How to Repair a Relationship in 5 Steps

Female student talking with her professorThere are a couple things we know about power and relationships: Power is the ability to have influence on others. Power is relational and relationships are messy. We inevitably hurt each other.

Good intentions are essential, but not enough to ensure we are using our power well. Our impact is often different from our intentions. We may be surprised by cultural differences, differing world perspectives, and differing values. We make mistakes, and we may (often accidentally) misuse power. Most misuses of power are made by people who have lots of power due to their roles and privilege, good intentions, lack of awareness about their impact on others, and limited understanding about the dynamics of power.

There are three main reasons why many conflicts escalate and don’t turn out well. We may avoid conflict because it is often associated with loss, pain, and even trauma. We might respond defensively to misunderstandings, hurt, and feedback. And because we most often don’t intend to cause harm, it can be hard to acknowledge or even see when we are responsible for hurt or conflict.

Here’s the good news: Most relationship difficulties can be resolved quickly, and the relationship can be repaired and even grow stronger. When hurt or misunderstood, most people need one or more of the following things. Here is an example: A teacher, trying to promote growth and learning, gave a student some challenging feedback about their presentation. Later, the student came to the teacher confused and hurt by what they had said.

We may avoid conflict because it is often associated with loss, pain, and even trauma. We might respond defensively to misunderstandings, hurt, and feedback.

5 Steps to Repair Any Relationship

1. Acknowledgement

It’s important for someone to have their pain, upset, or confusion acknowledged. “You seemed really upset about my feedback. I realize my words may have been painful. Can you tell me more about what that was like for you?”

2. Intention

Someone may want to know what your intention was without having you reassign blame or validate your behavior. “I was intending to offer you some useful information about how you were using your voice.” (Please note that this is a short description. If you use only this step, or go too deeply into intention, people may experience this as an excuse.)

3. Apology

They want an apology. Here is a good formula: This is what I regret (specific behavior), and this is what I learned and what I’m doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again. For example, “I regret several things—that I didn’t ask you if this was a good time, didn’t give you a concrete example, and didn’t clarify that it was about how you used your voice, not who you are. Next time, I will be more clear in what I say and check in first about whether this would be a good time.”

An effective apology is deeply important for healing and repair. For an apology to land well, it needs to be behaviorally specific and involve taking personal responsibility. These are some examples of apologies that don’t get the job done:

  • “I’m sorry.” No behavior is named in this apology.
  • “I’m sorry you were hurt.” This apology does not take responsibility.
  • “I was really busy and didn’t mean to hurt you.” This apology does not take responsibility and neglects any action to repair.
  • “What’s your part in this?” This apology shifts blame to the other person.
  • “I was maybe a little unskillful.” This apology does not take the issue seriously.
  • “I was under a lot of stress and feeling badly at the time.” This apology is defensive.

4. Learning

As you are repairing a relationship with someone, they may want to know what you have learned. People can be very generous when they understand their hurt contributed to learning and growth. “I’ve learned more about what kind of feedback works for you. I will, in the future, ask if this is a good time, and leave time at the end to hear your responses and clear up misunderstandings.”

5. Repair

When a relationship has been ruptured, an invitation to repair is important and welcome. Although an individual may bring their hopes forward to you, it also can convey a lot of caring when you initiate by asking what would work best for them. “Is there anything I can do that would help repair this relationship?”

Try this: Think of someone, a friend or someone at work, with whom there has been an unresolved relational difficulty. (Start with a fairly low-stakes relationship and situation.) Try these steps, and see if you can resolve and repair. After the repair is made, ask for feedback from your other person about what you said or offered that was helpful in moving toward understanding and resolution.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Dr. Cedar Barstow

    July 25th, 2019 at 8:36 AM

    I hope this article is useful for the very important process of relationship repair.

  • William

    August 28th, 2019 at 12:47 PM

    Hello I’m sorry for asking but I would like to know the best time line to base a proper healing for me and my wife. She has shut herself off and tells me she feels broken and depressed. She says she still loves me but when I try and help her she doesn’t want to talk to me and either starts crying or telling me she’s fine or not right know which normally I would be fine waiting or trying to pry but she hates prying and the later never comes. She refuses to seek help or let me help her it’s so unnerving and confusing. I’ve been with her for 15 years and married for 7. She is starting to enjoy more time out with others and drinking but not so much with me. When I do ask her if I may join she gets offended. I know I have messed up and stopped putting her as a priority and I have realized I messed and I’m trying to do my best to change but I’m starting to think I’m not enough till I become a slave. I’ve offered to go to a third party but she’s declined everything. How can I help.?

