Who’s Going to Plug the Relationship Leak?

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You are out on a lake in your rowboat on a beautiful day with four of your friends when you notice your feet are wet. You look down and realize that the water is up to your ankles as someone shouts, “there’s a hole in the boat.” You and your friends quickly convene a meeting to discuss the options.

One friend says let’s just ignore the hole because “we probably won’t sink”.e

Another friend begins to blame the others in the boat and says, “someone should have noticed the defect before you left the shore.”

One sits smugly with arms crossed and says, “this teaches you all to take boat maintenance more seriously.”

You notice another friend is totally disengaged from the conversation, staring off into the distance. When you ask them why they say, “they’re looking for another boat”

At this point, you’re feeling desperate because the water is creeping up past your shins. You shout, “someone plug that #$@! leak!”

So what does this have to do with relationships? Actually quite a bit. The international renown research psychologist Dr. John Gottman believes that one of the key indicators of a healthy, thriving marriage is the ability to recover when something happens to put a hole in your “relationship boat.” This hole could be as simple as a thoughtless remark – the fact is, you can’t be in a relationship long before someone puts a hole in your boat.

Gottman calls this effort to plug the leak a “repair attempt.” When repair attempts are made and accepted it is indicative of a healthy marriage. When repair attempts are not attempted or rejected it is a symptom of a troubled relationship.  

So why don’t we plug the leaks in our relationships? Just like the four friends in the leaky boat we have reasons to let our relationship slowly sink.

The Ignorer: This is the one who thinks if you ignore the hole it will go away. Yes, we really do this and guess what, my counseling room is full of couples who have chosen this option. The reality is if you ignore the small holes in your relationship you will find yourself swimming … alone.

The Blamer: This Tactic is to put the responsibility of healing the relationship “hole” on the other person. The problem with this tactic is you go down with the boat too. Not to smart, right?

The Punisher: This is the person who thinks that not addressing the leak in the relationship will somehow teach the other person a lesson. The major problem with this strategy is that it loses sight of the overarching goal – an intimate marriage. Intimacy in a relationship never comes from our dictating the terms of the relationship. It comes from being able to freely express our feelings and desires and allowing our partner to do the same. That means when we see the hole, address the hole!

The Escape Artist: This person’s strategy for dealing with the leaks is to look outside the relationship for a solution. They disengage from any meaningful problem solving and emotionally distance themselves. The Escape Artist is always looking for the next option when the present relationship requires them to do something uncomfortable or confrontational.    

So how do we repair a leaky relationship?

Here are some thoughts:

Take responsibility for your own feelings.

Don’t assume that your partner is aware of how you feel. It is quite possible they are totally oblivious to your hurt. This is because each person has their own perception of reality. A great amount of damage is done to a relationship when we mistakenly think that our reality is their reality. I can’t tell you how many times I have been confronted with this fact. I have been hurt by something someone said and harbor resentment only to discover that they are totally clueless as to why I am upset.

Commit to sharing how you feel in a respectful, non-critical way

Yes, you can tell your partner that you have noticed the hole in your boat in a way that doesn’t cause them to get defensive or dismissive. Here’s how:

  • When (name the actual event without embellishment or subjective criticism)
  • I felt (name the emotions you felt without giving up your own responsibility for feeling them)
  • I need (name what you are requesting from your partner that would help plug the hole)

Yes, I know this is not easy when you’ve been triggered emotionally. You may need to take a few minutes to calm yourself so that you can talk to your partner with a rational mind. Many of us have developed some pretty bad relational patterns that leave every repair attempt in tatters. In fact, some of us instead of plugging the hole take out a knife and put a dozen more holes in the boat. Not smart, I know but very human.

If you find yourself getting wet in your relationship take heart, you can learn these skills if you don’t lose hope, stay humble and keep the ultimate goal before you. To love and be loved in return.

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