ERP 097: How to rewrite your relationship story [Transcript]
ERP 097: How To Rewrite Your Relationship Story
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Welcome to The Empowered Relationship Podcast, helping you turn relationship challenges into opportunities and setting you up for relationship success. Your host, Dr. Jessica Higgins, is a licensed psychologist and relationship coach who shares valuable tips, tools and resources for you to dramatically improve your relationship.
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Hi, thank you for joining today’s podcast episode. Today’s episode is 97, How To Improve Your Relationship Story. I’m excited about this show. I think it’s super important and I look forward to our conversation.
Before we get started, I am appreciating just holding a crystal clear intention for what the purpose of this show is about and why we’re investing our time and energy into this topic. In my mind, intimacy in a marriage or a long-term partnership is one of the most profound ways that we get to deepen in our growth, as well as our capacity for love and intimacy. It challenges us and it also inspires us. With the high and the low, part of this conversation is building resilience to tolerate some of the low, and also learn how to navigate those tricky areas a little more skillfully, so that we can spend more time in the constructive part of the low.
We can’t always control whether or not we’re gonna experience upset, but how we experience it is really largely this conversation, as well as really being mindful and intentional and authentic about our connection – that it’s alive, is authentic, it’s congruent with our values and is dynamic. We want that passion, we want that juice, that spark, and that definitely takes a level of intention and effort to cultivate, at times. Sometimes it’s effortless, and other times it takes — I keep hearing, and this has been a long time saying, that “love” is a verb, it’s not a noun. It’s something that takes our active participation.
So that’s largely what this show is about – just helping you expand your capacity for intimacy and also your resilience for navigating the tricky, sticky parts that are challenging and upsetting in relationship.
For you, my listeners, I am so grateful and honored to be sharing this time with you. I know you’re busy, and I have just the utmost respect for your investing in your life and improving your marriage or relationship. I’m deeply privileged to support you on your journey.
In an attempt to further support you on this journey, I wanna be the first to let you know about a presentation that I’m gonna be giving on 15th March (Wednesday). So mark your calendars and stay tuned. You’ll be getting a link either by accessing the show notes, or if you’re on my list, in about a week you’re gonna get a notification, an opportunity to register, as well as finding out the time in your timezone.
Within this webinar titled “Your Map To Happy, Lasting Love”, you’re gonna get a beautiful visual where we can look at the landscape of intimacy together. Like any good map, you want a concise overview of the terrain, right? I’m gonna help you identify common pitfalls, and how you can easily overcome and prevent them.
You’ll also walk away with a clear understanding of where you are in the map, where you might be getting stuck and also where you want to go, where you want to get to. You’ll also get some insight into really helpful next steps on your journey, as well as valuable resources and tools. You wanna be well equipped and well prepared.
I’ll also be telling you about the Connected Couple program, which is a six-month transformational program. I’m excited to share this with you, and I would love to have you included. Again, stay tuned for the link to register or get on my list, and you will be notified about that directly.
Today’s title – How To Improve Your Relationship Story. What’s the story you tell yourself about your relationship? Over the last several weeks I’ve been helping you identify beliefs that we hold and how those inform what we experience, whether or not that’s what we feel, or the way we related to others, and ultimately the result. We looked at the dramatic difference between a more neutral belief, compared to a more negative belief. It’s pretty amazing the difference.
In the same theme, what we tell ourselves, the narrative that we hold – the story – is extremely important. We’re gonna talk about that today. It’s extremely important because most likely we are repeating the narrative over and over and over again. It’s been said that 90% of our thoughts are repetitive. Of those 90%, 70% are typically negative.
If we look at your relationship and whatever difference or conflict or challenge you have at times, it’s likely that you have a particular story that you tell about you, your partner and your relationship. I know I do.
It’s really common for us to repeat the same story or the same theme. It might have a different chapter or a different section, but it’s essentially thematically similar, and a lot of people have themes around “If my partner would only…” It’s really looking at how their partner is not X. Or some theme around, “I’m not good enough.” The default mode is “Something’s wrong with me” or “I can’t seem to get it right”, “I’m not fully up to par.” Or the question and the doubting of the relationship – “Maybe we’re not meant to be together, maybe we’re not right for each other.”
