Presumably every close personal relationship in humankind encounters troubles or conflict. Research reveals that a major factor leading to relationships staying together over time is doing repairs after troubles or conflict (Gottman). Many experts in this area will talk about the general helpfulness of expressing one’s own experience and feelings in “I-statements” as a healthy way of sharing. But bpd-fed rage can make this very hard at times. What I am specifically talking about in this blog is the importance of doing a repair after troubles or conflict. I don’t have “the answers” and I welcome hearing how others do repairs in their relationships. In case it’s helpful to others, the 3 basic steps for the person making a “repair” (i.e. the listener) that we follow are:
- Active Listen. This means that, after trouble or conflict, you listen to and reflect back what you hear about the other person’s experience of the incident, including their feelings. Example: the other person starts, saying, I feel hurt and angry when I hear loud volume and a harsh tone in your voice to me, because that’s disrespectful, and the listener says, You felt hurt and anger when you heard loud volume and a harsh tone in my voice because that was disrespectful to you.
- Validate. Example: the listener says, It makes sense you felt hurt and angry when I talked to you in loud volume and harsh tone of voice, especially from your life partner. Acknowledge your part in the situation, such as by saying, It’s true that I did speak with loud volume and a harsh tone of voice to you. Say you are sorry, if or where you are sorry, such as by saying, Sorry about that. I wish I could take that back. And,
- Ask, What can I or we do differently?
We developed this three-step approach to making repairs for each other after many years of trial-and-error. Many years of my tears and us trying to avoid repeating negative cycles. We found it helpful to have an “agreed-to-in-advance” approach. We worked to develop it during times when I was not in a bpd-state of heightened emotion. It helped us to be informed by marriage therapy and marriage courses and books.
Repairs need to go both ways in a relationship and doing a repair can be extra tricky for the individual in a couple who has bpd or other tendency toward intense emotional reactions. It’s hard for a person with borderline to tolerate hearing others’ pain related to their behaviors without getting dysregulated all over again, and possibly starting the downward-spiral-thinking again—such as with bpd-driven negative thoughts about what a horrible person they are, how they can’t do anything right, and wishing they were dead, etc.—rather than hearing their partner’s pain and helping repair.
We call this whole 3-step repair “a 60” because, early on, when I was giving this type of repair, it seemed like 60 seconds of active listening and validating was all I could do without becoming triggered with an intense emotional reaction. Listening for much longer than about 60 seconds was just not effective. I could do maybe 2-3 minutes at the most! The amount of time is crucial, in that you don’t want to cut off the “most important” or key feelings and experiences, but for a person with bpd, you also don’t want to “head into the depths of the pit” of deep and unendurable pain. In time, I gradually found ways to actively listen and validate for longer than 60 seconds or 2-3 minutes, but we still call this 3-step process “a 60.”
So, after trouble or conflict, we usually aim to offer “a 60” or ask for one, or both, for repair. As a practical matter, we do a lot of “double 60s” with me receiving the first one to help me calm down enough to give one. We are each sensitive to the other’s porcupine quills. If I need to repair for my emotional reaction, chances are, I first need to receive a repair for whatever triggered me to help me calm down.
Providing a “60” for the other is a caring gift and is not lightly done or given. It’s very hard to do. Usually, it helps to be well-rested and fed first. To provide a “60,” it helps to first be aware of your own feelings and why you are having them, so that you can hold them in check to make space to hear and validate the other’s feelings. This is extra hard to do when you have bpd! It has taken many years for me to “get the hang” of providing (as the listener) and receiving (as the speaker) 60s. A “60” is meant to be a tool for validation and repair. The three steps may sound simple, but they are definitely not easy, either in giving one or receiving one!
Please be gentle with yourself—if, in trying to give a “60,” it feels overly painful to listen, then it is not the right time to do it! It’s okay and important to gauge your readiness and to listen to that. Sometimes, I’m in so much pain from being triggered and believing I’m being “accused of being bad” that I just can’t listen right then. Bpd often comes with that “off-the-charts” searing emotional pain. It can feel like I’m walking in a fiery furnace. So I just have to say, ”I can’t do a 60 right now” and wait until it doesn’t feel like a fiery furnace any more. When that will be, one cannot say exactly, but you can try 20 minutes or an hour or so later, or the next day. It takes some inner strength to do even this self-monitoring, “self-gauging” step, and it certainly takes inner strength to do a “60.” I think it’s all about learning about yourself, reading yourself and gaining self-awareness, and not forcing yourself when you’re in a hellacious situation. We’ve found it helpful to stay in touch with your partner about when you might be regrouping for a repair, so they are not left waiting indefinitely. Just don’t let so much time go by that you don’t do the repair, as that can come across as not caring about your partner and the relationship.
Similarly, it can be hard for the individual with bpd to receive a 60 repair, as the person speaking about their feelings related to their partner’s behaviors. When speaking about a conflict or incident, once the person with emotion dysregulation starts talking about their hurt, it’s easy for them to go on and on about it, as the emotions you’re describing take over and you feel pulled into how hurt and angry (and justified!) you are. It can be really hard to stop yourself from going on and on because you may feel like you haven’t been heard by the other (YET) even if they are (FINALLY!) listening. This hurt can remind you of all the other times you felt this way, and maybe even call to mind some experience from your family-of-origin. Remember, you have journaling and therapy to help you on this.
A marriage or relationship is not a cure-all for bpd-level pain. Going on and on in a “60” reduces its effectiveness and can be too much for the “60” structure! If one goes on and on, we find this often does more damage than the original issue, all of which is the opposite of the goal of the repair. We have found that it’s usually helpful to do all 3 steps of the 60—1) active listen and validate the other’s experience of your behavior; 2) acknowledge what one did, and apologize if one wishes; and 3) ask, “What can I or we do differently?” Full stop. You just have to stop yourself and not go on forever in step one. It is very difficult AND you can do this!
To help keep your step one short, you will probably need to think about this in advance when you are not upset and, instead, just calmly thinking about how much you desire to be in this relationship and how the benefits of this relationship are worth the cost/pain you will have to face in stopping yourself when everything inside you is otherwise primal bpd—screaming, sobbing, and wanting to demand something from the other. Preparing in advance can help reinforce your desire to help repair the relationship without bpd-rage or hurt taking over.
I’m definitely not saying not to talk about deeper hurts, experiences from your family-of-origin or about how certain things happening in the here-and-now may tap into hurts you felt as a child or at other times in your life. It can be really important to talk about them in healthy ways when the time is right. I just think it’s most helpful and effective to pick another time to do that kind of talking or to fill in a journal or talk with a therapist. It doesn’t help me when I talk about them in the middle of a “60” repair. My experience is that bpd can magnify deep hurts and take over, and journaling or therapy can be a better help for those deep hurts.
I will also be writing blogs in the future on “Talk Sessions” and “Problem-Solving Sessions”
© Cathleen Payne