In my research and clinical work, I often help individuals and couples identify a unifying theme for their lives, an issue that recurs and can be said to summarize the pattern (s) in a life. Once a theme is clarified, individuals can use it to build and embellish a story around it. For example:
June, a 51 year old teacher, named her theme ‘‘Earn your right to life’’. As the oldest daughter in a working class Polish American family, she had early and regular responsibilities for her five younger siblings. She viewed her parents as burdened financially and emotionally and carrying much of the ‘‘old country ideas’’ that one is only worth the work that they do. She grew to be a responsible student and a dutiful, if not creative elementary school teacher. Life got even busier as she married and then added three children to her responsibilities. Currently well into midlife, with all her children launched, she was beginning to slow down but admitted ‘‘I’m not sure I’d know how’’. She recognized being very uncomfortable with any options other than work and worried how she would cope in the event of a confining illness.
June’s 54 year old husband Bob was the family clown of his large, boisterous Irish Catholic family of origin. He learned early that he could always bring a smile to his mother’s face and he liked how that felt. Growing to adulthood, he cultivated the jokester role, finding it a ‘‘way to win the girls’’ and ‘‘stay out of conflicts at the office’’. While not going so far as to call it his life theme, he did allude to the increasing awareness that the class clown persona was wearing thin and that he was getting tired of trying so hard to please others. He decided to call his theme: ‘‘Keep everybody happy.’’
Identifying your theme and building a brief story around it helps you own it, a first step toward realizing you may want to make a change. Another step might be to have a conversation with your partner or a trusted friend who could offer feedback and an opportunity to understand one another’s patterns in a different light. Committed partners may want to create a joint story of their relationship.
June and Bob decided to try and blend their individual stories into a couple story and an interesting conversation ensued. They long understood that part of their mutual attraction was as ‘‘people pleasers’’ who were focused on the expectations and caretaking of others. They first titled their couple story: ‘‘Give‘um what they want.’’ Later, after more conversation, they recognized that the most enduring conflict in their marriage was ‘‘not having enough left over for each other.’’ June commented that realizing how far the pleaser quality went back for Bob made her feel less critical of his ‘‘passive, go with the flow attitude.’’
This led them to try and create a new couple story title that better fit them now, or ‘‘where they would like to head’’ (their growing edge). ‘‘Pleasing ourselves and each other’’ was what they decided to aim for and they began talking about what that might look like in real time (i.e., travel, working 4 day weeks, going on more walks together, etc.). It became the start of a new design for their relationship.
Creating a couple story complete with title helped Bob and June expand their awareness of the culture of their relationship and identify some steps toward change.
Research with other couples who tried this exercise found they began to use the word ‘‘we’’ and/or ‘‘our’’ and began to feel more like they were on the same team. Many stated that they liked thinking of their relationship in such ‘‘mutual’’ ways.
One woman said:
“We’ve been together so long now, I don’t particularly think about an Us anymore . . . guess I take it for granted. I liked the way trying to blend our stories made me remember the big picture and feel more connected to each other.”
Her partner said:
“Yeah, I get accused of just thinking about myself: what do I have to do, what do I want . . . I can forget about us.”
Witnessing one another’s stories
Many individuals who read their story aloud to their partner called the experience “quite powerful, meaningful, surprising, and poignant.”
Here are a few comments:
“There was something about just talking out my story all at once and having him listen that really got to me. A lot of this stuff I never think about anymore and to share it all at once . . . it was pretty amazing.
Telling that story about camping with my brother in high school, I just felt my gut tighten and the tears come. I couldn’t believe it..such a simple story but it made me miss him so much.”
The experience as listener was often equally powerful for many couples. For example:
“I can’t say I learned a lot of new things . . . after all these years you pretty much have heard it all at one time or another. But there was just something about listening to him go through some of his life from the beginning to now that helped me get a better sense of who he is, what all he’s had to overcome and maybe why he does some of what he does.
I remember that I started out this marriage wanting to be the best man and husband I could be. Over the years I’ve felt like a failure at both. It was so good to hear her say she remembered me that way -that somehow buried under all these years is the guy who just wanted to do his best.”
When one partner read and the other listened, it seemed to encourage feelings in the speaker and contemplation and empathy in the listener.
Several individuals said that learning the sustaining importance of some life goal in their partner’s story made them want to be more of a helpmate. The comments below suggest the genesis of a budding compassion:
“You know I was always somewhat put off by her perfectionism-everything always had to be just so. I never realized she’s been that way since she’s a little girl, her father was so critical and mean that I can see how that was her reaction-never make a mistake. I can have a little more patience with her now . . . she doesn’t have to be perfect for me.”
His partner said:
“That makes me feel so good-it helped me to share all that but to know you get my so called quirks is such a relief-like you might help me let go of some of that.”
Stories..made and shared are the building blocks of connection and the lifeblood of relationship health. Where would you start on yours?