Just having the desire to make amends can’t repair the damage someone has inflicted on a relationship. There have to be clear and unmistakable signs of being fully invested in the work of repair.
Folks can do damage to their intimate relationships in many different ways. But whatever damage the actions of a party cause a relationship, there has to be some sincere effort to repair that damage for emotional wounds to properly heal. While different wounds require different kinds of repair efforts, there are some common elements to successful healing. My years of experience as a therapist and much relationship research attest to this. Moreover, the actions that promote healing are often the very same ones that can help prevent future similar relationship damage.
Perhaps nothing is as damaging to a relationship as a breach of trust, the most essential ingredient of any lasting relationship. It’s the very foundation of a therapeutic relationship, and it’s the bedrock upon which any wholesome and enduring relationship holding the promise of true intimacy must be built. Trust in relationships can be damaged in many ways. The most obvious of these is infidelity, which can take many different forms, but infidelity is not the only way a relationship partner’s trust can be shaken. Sometimes, a party to the relationship who is skilled at the art of what we call “impression management” can reveal themselves to be not at all the person they initially portrayed, leaving their partner to question what’s real and even to question their own sanity and judgment. The partner experiencing the trust breach can begin to doubt nearly everything, and resolving the “cognitive dissonance” (i.e. the mental stress that develops when a person finds themselves holding two or more contradictory beliefs or frames on reality at the same time) can take a very long time. That’s where some time tested tools of healing come in.
One of the more important things I’ve learned over the years is that while there are often issues that both parties in a damaged relationship need to work on, when it comes to the damage itself, it’s primarily the responsibility of the person who inflicted it to repair it. That necessarily means having much more than mere regret for the damage they caused. They also have to go beyond being remorseful. They have to be contrite — not just feeling badly they wounded their partner but experiencing a change of heart precisely because of the of the hurt they’ve caused they other. (See “Regret, Sorrow and True Contrition” and “What Real Contrition Looks Like”.) It’s this contrition that provides the motivation for the work of repair. It’s what making true amends is all about.
Just having the desire to make amends can’t repair the damage done to a relationship. There have to be clear and unmistakable signs that the person who inflicted the damage is invested in the work of repair. Three concrete actions not only reflect that investment but also are of immense help to the repair effort itself:
Increased mindfulness and attentiveness
The contrite partner is a “present” partner. That is, he or she listens and listens actively and attends to the concerns of the other. And it goes beyond listening and attending to your partner’s words. It’s “reading” their non-verbal behavior and tuning in to their emotions.
To help heal a relationship wound, you have to show that you understand what it must feel like to be the person you injured. All too many times, folks who’ve injured a partner want that partner to simply forgive, forget, and move on. But it’s rarely that simple. More than anything else, the aggrieved party needs to know that you understand their pain and that you’re willing to act in a manner that you might desire from someone who had inflicted a similar injury on you.
Many folks who’ve done something to damage a relationship assume time alone will heal the wounds. All wounds need active tending. The injured party needs to know you’re doing the work of repair. That means investing your time and energy to make things right again. That doesn’t mean making grand or ostentatious gestures. It’s the little things that count: spending quality time, listening understandingly to concerns, helping the other person “process” their pain, and especially, doing these things without defensiveness but rather with a sense of responsibility.
Ultimately, it’s love that has the power to heal a broken heart. True love, especially love that can truly be restorative, is not a sentiment. Rather, it’s a behavior. And it’s more than gestures, too. It’s displaying the unwavering commitment to labor on another’s behalf — to do whatever it takes to mend things. It’s in those actions, and most especially in a person’s willingness to engage in those actions, that the injured party knows their partner is truly sorry. It’s what opens the door to making the relationship even better than it was before the damage occurred. It’s making love in the purest sense of the term. It is what, when faithfully done over time, has the power to heal.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on February 21, 2017.
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