IF I HAD A HAMMER: The Art of Making Repairs in Your Marriage

Research shows even the happiest of couples have conflict in their marriage, though it’s something most want to avoid and something divorcing partners list often when asked why they are choosing to go their separate ways.

So what are happy couples doing differently?

One thing they’re doing is regularly making repairs in their marriage.  John Gottman, Ph.D., says happy couples use various types of repair attempts in their marriage to:

  • Keep a conflict from escalating;
  • Diffuse negativity; and
  • Send positive signals to their partners that they desire a truce.

Essentially, they move quickly to get back on track, reassure their partners of their love, and prevent the kind of damage that can be done when struggles are allowed to fester or get out of control.

How are YOU at making repairs in your marriage? 

Keep reading to find out.


What Goes Wrong?

Sometimes our attempts to make amends aren’t interpreted in the way we intended. Why?

ONEWe don’t make repair attempts quickly enough, which makes it harder to be successful when we do initiate them.

TWOWe wait for our partners to approach us and make a repair attempt, which sends them the signal that we may be unwilling to negotiate.

THREEWe’re holding on to who is “right” and who is “wrong”, which typically results in our being closed to whatever they have to say.

FOURWe’re unwilling to make the repair attempt in our partner’s preferred love language, which means they may totally miss the fact that we’ve made a repair attempt at all.

We can take from this that we should quickly move to make repairs ourselves in the way we know our partner would prefer and do so in a non-judgmental open way that leaves room for continued dialogue.


The 3 Types of Repairs You Should Make in Your Marriage

Keeping the above in mind, let’s look at 3 different types of repairs you can choose from:



love noteUsing phrases such as “I’m sorry,” or “Please forgive me” can go a long way toward resolving an issue with your spouse. If you are not yet ready to apologize or ask for forgiveness, you can still hold out a verbal olive branch that invites them to come closer and let them know you regret having the argument to begin with.

Something like, “I don’t want to ruin our day” or “I hate it when we argue” is a way of reminding them that you’re still on their side even if it feels like you’re pitted against each other in the heat of the moment.

Humor is another great way to show humility, diffuse a bomb, and resolve conflict quickly. Try finding a truthful and gentle comment that will bring a smile. Or, better yet, make a self-effacing comment that reveals understanding of your own part in the conflict.

My husband Mike is a master at this, and will often end a sentence with something like, “. . . because you KNOW that I would NEVER try to [fill in the blank with what he’s accusing me of doing.]”  It gives me the opportunity to laugh and say, “Yeah, right.  You just did it yesterday, so I guess we’re both guilty!”.  One-hundred percent of the time, we begin laughing, make up, and get on with our day – – both more aware of our foibles and better able to avoid the pitfall next time.

While challenging, it can also be extremely powerful to say, “I know we’re not happy right now but I still love you and have faith that we’ll eventually work this out.”  Remaining steady and optimistic demonstrates strength and may make your partner feel safe and secure enough to calm down or come out of hiding.



i'm sorryYou’ve heard the adage, “Actions speak louder than words”, and perhaps the reason it’s been around for so long is that it’s still and will always be true.  Words are wonderful but may not mean too much to your partner if they’ve heard them before and need to see a change.

For starters, physical affection can help reassure a freaked-out spouse and invite them back into a more productive conversation.  Hugging it out has a way of diffusing a tense situation quickly, provided your spouse is open to it.

There is also a scientific rationale for this, as studies show that, when we hug or touch another person, oxytocin – – the “connection chemical” – – is released in the brain.  This causes a reduction in blood flow that leads to a content, more serene state of mind.  And of course, feeling close to someone physically can lead to emotional closeness as well.

Action – – such as in the case when we need to pick up our share of responsibility for an over-worked mate – – can also relieve a lot of pressure.  Offering to give the kids a bath, take the dog for his nightly run, or cooking a nice meal are great ways to give your spouse some time to relax and regroup, especially if they’re not expecting it.

If they say something like, “You’re just doing this to butter me up or make me forget our fight”, just admit it.  Respond, “You’re right, but I know we can’t forget about it.  I just thought it would be nice to take the night off and try to enjoy each other.  We can always get back to that later.  What do you say?

Lastly, you can also send a signal to your spouse without saying a word by leaving flowers, their favorite candy bar, or even a Post-It note somewhere they will find them.  It doesn’t have to be complicated.  Scribble “I miss you and hope we make up soon” is all that needs to be said.

These and other gestures tend to “speak louder” when they aren’t paired with a lot of explanation and you allow your mate to read between the lines and reach their own conclusions.  Essentially, you’ve sent a tennis ball over the net towards them and it’s their job to hit it back.



smile to goIn addition to words and actions, having a positive attitude can work wonders in terms of thawing a frosty atmosphere at home.  Sadly, many people confuse this with pretending to be cheerful, but faking how you feel can easily lead to even more resentment.

What I’m recommending here is that you simply think openly about solutions, give your partner the benefit of the doubt, and not allow yourself to become snippy and hard to live with while you’re waiting to work things out.

Just saying, “Have a nice day.  I’ll be thinking of you and will see you tonight” with a smile on your way out the door will show them that you’re not going to be thrown off-base by the argument and are leaving open the possibility of reconciliation.  And soon.

Showing empathy, grace, compassion, and flexibility – – especially during conflict – – is a mark of true maturity and allows for trust to re-emerge. When both spouses feel heard and validated, their respect for one another grows.


Love Language Wavelength

Whether you choose words, actions, or a positive attitude, making your repair attempt in the way your spouse will best receive it is crucial.

hug it outDoes your spouse respond best to:

>>  Words of affirmation?

>>  Quality time?

>>  Physical touch?

>>  Gifts?

>>  Acts of service?

These are the traditional “5 Love Languages” described by Gary Smalley in his book by the same name and it’s worth thinking about what both of your preferred “love languages” are in order to send and receive messages that are both meaningful to your partner and interpreted in the way they were intended.



All couples experience conflict in marriage, but knowing how to make speedy and effective repair attempts is a fantastic skill that can be learned, practiced, and mastered.  Though no one would invite more of it into their relationship, conflict is one of the best ways to understand what’s most important to your spouse and become even closer – – and stronger – – with time.


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