Relationship Repair Work

A flush-redness tints my face when I think about the stupid mistake I made a few weeks ago.


After cutting some logs into firewood near my place in the Finger Lakes hills, I set the chain saw down just off the nearby gravel road.


Then I hopped on my tractor and promptly ran over the chain saw.


Muttering a string of self-critical profanities, I picked up the saw and its scattered pieces for a trip to Mast’s Saw Shop in Ovid, New York. On the way, I remembered other things I had broken: a stained glass window, a teapot handle, a screen door.


I’ve broken relationships, too – said and done stupid things, held grudges, refused to back down. Most of the time, I got carried away with the feelings. I bathed in self-justification: If I’m angry, hurt, or frustrated, I must be right!


Like some of the relationships I never took the time to mend, I reckoned my chain saw was a lost cause.


I rolled into the saw shop, past Daniel Mast’s Amish buggy and two huge draft horses.


Daniel had seen mishaps like this countless times in his 46 years as sawmaster. Stooping over my banged-up machine with his tiny flashlight and speckled glasses, he cocked his head – did he hear a hiss? – and peered down into the bowels of the engine. All I saw was the top of his straw hat, with a mouse-sized hole that revealed his baldness.


Daniel didn’t waste words. He spoke with an almost hushed tone, and a distinctive Pennsylvania Dutch drawl that moved like one of those old water mill wheels, slowly and steadily. You knew that when he finally spoke after a period of deliberation, you could trust the calculation.


“I see the problem here. It can be repaired. It will take me some time and effort.”


Looking at the pieces of the saw, I thought again about broken relationships. People get run over, too, and separations often follow.


In families, when anxiety ratchets up, stupid decisions and ugly words come easily. Spouses get busy and distant. Parents and children judge each other. Stuff needs to get discussed, issues sorted through. Instead, there’s hurt feelings, ducking, and resistance. Assumptions build.


I work with family businesses, and I see a lot of this.


Sometimes, I find out that family members are completely cut-off from each other. Years go by, with siblings not speaking. They kid themselves with lame excuses: “She’s not very stable.” “We live far apart.” “We don’t have much in common.”


But it’s more than that. Resentment likes to lurk in the shallow waters of avoidance. Or smug laziness: one party simply stops trying because they see themselves as the victim. Pretty soon, there’s no relationship at all.


“This is between her and me,” someone will tell me.


That’s a comforting fantasy, but unfortunately, how we operate impacts others in the system. Relationship cutoff disadvantages the next generation, and, likely, generations after that.


And broken relationships are not just family affairs.


In workplaces, some leaders don’t connect well with others on the team. Or they outright despise each other. They give themselves a pass called blame.


Tussles erupt between sales and operations, between the front desk and the back office, between partners. “Who’s at fault? (I know it’s not me).”


Competition between high performers can become unhealthy and counter-productive. “I’m more important.”


In most of these relationship breakdowns, repair is possible, but not always easy. It requires will and skill.


“Will” means a mindset, a resolve:


“I want to improve this.”


“I’m playing a part and I need to find it.”


“I want to better understand the other.”


It’s a good sign to train the spotlight on you – the way you contribute to the problem, or make it worse. We always have 20/20 vision about someone else.


Finding just the right inspiration can push you to engage instead of dodging. For example, the ancient Jewish teaching called Tikkun Olam – “repairing the world.” It means setting things straight, fixing what’s broken. It’s a call to action.


However it happens, gathering the will is the big step.


If you summon the will, you’ll find the skill.


In fact, you can draw from a pool of skills – or learn them for the first time: Listening, humble self-exposure, genuine curiosity, owning your part.


It’s tempting, when tensions run high, to walk away, feed your disgust, tell yourself you’re through with this person.


In my world, that’s called “feeding the feelings.”


There’s a better way.


Repair work is never perfect, or finished. You move into patience mode, prepare for the long haul, and stay with it. In a healthy relationship, efforts to repair happen over and over.


Maybe Daniel said it best:


“I see the problem here. It can be repaired. It will take me some time and effort.”