Picture yourself sitting in the front seat of a car with someone you care about - your child, a loved one, a close friend, a colleague at work - sometimes you sit in silence, sometimes you both feel connected and you talk and share, and sometimes conflict occurs, and sometimes, especially if you are primed with stress or in a bad mood, you react and yell and/or say something you regret. Those moments of disconnection are like a ruptured tire on the winding road of our relationships. To repair the ruptured connection, you need to get out of the car and repair the flat. But what if you don’t know how to repair the tire? Saying your sorry is like a quick patch and helpful in the moment, but according to clinical psychologist and parenting expert Becky Kennedy, it is not enough. In her TEDx talk - The Single Most Important Parenting Strategy - Becky shows us how to repair these inevitable connection ruptures on the long journey in all of our relationships.
Ruptured connection repair involves 3 steps, WITH the person you hurt:
- Going back to the moment of disconnection
- Taking responsibility for your behavior
- Acknowledging the impact it had on the other person
Saying you’re sorry, although better than nothing, falls short of real repair of a relationship rupture, as it seeks to get past the issue with the implicit implication of - “can we just move on now” - as it truncates any possible conversation.
Here is the key concept to know about children (and many adults too): they are prone to self-blame after being yelled at by a close caregiver because they are dependent on the love and care of a parent. The quote by psychologist Ronald Fairbairn encapsulates this idea - “it is better to be a sinner in a world ruled by God than to live in a world ruled by the Devil.” For kids, parents and caregivers are in essence Gods, since we have so much power over their lives, a perspective that we can easily forget in the hectic raceway of our lives. Our children want us to be a loving caring parent, with psychological safety, and not someone they are afraid of - hence the unconscious psychological slight of hand of blaming themselves as a coping mechanism to keep us in the loving caring God position in their world.
Becky relates the story of being in the kitchen cooking dinner when her son comes in, asks what's for dinner, and upon seeing it was chicken says "chicken again? Disgusting." Becky was primed and wired for trouble by a long day, lack of sleep, and a ton of stress, leading this parenting expert and psychologist to snap and retort with "what is wrong with you, can you be grateful for one thing in your life?"
It can happen to her, and it can happen to all of us.
So does one repair a relationship rupture?
Step 1: Repair yourself first. Before you can repair the rupture, it is critical to get out of the car, go to your mental trunk and get the necessary equipment:
Self-compassion. It is hard, perhaps impossible, to offer compassion or understanding to someone else if you can’t access those qualities in yourself.
Separate your identity - who you are - from your behavior and what you did. Becky tells herself the following (pick whatever phrases work for you but in my opinion it is good to have a small protocol in your mental trunk):
"I am not proud of what I did."
"My latest behavior does not define me."
"As I struggle on the outside I remain good on the inside - I am a good parent (identity) who was having a hard time (behavior)."
If possible, say your phrases outloud as verbalizing struggles has been shown to reduce amygdala activation.
I realize that this may appear sort of woo woo and weak and not the way we have been taught as surgeons to deal with problems, as it may seem like you are giving yourself a pass on what you did, by sort of letting yourself off the mental hook for your poor behavior.
In fact it leaves you ON the hook by replacing a downward mental spiral of guilt and shame and the powerful temptation to blame the other person's actions for your behavior with a mental platform of groundedness and self-compassion (after all, we all mess up), and from that new mental platform one can now use the different and more positive, constructive energy to reflect and think about how to do things differently next time and how to repair the relationship rupture. As always, the adage "What you focus on grows" applies here too.
Step 2: Fix the rupture with the victim of your behavior.
Becky notes that there is, of course, no exact formula, but she recommends the following principles:
-Name what happened.
-State what you would do differently next time.
Here is how Becky repaired the rupture with her son. "Hey, I keep thinking about what happened in the kitchen the other night. I am sorry I yelled. I am sure that felt scary. And it was not your fault. I am working on staying calm even when I am frustrated."
Notice that Becky did NOT make any excuses for her behavior, she owned it, by not saying things about how tired or stressed she was. Clean, compassionate, no ego soothing with excuses or buts.
Becky replaced her kids potential story of self-blame with a story of safety, trust, and connection that will have a life long impact. A massive upgrade.
Though very tempting to help us feel better by soothing our egos and deflecting our responsibility, one MUST avoid these relationship rupture repair pitfalls:
"Hey sorry I yelled at you in the kitchen - BUT if YOU hadn’t complained about dinner it would not have happened." Now it is his fault.
"You really need to be grateful for the good things like a home cooked meal and then you will not get yelled at!" His fault again.
Reacting again if they become upset again and need to vent. Let them, and resist all urges to provide any rebuttals. Best to keep your mouth shut and if you must say something, just acknowledge the validity of their feelings.
These fail to create connection and they insinuate that your kid caused your reaction: her kid said something, she reacted, therefore he is the cause of her reaction, all of which leads him to blame himself. These are typical and ubiquitous associations that our brain foists on us all the time in an effot to protect and care for us, and children (and many adults it sometimes seems) have little if any capacity to untangle the web of these false associations.
By modeling relationship rupture repair as an adult with your child, or anyone frankly, you demonstrate through action a model of positive emotional regulation that we must inculcate our kids with. It is part of our responsibility, and it can lead to:
Your adult child not spiraling in self-blame when they make a mistake.
Your adult child not taking on blame for someone elses mistake.
Your adult child knowing how to take responsibility for their behavior because you have modeled how to take responsibility for yours.
In addition to teaching our children a skill, it gives you the opportunity to help them change their behavior. In Becky's case, she might say later, some time later after the repair - "you know you will not always like what I am going to make for dinner - instead of saying that is disgusting, maybe you could say “not my favorite?" Personally, I would add in "I would really appreciate that. I love you."
By doing this we are teaching our children (and others) how to regulate their understandable disappointment and how to communicate effectively and respectfully with another person
None of this would have occured if she had continued to blame him for her reaction.
Of course, just like in surgery, prevention of complications is best, but they occur for all of us, and we need to know how to deal with them in the best way possible.