When I see a couple who comes for counseling, I first see them together to get a sense of where the relationship is, how they are as a couple, and what they’d like to see change. I then meet one time with each individually. These one-on-one sessions are often amazing experiences of strikingly different narratives. I might meet first with Jane, and as I hear the story of the relationship and the vision of John through her eyes, images and impressions begin to form in my mind of who these people are and what they struggle with. Then, I meet with John, and as his story unfolds, it is entirely different, almost to the point that it seems be must be talking about someone else and she must have been talking about someone else.
I find that the more the relationship is in distress and the longer it has been in distress, the more the stories don’t match. In a relationship in distress, we are not our best selves. We are in self-protection mode. We aren’t vulnerable with our partner, don’t feel safe to express what is really going on inside. When we don’t have this kind of conversation with our partner, we tend to make them up. We make guesses about their thoughts, feelings and motivations, and these guesses tend towards the negative. Then we are too scared to check them out, and the negative and hurtful stories we tell ourselves about our partner tend to harden without correction from real input. A common story is “I am alone and lonely in this relationship. I am the only one working at it or trying to make things better.”
When the conversation stops, misperceptions grow, hurts don’t heal, and the home doesn’t feel safe. One of the things we strive for in the workshop it to restart the conversation. A secure couple has a shared story, a “story of us,” which may include painful chapters, but ends with repair, reconnection and triumph over hard times.