The Importance of Narratives in Relationship Problems
Narratives are incredibly important to us as human beings – we seem to be, more than any other animal, hardwired to try to make sense of the things happening around us through narrative (finding cause and effect in events). This tendency is so strong that, even when we are asleep, our brains convert the somewhat-random neuronal firings in our brains into a story that we experience as dreams.
Understanding the narratives playing out in each partner’s mind about the problems in the relationship and also why those narratives exist, I believe is the heart of any effective couple therapy. Consider the following argument between two partners, James and Diane (not real clients):
James and Diane have recently had more difficulties in their relationship. Since Diane started her new job, James has felt that she has lost interest in him. While they used to go out often, she has recently needed more alone time to relax. James, the more outgoing of the two, has increasingly felt disconnected from their social circle.
One night, James and Diane have plans to join a small get-together with some of James’s friends. Diane has had a stressful day: her boss harshly criticized her work, requiring her to redo a major section of it. Working as hard as she can, Diane still has to stay 15 mins late to finish it and then hits an extra 15 mins of traffic on the way home. Meanwhile, James, staring at the clock, becomes more and more frustrated. He thinks to himself, “She knows this is important to me, she just doesn’t care.” Diane, anticipating criticism from James, walks through the door.
“Oh good, you’re home,” James says with a flat expression, “quick get changed so we can only be half an hour late.” Diane rolls her eyes, saying, “I knew you’d be pissed. Look, I’m sorry I’m late, you won’t believe the day I’ve had. Your friends will understand. Greg was late last time. Remember?” “Yeah, that’s not the point. I haven’t gotten to see them in a while and now I’m missing out,” James says. Diane responds, “We’re still going to spend a lot of time with them tonight, why can’t you just focus on that?” Feeling unappreciated, Diane continues, “I don’t even feel like going out, but I’m doing this for you.”
This comment makes James feel even more rejected, saying, “I know, you don’t even like my friends. Whenever we go out with yours, I’m ready to go, on time.” Diane answers back, “That’s easy for you – you don’t have to drive home on I-5 every night.” “What, because I work from home, I don’t have a right to be upset?”, James questions. “That’s not what I’m saying,” Diane responds. James, feeling his frustration reaching its peak, begins to shut down emotionally. “Whatever, fine you’re right,” he says, “we’ll just be late, it doesn’t matter how I feel.” Diane lets out a long sigh and heads into the bedroom to change.
In this vignette, who do you think is right, who do you think is wrong? Which partner is responsible for their conflict? Perhaps you find yourself siding with one or the other partner because of a similarity to your experiences in a relationship, but the larger truth I believe is that both partners have a valid perspective that they come by honestly, and both partners engage in unhelpful behaviors that leave them feeling further stuck. This is often the case for couples seeking therapy for difficulties in their relationship.
Couple therapists often feel and have to manage the pull between both partners asserting their narratives of the problem in the therapy. To the extent that there’s a power struggle in couple therapy, it’s often one of: whose narrative is going to be adopted as reality? In that space, both partners may try to convince the therapist, acting as judge, of their side. Needless to say, this is not a dynamic that, when sustained for very long, is conducive to effective couple therapy.
The Fundamental Attribution Error
As human beings, we all have heuristics or rules embedded in our brains that help us categorize and make sense of the world. One of these tendencies is what psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error.
It basically suggests that when we explain our own less-than-desirable actions (cutting a car off on the freeway) we look to causes outside ourselves (Saying “Maybe they merged at the same time as me”), but when we explain others’ less-than-desirable actions (being cut off on the freeway), we tend believe that personal traits are to blame (“What a maniac that driver is!”).
This same dynamic tends to play out, in ways large and small, in our intimate relationships. When things go awry, or we don’t feel the way that we want to in our relationship, we look for the causes. Well, you know that your perspective is reasonable – after all you know all the reasons behind it! So you’re probably not the likely culprit. All the evidence instead points to your partner.
Three Common (Unhelpful) Narratives For Relationship Problems
In their excellent couple therapy book Reconcilable Differences, Christensen, Doss, and Jacobson point out three common unhelpful narratives that occur to us when trying to explain relationship problems:
1. “This is All Your Fault” – Indictment and Conviction
In this analysis of the problem, your partner is causing the issues because of some moral or characterological flaw, as evidence by the examples playing in your mind: She won’t ever admit fault – maybe she is immature. He criticizes you for things he does all the time – maybe he is a hypocrite. They seem distracted and distant lately – maybe they no longer care about you.
2. “You’re Sick” – The Diagnosis
In this analysis of the problem, it is not your partner’s moral deficiency that you hone in on, but some sort of emotional impairment. For this analysis we place ourselves almost as their therapist: They want assurances of love that seem excessive – maybe they are insecure about themselves. He wouldn’t engage in talking about the movie – maybe he is emotionally shut-down. She never states her preferences openly – maybe she is avoidant of all conflict.
3. “You’re Not Good Enough” – The Performance Evaluation
In this analysis of the problem, we may look past what we may consider moral and psychological deficiencies and instead evaluate their performances as spouses, as people. If you have seen others’ spouses display more affection – maybe she doesn’t know how to express love. If he hasn’t developed a lot of independent activities – maybe he is too clingy or doesn’t have the ability to be alone or make his own friends.
In each of these common explanations for the problem, the overwhelming urge is to share our analysis with our partner. After all, we’ve spent so much time thinking about it and analyzing it. If we share it with them, they will see the error of their ways and start to change – that’s the hope anyways.
Where Does It Go Awry?
Why doesn’t this seem to work? In most areas of your life, the general order of things is to develop an understanding of the problem and then use that understanding to fix it (that is, straightforward problem-solving). What goes awry here?
I think that the primary problem with this approach is that, while there may even be a kernel of truth to some of these narratives, the way they occur to us very often come across to a partner as judgmental in nature, and it is that judgment in our narrative that our partner is reacting to.
When someone encounters a judgment about themselves that does not match with their experience, their natural tendency is to try to defend themselves, either with examples of their own behavior, or by showing that their partner does the same thing or worse.
This obviously tends to escalate conflict and puts both partners further into a defensive position in which they are unwilling or unable to provide the confession or apology that the other is looking for. In fact, it is often the ways in which partners try to get their needs met or feel heard that inadvertently lead further into both partners feeling stuck.
The way out of this, and a major focus of effective couple therapy, is for both partners to be able to develop more shared narratives around their problems – common ground that they can use to understand and discuss situations without feeling as personally attacked or blamed.
In this process, it is often helpful to have the assistance of a couple therapist as a third-party invested in supporting the health of your relationship. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in working on this via telehealth, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.