discomfort and pain can also come from experiences and expectations that extend well beyond this one moment of disagreement. Historical wounds can be inflicted over a long time and may not have one single, obvious source. When we look deeper, beyond the surface level of the one event which triggers a rupture, we see that ruptures can actually be a good thing, an opportunity for deeper healing, and that is what we are here to do in relationship: to become our most healthy, whole selves.

As we can see, the unknowns embedded in any relationship come with the risk of hurting others by accident. On the other hand, those same unknowns add beauty, mystery, and excitement to our relationships. The unknown is what makes all of life such an adventure. What would we strive for or accomplish if we knew all there was to know about the world? How could we connect with others if we knew every single thing about them, with nothing to reveal to each other or learn from one another?

An essential part of this recipe for sustainable relationships is savoring those mystery ingredients, even if they are sometimes uncomfortable to encounter at first. Variety—difference—is truly the spice of life and the secret ingredient to meaningful connection with others.

 

REPAIRING RUPTURES MEANS VALIDATING OUR PARTNERS AND OUR DIFFERENCES

Working through ruptures can feel uncomfortable or painful, but it is also an opportunity to discover new, enriching aspects in our relationships.

It is possible that reorienting or re-learning is necessary to practice the rupture→ repair→ commune formula. For example, sometimes we need to unlearn dis-validation in order to validate others (and to expect validation of our own experiences)! Both parties might need to explore their own assumptions and understandings to overcome obstacles to repair. Some people experience relationships where there was rupture but no repair; or where attempting repair was dismissed or punished.

Learning to navigate and reorientate the physics of relationships can be a project unto itself. Finding out that rupturing, that standing up for your own needs through disagreement, is okay and healthy for everyone involved can be an earth-shattering concept for some.

In Part 2 of this series, I will explore the anatomy of validation in more depth and share precisely what meaningful validation sounds like.

THE PHYSICS OF RELATIONSHIP ARE ONGOING, THEY DON’T HAVE TO BE CONFINED TO ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS

Building the skills to accept differences and responsibilities while communicating is valuable in professional relationships, families, and friendships. The recipe for sustainable relationships is not limited to only one kind of relationship; it works with any relationship in our lives, and I am constantly re-learning that myself.

Even here, now, many unknowns exist between these words on my website and you as a reader. This distance can feel imposing, but I cherish the opportunity to learn and grow with readers like you who take the time to engage with my website and my writing.

It is always a bit nerve-wracking to write for an anonymous audience and ask them to reach out. This is one of those unknowns that I am learning to explore and connect through. I know this post may not resonate with your own experiences, it may have raised uncomfortable or painful questions, and you may feel like something was left missed or unaddressed. It is important to me that here, now, there are opportunities to connect, communicate, and open up to one another.

If anything arose for you while reading this—or if you simply feel the need to communicate your own experiences with this process of rupture and repair or its you’re called to connect with me—I invite you to reach out to me at [email protected] and see if we both discover something new by connecting with one another.

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