My name is Jessica Bruhn and I am a psychotherapist here in Yk. I’ve also provided treatment and managed my practice in other provinces such as Alberta and Nunavut. I have been asked to write brief opinion editorial pieces that reflect current trends in psychotherapy as a science/arts study these days, how they relate to current events and wider public discourse. I will also share some special reflections about topics that have impacted my own life.
Today, I would like to share my reflections of a popular TV show that has been going on for at the last eight years. The show will be familiar to many cable TV viewers, and it is This Is Us.
To cable averse Millennials, Gen-Z’s, or anybody older who really has no time to watch TV, This Is Us began offering episodes on Netflix in early 2017. It was then that I first met the Pearson family. The Pearson family shares their humanity, strengths, charm, charisma and betrayal with an earnestness that is fairly rare in TV-land. We also get to watch them attack one another, get wounded, and then repair their relationships with each other, over and over again.
If we were to slice what hundreds of years of research from around the world in different geographical locations have given us (according to Drs. Julie and John Gottman), it’s that the art of repair is the single most skill that positively predicts the future of healthy relationships. The family ties you keep do not have to be based on blood or biological connection. We also know from centuries’ worth of experience that adoptive families, or families made later in life can be equally transformative and important in our lives.
How do you repair after a conflict?
In short, you repair by doing a series of specific things to re-establish trust with the other person. What people get hung up on and stuck around is the subject of the conflict. The subject of the conflict, the issue or topic that was being conflicted, does not matter in the repair.
What matters in the repair is an authentic wish express through words, and if you’re really lucky, words and actions, that make amends to the person that felt wounded. That last part is important. It must meet the emotional needs of the person that it hurt the most. Now, there are experiences in life that are the basis of conflict that can impact two people equally. Suffering is experienced subjectively, so it is not a competition. No one person’s suffering trumps the other; you cannot “win” this pity party.
In a case where both people describe similar levels of wounding, then each must say that they did not mean to hurt the other and this is how they will make it up to them, then ask the other if this amend-making is a good enough first step. And each of them must be willing and open to hear the answer. Nine times out of ten, it is something reparable and the amendment-making is accepted; other times, it might be a massive undertaking that would need months or years apart to achieve.
This is Us as a television show illustrates our human emotional record-keeping system and forgiveness rate. I sometimes watch the shows to count how many positive interactions there are between characters compared to how many negative interactions there are between the same characters. This ratio of positive to negative experiences in any relationship, whether maternal, paternal, friend, significant other, boss, employee and other has an influence surrounding how well the relationship will be able to handle conflict. The ratio of 5-1 positive-negative interactions is the magic ratio for healing major wounds from unhealthy conflict between people (Gottman, 2020).
Repair is the courage to say outright what isn’t working and our part to play in it. It is this balance of prioritizing both ourselves and others equally, which generates the kind of happiness that endures in partnerships of any stripe.
The more media reflections of healthy behaviour and healthy responses to unhealthy behavior there are, the more our culture and society will develop the emotional muscles necessary to maneuver through life-changing storms. I’m glad that This is Us is on the air and available for streaming, and we are watching (in the mainstream) gay stories, non-gender binary stories, feminist stories and humanistic stories that appreciate peoples’ lives in authentic ways by embracing all of their potential experiences, including good lessons on how to repair – thanks, Jack and Rebecca.