All couples argue. This is a fact supported by decades of research.
As a same-sex couple, however, we are faced with unique cultural and social stressors which can result in external tensions spilling over into our marriage.
We’ve learned to become masters of repair attempts, employing them early and often to resolve our disputes before they escalate.
With that said, early in our marriage, we realized that not all repair attempts were effective and that the success of a repair attempt often had to do with how well it was tailored to the other person.
What is a repair attempt?
A repair attempt is any statement or action – verbal, physical, or otherwise – meant to diffuse negativity and keep a conflict from escalating out of control.
In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman, Ph.D., calls repair attempts a secret weapon of emotionally intelligent couples.
His groundbreaking research shows:
the success or failure of a couple’s repair attempts is one of the primary factors in whether [a] marriage is likely to flourish or flounder.
But what do we do when our repair attempts fall flat?
For example, our household’s never-ending, who-cleans-the-dishes dispute rarely gets repaired well.
This is because David grew up in a family where plates were always cleaned promptly after use, and leaving dirty dishes overnight was as abominable as leaving the toilet unflushed.
Constantino grew up with a more laissez-faire attitude toward dishes, letting them exist in the sink in until they get in the way.
The ongoing tension over dishes results in small, frequent blowups on David’s end, and leaves Constantino struggling to make repair attempts, some of which fail horribly.
Sometimes Constantino attempts to repair with physical touch, by hugging or kissing David. This is one of Constantino’s love languages, and so he interprets touch as a way to express affection in the midst of conflict.
While David appreciates touch in general when he is physiologically flooded, his walls go up and to him, touch feels like an act of aggression – even though he is aware that Constantino’s touch is a repair attempt.
Making repair attempts isn’t enough
One lesson Constantino has learned over time is that David responds well to humor, in part because David knows he is uptight about insignificant things like dishes.
So when the dish argument rears its ugly head, rather than trying to hug David, Constantino has taken to humoring him. He often does a little dance where he points at David, and in a funny voice starts calling him by his pet name (which we needn’t mention here).
The result invariably makes David laugh, and the conflict is de-escalated even if the perpetual problem isn’t resolved. And in this instance at least, Constantino also addresses David’s primary concern.
He rolls up his sleeves and does the dishes. What our marriage has taught us is that the simple act of making repair attempts isn’t enough.