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Relational Repair: A Process for Building Secure Attachments

Written by Michelle Rozek.


“Relationships are the primary context of existence.” - Thomas Berry


Imagine looking at yourself in the mirror for the last time, knowing that death draws near...

When you reflect back upon your life, what are the moments that stand out to you? What has brought you meaning, value, and love over the course of your lifetime? Who comes to your heart and mind? What memories do you hold most dear? Take a moment to be with this.


Most of us will begin to visualize our partners, kids, friends, mentors, teachers, lovers, and all those who have touched our hearts and lives. Maybe you imagine looking into your partner's eyes, holding their hand, or seeing them laugh. Perhaps you see your children growing and living through different life moments. Maybe you recall a loved ones warm touch and the way their body rests against yours.


The experience of living is inherently relational since everything and everyone is bound up and dependent upon one another for survival and thriving. A word that best captures this idea is interdependence, which we can see reflected all around us in nature. Who we are is informed and shaped by our relationships. This means that when it comes to thriving, the quality of our relationships matter. Thriving goes beyond merely surviving and is defined as "growing or developing in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as a result of a particularly favorable environment." So what creates a favorable environment for relational thriving? Secure attachments.


Creating the conditions for a favorable environment (aka. secure attachments) that allows a relationship to thrive is no easy task. A big part of why is because of trauma. Not only do we have to contend with inherited intergenerational trauma, but we are also born into and imbedded within systems of oppression that perpetuate traumatizing patterns in our nervous systems and in our relationships. To dive deeper into this topic, I've written about the trauma of Industrial Growth Society and also provide practices for strengthening emotional resilience here.


When we are living from unresolved trauma, we are living from survival-based patterns which for many people have roots in insecure attachments. This means that we are living on some form of autopilot, responding to the cues of a dysregulated nervous system that generates feelings and sensations of insecurity (not feeling safe) which can lead to all manner of fear-based responses (ie. fight, flight, freeze, fawn) especially while in the midst of an emotional trigger. Without proper inner resourcing tools and techniques it's easy to get stuck in relational trauma patterns and biofeedback loops that erode relational safety and trust over time.



Forming Strong Relational Roots


Relationships that allow for thriving are the ones that have strong roots in a foundation of earned trust. Earned trust is what leads to the feeling of safety and security in relationships, which invites greater ease, relaxedness, and space to be your full authentic, unapologetic self. These deep roots allow for greater resilience which means they can weather storms and stand the test of time. The shared journey of weathering storms in the context of relationship and coming out on the other side stronger than before is what leads to the formation of a secure attachment and is the key to thriving.


You might be wondering... so how do I go about building a foundation of earned trust in my relationships then? The answer is RELATIONAL REPAIR. This is KEY.


Secure attachments are NOT formed as a result of preventing relational ruptures. Secure attachments are formed as a result of repairing ruptures. It is inevitable that we are going to cause harm from time to time. We can't pretend like this being human thing isn't messy. It is. We're going to fuck up. We're going to hurt one another. Trauma is real and triggered reactions happen, even in the process of healing. There is no way of getting around this fact. When we carry the belief that rupture is what leads to relational erosion, then we do ourselves (and our relationships a disservice) by trying to avoid conflict and difference, which if anything only perpetuates feelings of insecurity and codependence. Such behaviors reveal the fragility of the relationship and the need for relational repair.



Tending To Your Relational Garden


A trigger arises: you feel angry, upset, hurt, and a relational rupture has just occurred.


First, let's acknowledge that in order for your relationship to thrive, it will require prioritizing a willingness to self-reflect, take responsibility, and to consistent care. HOW you show up and tend to your relationships will ultimately inform the quality and richness of the fruits you harvest.


Let's use the metaphor of a garden to explore the shared space that exists between you and the people you love. All of the relational gardens are different, with varying soil configurations, climates, weather patterns, plant biodiversity, and water quality. The needs of each garden are unique which means they require different types of care, some requiring more than others. It might be true that sometimes just showing up to be fully present in one of your garden's is quite the task, especially when there has been a disruption. It's in these moments, in the midst of a flare up when our relational resilience is tested. This is when our relationship needs the most conscious attention and care.


When our relational garden faces a rupture - whether it’s a storm, a pest, an intrusion, a water shortage, or a soil imbalance - it's imperative that we consciously move through a process of repair in order to re-establish harmony, which requires a return to safety and trust. Again, HOW you choose to respond matters.



From Rupture to Repair


The two core pillars to any relationship are trust and intimacy. The Rupture to Repair Process is a co-created process designed to re-establish intimacy and trust in your relationship, and thus strengthening the foundation of a secure attachment.


What is a relational rupture? A rupture can be understood as a broken bond of trust and repair is what rebuilds and strengthens the bond. When a rupture is not tended to it weakens your secure attachment to that person, and over time it manifests as insecurity, resentment, corrosion, and/or separation.


Relationship ruptures can also be...