We’re gonna look at the narrative today, the stories that we tell ourselves and how much this impacts our identity, who we are and what we experience.
A while ago I came across an article that I had read many months ago, as it was published in 2016. It was published in Psychology Today, and there were actually several authors, and it has several sections to it. It was June of last year, and it’s titled Rewrite Your Life. I’m putting a twist on this – I’m looking at Rewriting Your Relationship.
We’re gonna get there, but I kind of wanna lay a little bit of a foundation for what this whole narrative thing is about. In the first section of this article, which I’ll put the link on the show notes; you can find that, I believe by just tapping your device, and the show notes will appear, or you can go to my website, which is DrJessicaHiggins.com, click on Podcast, and all of the episodes are right there. The most recent one is at the top; click on Read More and the show notes will pop up for you. All the links that I talk about will be mentioned at the bottom.
In this article titled Rewrite Your Life, psychologists are giving examples from research and studies that look at the importance of a narrative and a story, and how that can dramatically impact someone’s identity, who they believe they are. They give us stories from kids in school, dealing with pressures related to race, ethnicity, social status, success, intelligence… I’m sure this relates to any aspect. Body image… All of those things. And also throughout the lifespan of adulthood and navigating intimacy, and pretty much virtually any aspect of our life – we have an identify, who we believe we are, and our narrative supports that. They’re really recommending that we can reframe our narrative; some of the stories we tell ourselves aren’t necessarily true, don’t have to be true, and that there’s a lot of possibility.
In a section by Susan Gregory Thomson, she writes:
“One experiment involved students who had shared a group narrative identity along the lines of, “We’re too different from these rich kids. We’ll never catch up, and we’re probably not smart enough anyway.” Researchers showed them seemingly professionally produced videos citing evidence that many kids entered school believing they didn’t belong and aren’t smart enough to handle the work, but that after a few months the majority adjust socially, get help from faculty, work diligently, and go on to succeed. Students who watched the videos experienced marked improvements in grades, graduation rates, and self-confidence.”
Essentially, she’s saying that these kids had a group thought of “We’re not really gonna be able to match up, so they showed videos that showed them the possibility that they could, so they were able to see dramatic change in their improvement around grades, graduation and self-confidence. That’s great! She’s citing one researcher:
“There is nothing magical about the approach, Wilson says. The idea is to change kids’ idea that intelligence is this fixed thing we have,” he said, and instead help them realize that achievement is about seeking the right help and overcoming obstacles.”
I love this! I think the same is true for relationship health and functioning. It’s not a fixed thing. Whether or not you’re happy or unhappy, that doesn’t have to be a fixed thing. We can improve our interactions, gain more closeness, happiness and satisfaction with the right help and overcoming obstacles. Just as Thomas is saying about these young kids, they’re helping them believe in the potential. I’m trying to help support people on this podcast that they can have a different experience, that they can have a different result and their story can be different moving forward. It doesn’t have to be what the story has been.
In relationship, I believe that two people have their own stories. Now, even if they have different stories, I think most partners are pretty aware of the other’s story, and that collectively, they create their relationship story. This, in my mind, creates the relationship identity. Again, who you believe you are, how you believe your relationship is – is it good, is it bad? Is it healthy, is it unhealthy? Is it happy/unhappy? These types of things.
As we look at our narrative, as we look at our story and we recognize perhaps what I described earlier, “He’ll never change”, “She’ll never be different”, “We’ll always have these same issues”, “Nothing will improve” – with that thinking, with that belief in that story, it’s likely that nothing will improve. Susan Gregory Thomson writes:
“Our stories tell us we are resilient, we will be. If they tell us we’re not up to the fight, we likely won’t be.”
