A forty-three-year-old husband and father of two came to see me in therapy. He’d been married for almost fifteen years, but said he and his wife had had problems even when they were dating. “I’ve always had to play by her rules,” he said. “She doesn’t accept me for who I am. I need to figure out what I want for a change.”
Whenever I hear a story like that, it gives me pause. How is this person rewriting his story in hindsight? Why does he feel compelled to represent himself as her victim? More generally, I wonder, Is this narrator reliable?
“To tell a story is inescapably to take a moral stance,” wrote the psychologist Jerome Bruner. Every story we tell, of marriage or life, involves judgments about salient facts, the details to amplify, the impression we wish to leave. No doubt this husband—like so many of the clients in my therapy practice—is telling a story that is skewed in some way, obscuring a fuller truth of his relationship and making it harder for him to move forward.
In my new book, The Rough Patch, I show how the stories we tell about our love relationships have enormous power, and how changing your story can have a transformative impact on your relationship. Why is storytelling so important? Because we humans simply can’t help telling stories about ourselves and our lives—it’s how we understand who we are and figure out what to do next.
Many of the challenges people face in their relationships—fights over money, extramarital affairs, addiction, children leaving home—become crises when couples lack the emotional and relational skills needed to move through them. The ability to reflect on their stories and how those stories shape emotions is one of the key skills that can help couples right their relationship, or at least choose to part for the right reasons.
The importance of early attachments in our stories
Over the course of our lives, we choose which elements of our story to emphasize and which to obscure. The same is true in our love relationships. As the emotional centerpiece of many adult lives, love relationships are one place we look to determine whether our lives “make sense,” and whether we are moving forward or stuck.
It helps to realize that the story we are telling about our intimate relationship isn’t simply about what’s happening now, but also draws upon our early life experience of relationships, particularly early attachments. Babies are wired for attachment, and our parents’ responses to our attachment seeking molded our behavior, forming the basis for our expectations in intimate relationships. If that attachment was loving and attentive, we grow up feeling that we’re safe in our relationships, and we can be free to reflect on, review, and explore situations and thoughts that arise. If not, we may feel less safe or free in our partnerships.
All of us emerge from childhood with master narratives about whom we can be in a relationship with and what to expect from others. Yet, despite their powerful influence on us, these central narratives can change. Research findings on attachment, emotion regulation, metacognition, and mindfulness all demonstrate that learning to narrate our inner experience helps us to organize our emotions and calm them. And self-reflection is one of the most effective ways to change how we feel.
Seeing how earlier patterns with parents or caregivers contribute to your current behavior can help you review tendencies you have that once helped you to survive, but now create barriers. With self-awareness, you might notice, for example, that whenever you feel needy and dependent, you quickly become vigilant or defensive—perhaps because neediness was ignored or punished in your childhood. Understanding the roots of your current reactions, you might overcome your fears of being dismissed or discounted and risk seeking more closeness.
Even observing others’ behavior might teach you to tell a different story. Suppose you visit a friend and witness her being gentle and kind with her child when her child misbehaves. Just witnessing that might spark some new ideas about how to treat others when they are upset—something different than what you experienced as a child or what you’ve done in a similar situation. This awareness—and its accompanying emotions—can be food for thought in creating your relationship narrative.
Rewriting our stories through caring conversations
In a loving relationship, we can reevaluate our own stories and create new ones. Couples who feel most connected and hopeful together are those who can tell a story of their relationship—what therapists call a “we story”—that emphasizes loving elements such as empathy, respect, pleasure, and acceptance. The question is how do people do it? What is involved from moving toward a shared narrative that can serve as an inspirational vision of their relationship, even while going through a rough patch?
Most importantly, a couple has to figure out how to have a fulfilling conversation. A conversation—as opposed to a parallel monologue—involves two different people, each with a valid point of view, who are making an effort to understand each other. To navigate a couple conversation successfully, it helps to think in terms of three steps:
- Ask your partner, “Is this a good time to talk?” This question is deceptively simple but useful because we routinely broach complicated topics on the fly, while our partner is headed out the door to work, or puzzling out the income taxes, or trying to go to sleep. (Then we may start to weave a story about how they “never” listen.)
- Partners take turns exploring and describing their feelings, free of unsolicited commentary and interruption. Not everyone finds it easy to open up, which is why a patient, curious attitude in a listener is so important. It also helps to remember there’s always more than one “true story,” and your partner’s reality doesn’t cancel out yours. You can invite your partner to consider your perspective by using phrases like, “I sometimes feel” or “I don’t know if you think this too, but…” In that way, you leave open the possibility that your partner may have another perspective, while still communicating what is true for you.
- After feelings have been shared on both sides, think together about how to address the issue at hand. Partners may find that fully articulating their feelings has revealed more overlap in their viewpoints than expected. If not, at least they now have more understanding of each other’s perspectives and the compromises they’ll need to make to move forward. Even if the conversation is messy, painful, or inconclusive, partners leave it feeling that their “we story” has been strengthened.
When you are speaking with a partner and want to increase both authenticity and intimacy, these kinds of conversations can help rewrite your relationship story. Of course, it’s not always easy. Some couples may refuse to explore possible alternative meanings and will insist their partner’s meanings are unambiguous…and often bad. They have difficulty observing their own biases, using language to win their argument rather than telling their story. They argue about facts, rather than exploring intentions. They have trouble listening, but say they don’t feel heard.
A signature element of growth in marriage is telling your story in a way that shifts away from blaming your spouse for the state of your world to bearing responsibility for the impact of your own conflicted and destructive feelings. If you are able to see that you are unfairly casting stones, it helps you to stop doing it and to reinstate your partner as a good person whom you love. Even if you’re ending the relationship, bearing responsibility for your own feelings is a huge part of being an adult.
It’s extraordinary to witness the impact when couples recognize that their feelings are the product of their own minds rather than the behavior of their partners. It’s instantly soothing to the other partner, giving them space to consider rather than react. It can open the door to more fruitful communication that can bring you closer together and help you rewrite your story in a more positive light.
That’s what ended up happening for the unhappily married father of two who sought my help. He began to see how invested he was in feeling like the innocent victim of his wife’s control, and where that theme came from in his own past. He then could see the ways he subtly co-created the very dynamic he consciously sought to escape. It didn’t make his marriage easy, but self-reflecting on his own contribution gave him a greater sense of emotional space, choice, and autonomy. He increasingly felt like the author of his own story, rather than a character in someone else’s.
We all have the opportunity and the responsibility to be curious about what kind of narrator we are and how that shapes the story we tell. Even in those moments when marriage feels painful and conflict-ridden, or boring and predictable, we can still be interested in understanding the story we are telling about it. And, as it turns out, that can make all of the difference.