  • Any event, situation or shared moment that activates the body and/or the shared relational field into triggered reaction or a trauma response (fight, flight, freeze, fawn, etc).

  • Any conflict, or engagement in shame, rejection, blame, judgement, reaction or tension that caused hurt, harm or wounding of trust and intimacy.


It’s important to remember that the Rupture to Repair Process must be shared. It is not one sided though each participant has their own inner work to do and bring to the table. A rupture happens through your relationship with another person (or persons), and the repair must be mutually held. Your willingness and their willingness to rebuild the bridge is critical for relational healing.


Rupture To Repair: 5 Step Process


1. ACTIVATION


Acknowledge that you are triggered and/or that the situation is causing relational hurt.

  • Pay attention to feelings and sensations related to hyper- and/or hypo-aroused states to help you identify when you’re triggered.

  • Examples may include: a rush of energy, heat generation, clenching of jaw, constriction in your muscles, or sensing feelings like anger, irritation, frustration, confusion, withdrawal, or a frozenness.

  • It's important to be able to identify when you are feeling triggered in your relationship so that you can create some distance and resource yourself accordingly.


Give voice to your experience by informing your partner, friend or whoever you’re in conflict with that something in you is activated and triggered.

  • You’ve done the hard part by recognizing that you are triggered. The next step is to share this with the other person, but only if you are in the right head space and able to communicate effectively. If that feels like too much, go directly to the next step which is to seek stabilization first.

  • Sometimes the other person may or may not be aware that your body is reacting to something that just happened in your shared garden. Maybe all of a sudden a bunch of fire ants are attacking you, but this person is completely unaware. In this case, you might say something like, “Hey, I’m noticing that I am triggered right now by what just happened between us.”

  • Sometimes a trigger in you will activate a trigger in the other person, which can create a negative feedback loop. The only way to stop a trigger war is to either bring awareness to it by saying something like, “I’m triggered, and you might be triggered too. Let's just take a moment to pause," or otherwise, your next best option is to create space from one another by moving into the next step: Stabilization.


Ask for what you need. Given that you’re triggered, what do you need in order to be able to regulate and restore harmony, balance and trust?

  • Here is a general list. Do you need….

    1. Space

    2. Solitude

    3. Disengagement

    4. Silence and presence

    5. Assurance

    6. Others

  • Once you identify what you need, ask for it.

  • If space is necessary (and more often than not it is), consider choosing a time and location to come back together to process and share learnings/insight.


2. STABILIZATION


Stabilization is all about coming back to your center and back to your sense of self.

  • Stabilization involves inner resourcing by utilizing practices and tools that either support down-regulation (settling) if you are experiencing hyper-activation (ie. anxiety, restlessness, manic behavior) or up-regulation if you are experiencing hypo-activation (ie. immobilization, numbing, dissociation).

  • The reason this is important is because when your triggered, it's almost impossible to think straight and to make decisions with a clear mind since your nervous system's survival-based instincts (fight, flight, freeze, fawn responses) have now kicked in because of a real or perceived threat. This is also known as the Amygdala hijack which happens when your brain reacts to psychological stress. Activation triggers the most familiar pathways that will get us to safety, and those pathways are not always the most conducive responses for creating relational cohesion.

  • Stabilization is how you stay in your power. Taking space will give you time to determine how the current situation is causing harm and will also provide you with a greater capacity to respond rather than react.


3. HONORING THE PAIN


Honoring the Pain is all about allowing yourself to process and digest what happened or is currently happening.

  • The nature of this process is unique to each person and situation. Some relational ruptures are quite serious and happen over a period of time, whereas other ruptures can be resolved within a couple of hours.

  • Give yourself time to be in this phase. Feel your feelings. Write, sing, dance, move... do whatever you need to do to process your experience and get to the source of the pain. Anger is often referred to as a secondary emotion, which means that underneath anger is usually a deeper hurt or unacknowledged grief.

  • Part of the purpose of honoring the pain is to finally get to a place where you can let go of any resentment or bitterness that you might be holding against the other. It's about clearing the energy from your own emotional system so that you don't have to carry it.

  • Honoring the pain is also accepting what has come to pass. This doesn't mean that what happened was okay, but accepting that it has happened and that you want to move forward in a new way.


4. REFLECTION


Take some time to reflect on what happened and what you noticed around this trigger or how you may have contributed to the relational rupture.

  • Consider the sensations, emotions or thought patterns

  • Notice any past associations, traumas, or other situations that have been present in your past experiences.

  • Is there anything you want to take responsibility for?

  • What can you and the other person do to cultivate healing?

  • How can the other person support you moving forward? What needs or requests do you have?

  • Write down how you could respond differently and how the other person could approach you differently.

At this point, you want to sense whether or not you are ready for re-engagement. If you are feeling open, relaxed, and compassionate toward yourself and the other person, this is a good indication that you are ready to come back together for the final step of the repair process.