That’s so powerful. Our story determines our success almost, the way she’s putting it. It reminds me of the famous Henry Ford quote: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” There’s a powerful opportunity here to rewrite our story, perhaps reframing relationship challenges, seeing them as a part of the process, and that there’s something to be learned and there’s something to be gained individually looking at how are participating, what are we contributing to in the dynamic. If we’re investing a lot of energy into complaining, worrying, overanalyzing, blaming, fighting, shutting down all of these things, what’s the story we’re telling ourselves? Is it progressive? Is it contributing to your health and the health of your relationship?
It can be extremely difficult to just change our belief and our story without some conscious effort – I think that’s what this article is really looking at… Putting some real concerted time and energy into unpacking our story, identifying the story. I’m gonna give you some tips of how to do that, and this article actually does, as well.
However, I wanna note here… Some of the couples that I’ve worked with, even with some good support and guidance, will tend to resort to their default mode, and I think this is largely because – like I talked about in episode 95 – we are wired up to protect ourselves. If we have some fear, lack of confidence or even trauma, we don’t wanna experience pain and hurt, so we’re gonna be feeling defensive and we’re gonna resort to those protective mechanisms, even if they’re not helpful, even if they’re not constructive.
It perhaps feels safer to think, “She doesn’t love me, she doesn’t care about me, and I’m gonna shut down, I’m gonna go away to protect myself”, even though that might not actually be how she feels. It’s painful to hold that belief and that story, but in some ways it helps protect me. Long-term it probably doesn’t help, but in the moment that’s what we resort to. Again, if you listen to that episode, it’s very primal, that sense of protection.
This gets particularly complicated when there’s trauma involved. This may be where one or both partners have experienced some trauma in their past and it becomes even that much more difficult if one or both partners have had reoccurring trauma, which a lot of people would call chronic trauma, and which makes it very complex.
I have so many examples to share with you about how couples experience this, and I think everybody does, to some degree. If there’s some challenge and conflict and they’re seeing things differently… Essentially, people are having different narratives, they’re coming from their own perspective and their own world view. There was a couple that I was working with, and I do believe there was some trauma involved in past history, so it was very complex. Because we would really spend time looking at the conflict. This conflict between this couple is that he would love to travel, and he needed to travel for work and for business, and she saw that extremely threatening. Her story was “He’d rather not be with me, he doesn’t really care, and he’s just trying to have fun and experience life without me. He’s not waiting for me or he’s not trying to include me”, those types of things.
We would really safety and look at it, really get his experience, his meaning making, and we’d really come to a new understanding. Then situations would happen a few months down the road when he would have to travel again, or he would wanna travel again, and the same stuff would come up for her. It was almost like she couldn’t hold to a new understanding or even entertain the possibility that he did care and that he was trying to make it work for her, for her to feel cared about, and even to include her. Yet, there was some really difficult story there for her, that she had really great difficulty reframing and believing in.
With long-ingrained stories, traumatic narratives, this can be incredibly hard to counteract, so I just wanna acknowledge that. In Rewrite Your Life there’s a comment about how reframing or rewriting your upset doesn’t necessarily work with people that are in personal distress. I find that really interesting, because narrative therapy is actually a type of working with clients, it’s a therapeutic approach, and it’s specifically designed to help people address difficulties in their life. So I don’t know if she was talking about this specific model, but I was thinking about my training and knowing that narrative therapy is even particularly helpful for children.
Just to give you a little background, this is how it works. Let’s say a child has anxiety, and you help the child create a new story about the anxiety. Because most children would be like, “Oh, this overcomes me and it’s overwhelming… I don’t know what to do. I feel so scared, and anxious, and it’s frightening” and all of these things. So helping the child perhaps give the anxiety a name and describing what anxiety looks like and how anxiety talks, how it walks, what it does, and creating a story.
It’s interesting… What typically happens over time is that a child will begin to see anxiety as separate from themselves. They disidentify from their anxious feelings or the pain. It’s essentially helping them recognize they are more than their pain. This is something that they experience, it’s something they interact with – let’s say it’s a monster, and they have interactions… But it’s not them. It’s something that they’re experiencing, but it’s not them. So it’s happening TO you, it isn’t you. So it helps them begin to feel more that they can see themselves and they can begin to have some choices, being able to maybe set boundaries, feel more empowered, set limits, and it begins to help them build new skills by creating a new story about how to be in relationship with their pain, and that they are not their pain.