  • Dr. Cedar Barstow

    August 30th, 2019 at 10:56 AM

    Hello William, Thank you for your question. Sounds like you and your wife are suffering a lot right now. It seems like a situation that will be hard to repair just by yourselves. I recommend couple’s counseling. However, it sounds like a hard path to get to that therapeutic support. Perhaps you could start by getting curious and asking your wife what seems so scary or risky about couple’s counseling. Maybe you can find out why she thinks it wouldn’t be helpful. If she won’t go to couples counseling with you, I suggest you seek an individual therapist to get support for yourself. You don’t need her permission to go to therapy for yourself, and I hope it would be relieving, insightful, and helpful. Best wishes, Cedar

  • William

    August 30th, 2019 at 3:31 PM

    Thank you very much we have decided to try a trial separation for a few months and then things settle down and try to only talk if it involves the house or kids. I have already looked into counseling for myself and I am considering it

  • Cedar B.

    September 1st, 2019 at 12:25 PM

    Sounds like a good decision to help clear the air and de-escalate the tension.
    You might both want to take the time to think about what your unmet needs are in the relationship to help focus conversation when it happens. Cedar

  • Stella

    July 27th, 2020 at 6:31 AM

    Hello…Me and my boy have been together for 2 years. I’m not a dog person and he is. It’s a constant fight about the dog hair..but recently our fights have started getting mean. He tells me to shut up and and then I start to get petty by calling him names. How can we fight more “kindly”? It’s getting worse and we have considered breaking up. Need help!!

  • Dr. Cedar Barstow

    July 28th, 2020 at 8:02 PM

    Hello Stella, So sorry to hear about your dog difficulty . Have you tried the 5-step method? I’m hoping that will be helpful. Kindness is so important. Cultivating curiosity and making sure your partner feels understood will also help. Cedar

  • Demien

    June 1st, 2022 at 12:36 PM

    Hello, I have several difficulties in my relationship. One of the most difficulties in my relationship is not steady to one partner. I’m always hopping like a helicopter in my relationship looking for another partner.

    What are some of the tips to overcome this?

  • Simphiwe

    July 19th, 2022 at 7:11 AM

    Hello my me and partner always fight when a guy colleague check on me with msg or call he thought am dating them

  • Dr. Cedar Barstow

    July 20th, 2022 at 7:00 PM

    Hi Demien, Try staying with one partner a little longer and use the 5-step method to work on issues that come up that might make you want to leave. Hi, Simphiwe, Sounds like a good situation to try the 5-step method to clear up the misunderstanding and rebuild trust. Cedar

  • Sam

    July 25th, 2022 at 8:50 AM

    I confided in one of my boyfriends family members with a lot of stress relation and being a new mum
    she spilled the beans and added lies how do i win him back

  • Mpilonhle

    August 5th, 2022 at 5:52 PM

    Hy i’m Mpilonhle we had sn argument with my boyfriend ..he blocked me and told me to blocl everything sbout him.after she found out i checked up his WhatsApp snd got dating eith snother girl ..but i asked them one day separate they told me they re no longer chatting but i caught some chats talking about love back i’m also angry for being their fool …i want to know i’m wrong or what??and i need advice

  • Lizzy

    September 18th, 2022 at 8:09 PM

    Hy I’m Lizzy, I need help. I cheated on my boyfriend (kissed another guy) which I’m not proud of and I did confess to him. My boyfriends healing process is slow but it’s there, he sometimes says he does not feel like I’m remorseful about it and I have tried everything including suggesting therapy but I wanted to ask how can I make his healing process easier because he says I trigger it and I don’t know how.

  • Nicole

    January 2nd, 2023 at 3:58 AM

    My girlfriend and I have been together for a year and are running into trust issues. I’ve become paranoid about everything she does, even though I’ve never found concrete evidence her actions make me believe other wise. I don’t know what to do? I can’t loose her please help

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