ERP 097: How to rewrite your relationship story
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What is the story you tell yourself?
The story you tell yourself is so important, and most likely you are reinforcing the story over and over again. It is said that 90% of our thoughts are repetitive and 70% of these thoughts are negative. What does that mean for your story?
Our story shapes our identity, who we are and what we experience. If you listened to last week’s podcast episode, we looked at how our beliefs can have a dramatic affect on our experience. Also, I gave you several examples of things couples typically say.
People commonly have a story with some version of:
- If my partner would only…
- Maybe something is wrong with me…
- Maybe we are not right for each other…
None of these beliefs or stories are particularly helpful.
In last week’s episode, we also contrasted a negative belief and how this plays out with a more neutral belief and what this looks like in action. What a huge difference! Check it out if you missed it.
(Please listen to the podcast episode or read the transcript to hear more explanations, stories and examples.)
In the article Rewrite Your Life, authors and psychologists talked about the importance of looking at and reframing the stories we hold. They described the powerful impact of creating a different narrative and how this can ultimately change who we are and what we experience.
“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 enter school believing they don’t belong or 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.
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 says, and instead help them realize that “achievement is about seeking the right help and overcoming obstacles.” By Susan Gregory Thomas
The same is true for relationship health and functioning. It is not a fixed thing. We can improve our interactions and gain more closeness, happiness, and satisfaction… “with the right help and overcoming obstacles.”
Couples together create a relationship story, which in turn creates their “relationship identity.” How they perceive and experience their relationship. How they deem it…as good, bad, healthy, unhealthy, happy, unhappy, etc.
One of my biggest goals is to help you see relationship challenges as part of the process of developing and see that there are lessons and opportunities available. What would happen if you were to take your energy and put it towards creating a different result, rather going into old story?
Continuing to hold stories like “He will never change. She will never be any different. We will always have these issues. Nothing will improve.” will likely result in little improvement or change.
“If 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.” By Susan Gregory Thomas
Reminds me of the famous Henry Ford quote “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”
It is incredibly hard to change our beliefs and story without some conscious effort.
Even with support and guidance, couples will tend to resort to their default mode, especially within the early phases of learning. This is largely because we are wired up to protect ourselves. We do not want to get hurt, and our protective mechanisms kick in, as talked about in ERP 095.
This becomes particularly complicated when there has been trauma in the past. When trauma plays a role, stories tend to be ingrained and complex. Thus, it can be very hard to counteract.
Narrative therapy is a common approach to helping people address difficulties in their life, especially with children.
For example, if a child has symptoms of anxiety. Narrative therapy might help the child give anxiety a name, description, and story. This helps the child disidentify from the symptoms of anxiety, and pain. They begin to see “You are more than your pain. You are bigger than your pain. This is happening to you. This is not you.” They may begin to feel their power and choice. They may begin to set limits and boundaries with anxiety, as well as build new skills and strategies to overcome the anxious feelings.
This technique can be useful in couples work. Dr. Susan Johnson does this when she encourages couples to recognize when they are in a disconnect pattern or a “demon dialogue” as she would call it. It is essentially helping the couple recognize the painful dynamic is not their relationship. It is not who they are; it is something they have experienced, AND it does not have to be their story moving forward. It is incredibly inspiring to think you can have a new pattern together. Yes, you have to learn the new pattern, but it is possible and available.
What if you were to look at your story differently?
“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 at 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 that 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 nonwhite student at that school forever. And she did.
Now 15, my oldest is back to her charismatic, hilarious, sparkly self (and we are living in Brooklyn). The experience is melded to her core, and she’s tougher, but also more compassionate. She changed her story.” By Susan Gregory Thomas
What is the story you tell about your relationship difficulties and challenges?
1. Write down your story.
2. Identify your negative beliefs (harmful to you, your partner, or your relationship).*
3. Rewrite your story without blaming your partner or yourself.*
4. Reframe your perspective & look for opportunities.*
5. Give space and include what you want to experience in relationship.*
6. Create a new story.*
* May be helpful to get support.
“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.” By Sherry Hamby
How to move forward with the new story?
It can be hard to trust the new story. This is especially true when we feel reactive, triggered, and threatened. Again, it can be helpful to get support with this process.
It takes an active participation…rehearsing the new narrative and looking for evidence that supports the new story. “How does my partner demonstrate ______?”
When you run up against conflicting evidence, work to check it out. “Can you help me understand how __(behavior)___ fits into __(new story)___? By doing this, you are working towards supporting the new narrative rather than falling back into the old story.
“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.” By Susan Gregory Thomas
“We are the stories we tell.” By Susan Gregory Thomas
Click on this link to access the transcript for this episode: ERP 097: How to rewrite your relationship story [Transcript]
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If you are interested in developing new skills to overcome relationship challenges, please consider taking the Empowered Relationship Course or doing relationship coaching work with me.