Friendly Reminder: Attempt Repair

Attempt Repair

By Andy Stanton-Henry

In the last Friendly Reminder, I invited Friends to “accept influence,” drawing on the wisdom of the Gottman Love Labs. This time, I find myself drawn to another concept from Gottman’s system for long-term relationships: “the repair attempt.”

The Gottmans define a repair attempt as “any statement or action – silly or otherwise -that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.” This includes different categories of responses: “I feel,” “I’m sorry,” “Get to yes,” “I need to calm down,” “Stop action,” and “I appreciate.”

I was reminded of the “repair attempt” concept during an online discussion we hosted with QLC. Friend Windy Cooler told the story of a dialogue that happened with a synagogue after her presentation on conflict and trauma. After her talk, several people from the congregation made mention to being a “conflict-avoidant community.”

One gentleman, however, had a different perspective. He stated: “We are not conflict-avoidant. We are repair-avoidant.”

I can’t help but wonder if this is true for many Friends. We can definitely be conflict avoidant, at times. We often utilize an approach I call “pacifist-aggressive.”

But we also have plenty of conflict taking place in the Quaker world. Our meetings and yearly meetings just keep dividing and dividing and dividing. For a movement claiming to champion peace, we sure do a lot of fighting and splitting up.

Maybe we are repair-avoidant.

Why? Because repair is hard work. It’s emotional labor. Like an old, torn shirt, it’s easier to toss the old relationship away and get a new one than to attempt repair.

Windy said that repair requires the discipline of being vulnerable with those who have hurt us and being vulnerable with those we have hurt.  

It turns out that the only path to strong and sustainable community is the experience of relational rupture and repair. Trauma, it seems, is not the result of rupture alone (which is an inevitable part of any relationship or process) but of rupture without repair.  

So, if we want to be healers and peacemakers in the world – or simply members of resilient faith communities – we will need to attempt some repairs. We will need to confront and repent and accept when it’s time to be tender. No wonder some of the hardest of Jesus’ “hard sayings” are not about esoteric theology around his divinity or apocalyptic events, but his words about forgiveness and reconciliation.*

I don’t relish the idea of being vulnerable with “Frienemies” or risking hard conversations. But until we win the Lamb’s War or achieve the Peaceable Kingdom, we are going to need to learn some of these skills. We will keep bumping into each other. Painful histories will keep popping up. We will hurt with our words and actions. No matter how mystical we Quakers are, we don’t transcend the ordinary realities of relationships. So we need to learn the healing cycles of rupture, repair, and resilience.

In the next two weeks, attempt repair with someone. Whether this means reaching out to someone with whom you’ve shared a, well, non-sacramental silence or acknowledging more serious actions of harm. Do so prayerfully, thoughtfully, and humbly. Reach out, have a coffee, let something go, approach an un-favorite Friend, repent of a long-unspoken communal sin. Step off the well-worn paths of conflict-avoidance and repair-avoidance.  

*It’s worth noting that Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness and reconciliation can be (and are) abused. For example, asking the abused to confront their abuser in reference to Matt. 18. We can engage the call to restored relationships while acknowledging the nuances (in the gospels themselves) about the need for confronting unjust systems, leaving toxic relationships, and separating for the purpose of healing.