One of my earliest memories is of my mother taking me to the library, where I fell immediately in love. I looked forward to our weekly trips, where I would gather another collection of story books to take home and peruse for hours. One of my favorite gifts as a child was a book of fairy tales that I read repeatedly. As I read the adventurous tales, I felt transported in time and place and imagined interacting with the various characters. I still remember sitting in front of the mirror at age 6 and wishing that I had hair as “black as ebony,” like Snow White because it seemed so exotic compared to my dirty blonde locks. I still have an enthusiastic response to stories, which is one reason I love being a therapist.
Every couple who starts marital therapy has a story (or two versions of a story). One thing I am watching for in early sessions of therapy is how a husband and wife tell their story. I routinely ask questions about how they met, what their courtship was like, and what made them decide to get married in the first place. I can often tell a lot about the level of distress in the marriage based on the responses. Couples who are still highly committed to their relationships are usually able to describe these early relationship aspects in an expansive, detailed way which increases the positive emotion in the room. More highly distressed couples often struggle with positive memories and may report that they have “nothing in common and never did,” or that they “can’t remember.” The silence in the room is the story.
Marital researcher John Gottman noticed this phenomenon and described distressed couples as “rewriting history,” meaning that as the relationship is colored with conflict and/or negative emotion, they forget what used to be good and rewrite their stories. The reality is that we are always rewriting our memories based on our current experiences. The way marital history is recounted often says more about the current condition of the marriage than the actual historical events.
The majority of people do not get married with the intention of having poor quality marriages or future divorces. Most people marry someone with whom they believe they can create a relationship with some longevity. However, when the marriage is difficult, they quickly forget what they saw in their partners in the first place.
Here are some of the responses I routinely hear in high distress marriages when I ask how the couple became attracted to each other and how they decided they wanted to get married:
- Our parents expected us to get married
- The invitations were already out
- My friends were all getting married and it seemed convenient
- I was getting older
- I can’t remember
- I used to be physically attracted to him/her
I have been known to ask for additional clarification or to even gently challenge some of these responses. Here are some probing questions I might ask:
“Even at the young age you were when you got married, you had some idea that this was at least somewhat permanent, correct? You weren’t planning your divorce the day you got married, right? (clients always agree) So, help me understand what is was about this person that made you decide to commit to her at the time?…I have a hard time believing you were shallow in your decision making, because most people take marriage fairly seriously.” When people tell me they got married because the invitations were out, I ask, “What was it about this person that made you think you wanted to send out the invitations? What made you want to get engaged?”
Sometimes, when I probe a little deeper and challenge the notion that there wasn’t some kind of connection they aren’t remembering because it is clouded over by the current marital atmosphere, people start accessing memories that have been wiped out. Sometimes when they go back and look at photographs from dating or getting married, they can remember.
Just to give an example (which is very representative of a common scenario), one husband I interviewed explained up front that he had only shown up to placate his wife, and he had no intention of continuing marital counseling and just wanted a divorce (in our first session). When I asked him how he had connected with his wife while they were dating, he claimed that he had no connection ever and just got married because it seemed “convenient.”
I leaned in and verified, “Ok, let me make sure I understand….you are describing growing up in a family and culture that views marriage as a permanent arrangement, but you decided to get married to the person you just happened to be dating because you didn’t want the hassle of finding roommates and an apartment for the next year? When I say that out loud back to you, can you see why I am having a hard time believing that? Can you see why it seems more believable to me that you have forgotten the connection you used to have with your wife?”
I didn’t expect to ever see him again because he had been so fixed in his position. I was shocked to see him actually show up the following week and to hear him say that I had “called,” him on his “B.S.,” and I had been right. He said he thought about it and he remembered that he had a strong intellectual connection with his wife and remembering it made him realize that he actually did want to fix his marriage and feel connected to her again. He became one of my most engaged and committed clients.
Here are some steps to developing and improving upon a marital story:
- Go back to the beginning, but be honest. Give yourself enough credit to realize that you probably had some very good reasons for marrying this person. Be honest about what they were. Look at photographs. Talk to people who were there.
- Realize that every great story has challenges. One of the fundamental elements of an epic tale is a really great antagonist(s). Life is full of metaphorical dragons, and in successful marriages, couples learn to unite against them together.
- Write down the direction in which you want your story to go now. It’s amazing to me how quickly many people will place themselves in the role of victim and give up on trying to choreograph a relationship. I have seen so many couples triumph over different types of betrayals and challenges that I sometimes get discouraged when couples seem to just give up. It is hard (if not impossible) to fix a marriage by oneself, but if a couple can unify around the direction they want to go, there is a lot of hope.
If you haven’t been able to tell, I believe in “Happily ever after.” I’m a hopeless romantic that way. That being said, I have faced many of the dragons other people face, and sometimes my husband and I have been symbolically in battle on opposite sides of the fence. Every great story has dark parts. Every great story has growth and often triumph. The reality is, as long as you are married, you are still writing your marital story. How do you want yours to read?