How to make sense of conflicting narratives when couples disagree.
She says he won’t communicate. He says she disagrees with everything he says and tells him he’s wrong.
He loves her but he says he doesn’t feel appreciated. There’s a lack of intimacy in the relationship. She says he’s flirtatious and addicted to porn.
She says he’s a narcissist and controlling. He says she’s over-sensitive and dramatic.
Reality is subjective and idiosyncratic when couples are in distress.
When we do couples therapy, we often hear contradictory stories. When couples describe specific incidents, they seem to come from 2 different planets – with 2 contradictory narratives.
When there is relationship conflict, facts are often less important than opinions, beliefs, and perceptions. We react to each other because of these perceptions – we feel hurt or angry, and because we don’t feel safe and loved.
We have conducted over 130 marriage retreats and couples therapy intensives in our Connections program – and hundreds of weekly couples therapy sessions. The stories told by couples in these sessions are poignant, and filled with heartache, anguish, and resentment.
There are several common themes in these conflicting narratives:
- We can’t communicate
The truth is that partners communicate their perceptions and beliefs quite clearly. They don’t hear each other because of their conflicting narratives and emotional reactivity.
- Righteousness narratives
Conflict and arguments may become stuck points when one or both partners need to be right. This never works because when you’re right you make your partner wrong. Nobody wants to be made wrong. This is a recipe for “the great shut down”.
- Labeling narratives
Name calling, often in the guise of diagnosing your partner (which may lead to “gaslighting”). He’s a narcissist. She’s a nag. He’s a sex addict. She’s frigid. These narratives often disguise and protect vulnerabilities and emotional pain. He feels unappreciated. She feels unsupported.
- The Power Struggle
He says she’s controlling. She says he’s passive-avoidant or passive-aggressive. What he really needs is to be heard and appreciated. What she really needs is empathy, compassion, and to be seen, heard, and understood.
- The Great Shutdown
Otherwise known as The Great Wall. She’s emotionally and physically unavailable – even withholding. She says that she can’t trust him because he’s always angry and critical. He says that he’s tried everything, but no matter what he does it’s never good enough. He is pursuing for love and appreciation, but he never learned relationship skills and frustration drives his negative aggression. Her withholding behavior may be a type of retaliation.
There are many other narratives, but most of them contain unexpressed feelings and needs. And many or most couples never learned how to deal productively with these difficult relationship struggles.
From Conflicting Narratives to a New Story
We have conflicting narratives because:
- We are different from each other (different backgrounds and experiences)
- Our beliefs about each other today are firmly rooted in early childhood experience (what we learned about feelings and relationships from our parents and others)
- We react emotionally and we have unmet needs (and we don’t know how to talk about it)
- Her need for security, emotional support and empathy seems to conflict with his need for appreciation
- His need for relationship security seems to conflict with her need for individuation and empowerment
How do we change the story?
Couples therapy and marriage retreats are designed to address conflicting narratives. Couples learn to see, hear, and understand each other by learning relational skills, applied with friendship and love:
- Listening with compassion and empathy
- Understand the underlying meaning, needs, and wishes in each narrative
- Deescalate conflict with the use of time outs and boundaries
- Identify the specific steps in each relationship dance
- Practice acceptance, patience, loving detachment, and forgiveness
- Do the opposite – the opposite of fighting and anger is understanding and empathy; the opposite of distance is connection and love.