5. COMPASSIONATE RE-ENGAGEMENT


Compassionate Re-Engagement is a layered and very important, defining step as you begin to come back together.

  • Careful considerations:

    1. Ensure that you are clear of any energy of projection, blame, or anger before re-engaging

    2. Imagine how you want to approach this person as you re-engage. Are you coming in with openness or are you cold and hardened? Are you determined to be right or are you willing to listen? Either way is not good or bad. You simply want to notice where you are in the process and to determine when to re-engage and when not to.

  • Create the space:

    1. Consider choosing a neutral space.

    2. Consider outdoors or indoors.

    3. Consider how you’ll be sitting, standing, or re-engaging.

  • Set a shared intention:

    1. Root the conversation in your shared hopes for a desired outcome.

    2. Perhaps saying something like, “I would like to ground this conversation with the intention of re-establishing our connection in trust."

  • Create agreements:

    1. Determine if there’s anything you need before entering into dialogue. For example you might decide that the following agreements are important:

      1. To hold space and let the other speak without interruption

      2. To listen empathically and with understanding

      3. To reflect what you hear after each person shares

  • Communication Tips:

    1. Express your experience (ie. feelings, sensations, thought patterns)

    2. Share what you learned about yourself from the rupture

    3. Share what you need to feel safe and trust in the relationship


Now that you’ve settled your body, named your shared intention, created a context that feels supportive, and set agreements, you are now ready to process the relational rupture by sharing your experiences.


Reflective & Empathic Listening

  • Each person will now take their turn to share their experience. Once Person A has finished sharing, Person B will reflect what they heard, and also share what they noticed in their body as they were listening. Person B will ask Person A if they heard them correctly. Person A can offer any corrections.

  • Keep in mind that reflective and empathic listening are skills that take time to develop and hone. Be patient with one another and extend as much grace as possible while also ensuring that you are being heard.

  • The point of this exercise is to connect to each other’s experience with an intent for deep understanding, relatability and connection.


At this point, both of you should feel heard in your experience. Each person should feel a greater sense of understanding and compassion for the other's experience.


Moving Forward with Needs & Requests

  • Recall Step 4 and consider how the other person support you moving forward. What needs or requests do you have?

  • Determine if there is a need for new relational commitments


Clear residual energy

  • Residual energy is anything that still feels unresolved or a tinge of something that needs to be named.

  • You can first start by actively engaging in clearing the energy by stretching, doing a quick dance, or moving to release it.

  • Afterward check in, “Are our minds, hearts and bodies clear?” If the answer is yes, then move on to re-bonding. If the answer is no, return to the beginning of this step for further processing or take some time and space for personal reflection.


Rebonding

  • Though this is the final step, it is truly the most important of all! IRebonding is critical for integrating the healing work you just did together. This step is absolutely essential! Do not skip it.

  • In some way, shape, or form connect bodies, hearts, and minds. This will re-establish the bond you share and will also allow your bodies to re-attune and sense safety and trust in one another

  • Examples might include:

    1. Long, extended hug (at least 30 seconds; time it if you need to!)

    2. Holding hands while looking into each other’s eyes.

    3. Showing affection

    4. Expressing with words of affirmation

    5. Engage in a playful moment


Conclusion


Let's face it, relationships are HARD WORK. Life is messy. We have good days, we have bad days. Some days we get overwhelmed and triggered and in such moments we might react without thinking. We cause harm and hurt the people we love. In other more resourced moments, we're able to take a deep breath and respond with forethought, communicating effectively what we're experiencing. This can lead to compassionate understanding and a deeper connection with those we love. This is all a part of what it means to be human. As we spiral through the seasons of our lives, we are met with many new challenges that test the strength of the foundations we have set for ourselves.


As I see it, these challenges are really initiations because HOW we lean in and WHAT we practice in our relationships, especially when the going gets tough, defines the quality of our relationships in a big way over time and will either strengthen the foundation of trust or erode it. Challenges, uncertainty, and fear of the unknown is part of the human experience and ruptures are bound to happen. But the good news is that preventing ruptures is not the goal nor will such attempts lead to secure attachments. Phew! Now that's a weight lifted. At the end of the day, building a strong foundation of security in trust in your relationship has more to do with repairing ruptures than it is preventing them. It's all about creating a consistent practice of repair.


For many of us though, relational repair doesn't come easy nor does it feel natural because of our conditioning. Conflict and change can often trigger fear-based responses and patterns of behavior that perpetuate unhealthy dynamics in relationships. These challenges give us the opportunity to look at such patterns and to explore the unresolved trauma we carry. In this way, relationship can be understood as a pathway toward healing. So it's important to understand that repair is not for the faint of heart. It takes a steadfast commitment to doing deep inner work and requires a willingness to put your own ego on the sidelines.


The Rupture to Repair Process is a guide to assist you in your practice of relational repair as you deepen your commitment to showing up in new ways. We hope you enjoy!


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