Bringing Life to The Relationship Narrative:
Updated: Sep 1
I’ve known my wife by heart for the past 40 years. From the very beginning we fell into a conversation about our lives, and we have not come to the end of it yet. We’ve been bouncing off each other and playing with ideas in cobbling a coherent narrative of how we came to be.
I’ll begin with sharing how I came to know who she is. We met in graduate school at a small gathering of friends celebrating the end of the first semester finals. The conversation was compelling from the very beginning. I’ve been privy to her thoughts, her feelings, and beliefs, and how they came to be important to her. I have discovered, over the passage of time, the complexity and contours of her inner world. The narrative of her life grows and thrives each time she tells the stories about people and events who matter to her. I hear about conversations with strangers and acquaintances who inspired her. Countless stories and anecdotes about family members and friends retold time and again, always with the same spark and verve. Stories about loved ones, birthday parties, family gatherings, vacations, and life celebrations, all rich and redolent in details indicative of how important they are to her. Stories that stretch back decades, as far back as her memories can take her.
I know the cast of important characters in her life. I know what they mean to her, the experiences they have shared and the struggles they have been through. I’ve heard many moving stories of love and devotion, in sad and stark relief with ones of poignant loss. Parables from previous generations, passed along over a vast span of time and distance. Tales of childhood mischief and misadventures, of high school crushes and romantic disillusionments. I can recite the accomplishments she is proud of and the disappointments she wishes she could redo. Through the infusion of these stories about her earlier life, I’ve gained a sense of who she was before I knew her and how she became the person she is now.
Occasionally, and by necessity, we return to the story of how we met and became a couple. We dip back in time to the very beginning to replay the story of our courtship, taking a deep dive into the complexity of the process. We think about why we chose each other. What were the highlights of dating? What was it like to decide to commit? How did each of us experience our first year of marriage? What adjustments needed to be made? What was it like for each of us to become parents? What stands out as the really happy times? What stands out as the really difficult times? Why did we stay together? We work to remind ourselves why we matter to each other and why the marriage matters too.
The narrative does not exclusively focus of what has transpired and the meaning we assign to it. It also entails thoughts, feelings and emotions about the inevitable challenges that lies ahead. Where will our life be located? Who will be there with us as we move through time? Occasionally, morbid topics of the future insert themselves in the conversation, fueled by the anxiety over the specter of death, illness, and infirmity. We wonder about potential plot twists lying in wait. Playing off each other’s feelings and perspectives help us deal with the uncertainty. Thankfully, we’ve become wiser for having dealt with and negotiated so much already. Gratefully, optimism reigns most of the time, quieting the worries and restoring faith that we will be all right and that things will be better than our imagination tells us.
It is essential for couples to be acquainted with the life narrative of their partner and how their inner world is constructed. Being curious and knowledgeable about your partner’s thoughts, feelings and emotions are fundamental attributes in building understanding and empathy. By asking questions, by suspending certainty of our own beliefs and perspectives, we can develop an indispensable, essential skillset for sustaining successful relationships.
The building of the relationship narrative is a slow-moving, laborious process. The tapestry of a narrative is partially woven from disparate threads of conversations born from conflict and collaboration. When we least expect it, refreshing, surprising snippets of clarity and insight can spawn from processing the aftermath of regrettable incidents. Adversity, with all its cruel twists and turns, can sorely test our faith. Yet if we recognize that feelings and beliefs are transient, we may discover the silver linings we’ve yearned for.
What are the useful attitudes in discovering your partner’s narrative? Being attentive, curious, and non-judgmental are undeniably helpful. It’s a caring gesture to ask our partner questions about quotidian life. One can make a valuable deposit into the relationship account by acquainting ourselves of our partner’s daily agenda. Make it a point to know who her allies are, who she turns to for support and advice. Does she have a mentor? A detractor, a rival, or a nemesis? What does she do when they are upset about something? How is she keeping up with her current challenges? What does it feel like to deal with them? Striving to understand your partner deepens the narrative and strengthens the relationship bond.
If we contain our inclinations to offer advice and solutions, if we adopt an attitude of curiosity, appreciation, and willingness to listen, we enhance the capacity of our partners to find a solution that works for them. People need the mental and relational space and time to think and feel what they need to without interruption, judgment, or persuasion. Our partners do not need our advice. They need our validation. A coherent, competent, and engaged conversation focusing on understanding and support adds invaluably to the relationship narrative. If we do this successfully, we open ourselves to the possibility of learning something new and potentially amazing about relationships.
Walt Ferris, LCSW. Coherence Associates Inc.
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