Peter was pissed. It was the second time this week he’d stood over their sink pouring out what was just a few hours before, a perfectly good carton of milk. “Where is her head? What was she thinking? She always leaves crap everywhere. She never seems to care about how I feel.”
In his mind and on his lips was a story he’d concocted about his wife. Through frustration and globalized language, he fed the wolf of negativity. From one vantage point, Sarah had not been pulling her weight around the house. What she had been pulling were all-nighters for grad school and doubles at her waitressing job. Truth be told, Sarah did care about Peter and she loved him, so much so, she was burning the candle at both ends to try and make a better life for them. Unfortunately, Peter had pruned this information from his story. As innocuous as this moment might seem, Peter was well on his way to creating some rather unhealthy beliefs about Sarah. Beliefs that if left to take root, might erode the foundation of a once happy relationship.
It might not be listed as one of the top ten reasons couples fail, but the narrative in your relationship matters. That inner dialogue you have in your head about your partner, that one you think no one can hear, it plays. The fact is, negative narratives are an epidemic. Most therapists, couples, as well as the people writing those cute little top ten lists, are unaware of how problematic narratives are for couples. I tell my clients in my therapy practice that your narrative about your partner is the cure or the cancer to ailing relationships.
We all construct narratives about everyone and everything we come into contact with. Left unchecked, these stories collect. They pool and form the basis of our belief systems, influencing how we see and feel about the subject of that story. This is certainly true of the narratives we create about our romantic relationships.
If you are not a therapist, you might not have heard of Narrative Therapy. Founded by David Epson and Michael White, Narrative Therapy has had its detractors, however, it does propose some interesting ideas about how our internal storylines affect our lives and our relationships.This model stipulates that we “prune” the stories we tell ourselves, including information that supports our prevailing narrative, while excluding information that does not. If this theory is true, then the health of a couple’s narrative has far-reaching implications. As an expert relationship therapist, I believe it is a key and fundamental element to the happiness, health, and longevity of a relationship.
When two people first come together, the narrative is usually quite positive. Fueled by the dopamine blast of the new, our inner monologues about each other tend to be filled with Unicorns and rainbows–everything she says is poetry-everything he does is magic. As time passes, the dopamine wears off and the exposure of love is finally felt. Like Peter’s milk, the narrative can sour.
Whether it is the challenges of life, the exposure of love or a combination of the two, many people in relationships experience a need to cover up and protect themselves. Often this protection comes in the form of a negative narrative about their partners. The narrative separates us and provides a reprieve that insulates us from the vulnerability of love. If the light of awareness is not shined on this phenomenon, if the negative inner dialogue is left to fester and grow, it becomes a concretized belief system.
Ed and Tina came into my practice complaining of an inability to connect and communicate. They had been together for nearly 12 years and as they unpacked their relationship, it became apparent that Tina had cultivated a negative story about her husband that had become her prevailing belief about him. He reported “No matter what I do, no matter what I say, it’s not right…I can’t get it right.” Tina responded flatly, “Ed if I’m honest, I’m not exactly sure why I hate you, I just do.”
TIna’s story about her husband began to atrophy years earlier. As I got her in touch with the concept of her narrative, she was able to see that when Ed began traveling for work, her story about him changed. Her feelings of being abandoned by him caused her to cover her heart in the protection of a negative story. Tina began omitting important information about her husband. Over the years, it became increasingly more difficult for her to see Ed’s efforts. Although Ed had tried to reach out, he could not penetrate her protective shield. For Tina, the narrative she created about Ed prepared her for his inevitable desertion.
If Epson and White were right and the narrative holds such sway over our lives and our relationships, what can be done to change its course once it goes wrong?
As a clinician, I prescribe as the first step, a healthy dose of mindfulness, paying attention on purpose to our thoughts and feelings. Our inner dialogues generally live under the surface. They become such a part of the background noise in our minds, that we rarely give them much attention. When we practice mindfully, we do what I call “turning up the volume” on the stories we tell. Using this newfound awareness, I ask clients to assess their narrative for validity and fairness. Has any important information been left out? What happens if they bring empathy and compassion for their partners into the equation? How does the story shift? With the narrative told from a new perspective, long-held or concretized beliefs can be challenged and reconsidered. Both Peter and Tina omitted crucial information from the tales they were telling. Stuck in In their negative stories, they were unable to see their partner’s efforts.
The answer is simple, it’s just not easy. If you want a happier, healthier relationship that can stand the test of time, turn the volume up on your inner narrative. Take responsibility for it and appraise it as even-handedly as possible. Empathy, compassion, and understanding are the building blocks of unselfish love. Be willing to inject these into your narrative about your partner and watch how your relationship changes.