Susan Johnson, who has written Hold Me Tight and Love Sense, she does a lot in training therapists in helping couples look at attachment styles, and she uses an analogy which I think is in some ways referencing this therapeutic tool: when couples are in conflict or a disconnect pattern, like someone’s shutting down and the other one’s seeking or pursuing (the pursuer-distancer; that’s a really painful dynamic for both partners). Her language is seeing some of those disconnect patterns or interactions or conflict as daemon dialogues, and she’s got several that she points out, in Hold Me Tight, particularly.
One of the things that she helps couples look at is this is a dance that we’re doing. It isn’t actually us. It’s not who we are, it’s not the essence of our relationship. We’re having a particular dance based on our protective mechanisms, and we’re getting stuck and that dance is not working for us. It’s almost a sense of like “Let’s look at that daemon dialogue as the problem. We’re not the problem, that dialogue is the problem.”
I think this technique can be extremely useful in relationship, to look at a particular pattern and say, “Okay, this is our old pattern. We’ve been around the block enough to know that this doesn’t help either one of us, and we don’t enjoy this”, so we could identify, “This is the old pattern. We want a new pattern.” We have a choice, we don’t have to continue to do the old pattern. That can be incredibly inspiring, to think that you can have a new pattern together. Yes, perhaps you have to learn the process of that new pattern or the steps of that new pattern, but that it is available. That would be a reframe. Or using this narrative story approach around, “This doesn’t have to be us.” This is something we’re experiencing, but it isn’t who we are.
What if you were to look at your story differently? In the article Rewrite Your Life, in the section by Susan Gregory Thomas, she writes:
“My oldest daughter was usually quiet and exhausted on the hour-long ride home from seventh grade. Not this day. She slammed the car door shut and spat that a classmate had been incredibly rude to her. She veered into a rant on hypocritical teachers and finally inventoried the despicable qualities of nearly every girl in her class.
I asked her what was really going on, and she answered truthfully: for the past six months, my daughter, who is mixed-race, had been viciously bullied in racist attacks by girls in her Philadelphia school, often in classrooms, while teachers seemingly took no notice.
I pulled over and began calling every teacher and administrator involved. They would hear every detail of my daughter’s story, and then this story was going to end because she needed to know it was over.
The next morning, as we met with school officials who pressed her for specific names and incidents, I asked them to withdraw so I could talk to my daughter alone for a moment. There she sat, crumpled, shaking, terrified of retribution. But if she did or said nothing, those past few months would stay forever lodged, ruinously, in her psyche. She needed a victory, to feel her own power. So I put it to her: today, she, an ordinary girl, could decide to be a hero and change the story for every non-white student at that school forever. And she did.
Now 15, my eldest is back to her charismatic, hilarious, sparkly self, and we are living in Brooklyn. The experience is melded into her core, and she’s tougher, but also more compassionate. She changed her story.”
I love this excerpt, as I think it does a great job of describing an incredibly painful circumstance, and the individual choice to create a different result. I do know that we can do that in relationship.
My encouragement to you to work with this would be to look at what is your story about your difficulties and challenges. Perhaps you would like to write it down, and that might give you an opportunity to get it outside of yourself. Look at it from a perspective of it’s not you, it’s something that you experience. Get it out of you, and look at it a little bit more clearly… Possibly being able to identify the negative beliefs that maybe are harmful to you, harmful to your partner and to your relationship.
With any of these steps, I do think it can be helpful to get support, to really work this process. One would be write down your story. Two would be identify the negative beliefs and possibly – this would be really challenging, but it could be really powerful – rewrite your story without blaming your partner or blaming yourself. That would give you an opportunity to reframe your perspective. Look for those opportunities to have a different story, to create a different result, and also give room for what you wanna experience in relationship – again, that sense of being empowered that you actually do have choice… And essentially, create a new story.
