A Simple Formula You Can Use to Improve Your Relationships

The Four Rs: “Retreat, Re-think, Recover, Re-enter.”


Relationships remain one of the most reliable indicators of a person’s happiness. A person is more likely to be happy if they have close, supportive, and intimate relationships than someone who doesn’t.

The only way to have relationships with other people is to deal with other people, which means that you’re going to have to deal with conflict: the least fun part of dealing with people. Relationships with our fellow humans, especially the ones closest to us, will always be imperfect and messy, and thus will require conflict-management.

A few years ago, I discovered the following conflict-management formula that my husband and I use to this day: with each other, our children, and anyone else (friends, family members, co-workers, etc.). It can be used to manage conflict in any relationship.

This formula is simple, clear, easy to remember, and most importantly, it works.

It’s called the 4 Rs for “Retreat, Re-think, Recover, Re-enter.”

Here is what each step means:

1. Retreat.

If you find things are getting heated about a specific topic or you and your person are just grating on each other’s nerves, take a step back.

This might look like a time-out (“hey, let’s talk about this in 15 minutes.”) or not responding to an e-mail/text/phone call you just received for a specific length of time.

2. Re-think.

We usually have some kind of part in our conflicts. What is yours?

Did you say something you shouldn’t have? Were you a little reactive because you hadn’t gotten enough sleep last night? Does that one co-worker always irritate you no matter what they do? Did you overreact or are you actually irritated about something else?

Evaluate if you had anything you may need to own.

It’s also an opportunity for you to consider whether this issue is something you should or should not take personally. Did it seem like an overreaction on their part? Maybe they had a rough day and you got caught in the crossfire. It might not be about you at all!

3. Recover.

It’s always good to consider what you can do for your own self-care. Think of this step as a way to ground yourself before taking the next one.

If you’re prone to negative self-talk (like telling yourself, “I always mess up my relationships.”), make sure to counter that with, “I’m not perfect and I make mistakes.”

You might need to take a walk, read a book, pet a puppy, meditate, exercise, eat some chocolate, or whatever else you consider actually beneficial for yourself and your well-being to recover before going through with the next step.

4. Re-enter.

We can’t run away from our problems forever, though I bet most of us honestly would like to some days.

The hardest part of relationships for me is re-engaging after some hostility or conflict. I’m usually fearful, and my guard is up. But re-enter them we must if we want to continue those relationships.

The relationships that matter the most to us will be the ones we put the most work into. Re-entering in a gentle fashion is important.

Here are some good examples:

“I’m sorry I was snappy with you about that transaction today. That wasn’t about you.”

“I noticed you reacted in a big way to my question. I wasn’t meaning anything by it, and I didn’t understand your reaction. Is something going on?”

“I’m really nervous about this conversation. Can I have a hug first?”

“Can you walk me through what you were experiencing when we talked earlier?” That’s the whole formula.

Retreat, re-think, recover, re-enter.

It’s ridiculously simple, but like much in life, it’s easier said than done.

The doing is the part of relationships that sustains and maintains them. The being is when we get to be in the present moment and enjoy what is.

If scientists are right about close intimate relationships being positively correlated to our level of happiness, then doing the work means we get to sit back and enjoy those awesome beautiful moments when things do in fact seem to be going perfectly.


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