If you’re looking for those tips – I actually listed six there:
1. Write down your story
2. Identify negative beliefs
3. Write the story without blaming your partner or yourself
4. Reframe your perspective and look for opportunities
5. Give space and include what you want in relationship
6. Create a new story.
In the article Rewrite Your Life, in a different section by Sherry Hamby, she writes:
“The benefits of rewriting — from improved mood and well-being to boosts in the immune system — have since been demonstrated in dozens of studies, including my own. Rewriting helps you organize your thoughts and feelings and put them into words. This, in turn, helps you gain perspective, sort out your emotions, and increase narrative coherence — your understanding of who you are, how you became that person, and where you are going.”
She also provides some tips around how to frame some of this rewriting. Again, you can check out that link on my show notes. My website is DrJessicaHiggins.com, click on Podcast, and you can find this episode (episode 97 – How To Improve Your Relationship Story).
As I mentioned a little earlier, moving forward with the new story takes practice. It takes a lot of reps to really allow the new story to take hold, so I have a couple thoughts for you around how to support that process… Because it can be hard, especially when we’re feeling reactive, triggered or threatened. That defensive posture can really suck us back into some of that negative story. It’s helpful to get support with this, I will say.
A couple of the points I wanna make is that it does take some active participation – rehearsing the story, rehearsing the narrative, and also looking for evidence that supports the new story. “My partner does care about me” and maybe looking at “Oh, I see my partner’s caring about me by doing this.” Or “I see my partner’s care when they do that.” So looking at the evidence to support the new story. Or “How does my partner demonstrate care?”
Secondly, if you run up to any experience or circumstance that conflicts with the new story – evidence that conflicts with the new story – I encourage you to check it out. If the intention is to work with your partner, perhaps in a calm way, approaching them and saying, “Hey, can you help me understand how this behavior fits into the new story? When you do this, how does that fit? Because I’m having a hard time making sense of that story.”
It’s almost really giving them the benefit of the doubt. You’re believing that they’re an ally, you’re believing that they’re a positive role in your story, and you’re wanting to check out, “Okay, I’m not seeing how that works here. Can you help me understand?” You’re working essentially towards the new narrative. You’re supporting and contributing to the new narrative, rather than falling back into the old story.
This does take trusting your partner, creating safety, really building a sense of connection where you are working towards this feeling of “We have each other’s back. We are working together.” Because it’s a vulnerable thing to share, like “Hey, I’m wanting to get protective, and I’m scared and I wanna go into my old story, and I don’t know how our new story works. Can you help me?” Most of the time that works really well, where the partner can describe how it fits, and new information is revealed and then it supports the strengthening of that new story.
Again, this does take support, so if you’re looking for guidance, I would highly encourage a therapist, a psychologist or a coach to really support this process.
In closing, Susan Gregory Thomson writes:
“We can’t change the past, but we can change how it affects us and who it makes us. When we tweak what we tell ourselves about the past , we can redirect our future. In our relationships, through our life choices, or at our jobs, we can recognize our mistakes, move on, and start to embody a different story. We are the stories we tell.”
I wanna encourage you to take one step in exploring your narrative. Perhaps it’s just writing down your story, just putting it on paper, looking at it. When you experience any relationship challenge, what’s your story? Perhaps take some time to really write it down and really look at it. If you already know and you’re already done that, perhaps take one of these other steps that I’ve suggested.
I would love to hear from you, so if you wanna drop me an e-mail, you can e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can comment on the show notes. Again, you can find that on my website, which is DrJessicaHiggins.com, click on Podcast, find the episode and scroll down to comment.
I am touched and deeply moved by your courage to embark on some of this work. I believe it is heavy lifting. Some of us are just beginning to flex those muscles and build those muscles. Some of us have those muscles and are just continuing to get strong and really strengthen and keep them really maintained. This is a practice, and I want you to feel strong and feel vital in your relationship.
Again, mark your calendars if you wanna join me on Wednesday, 15th March. I would love to have you included and receiving tons of goodies. Again, you’ll have access to that link shortly.
Until next time, I hope you take great care.
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