“The most important thing,” she said, “is to be able to constantly re-create the relationship.”
Yes, that’s right, yet again I was being lucky enough to hang out with a person much smarter than I am, and of course that meant I was subtly plundering her brain for blogfodder (hope you don’t mind too much, Ali!). In this case, we were talking about relationships and the sad reality that most don’t actually last all that long. Even aside from the initial passion, which usually lasts about seven to fifteen months, most other relationships (including marriages) tend to last about five years.
According to a study by Dr. Susan Sprecher reported by the American Psychological association, it’s not necessarily love that is the problem. She found, “…among couples who broke up, both men and women were likely to report a decrease in satisfaction and commitment before the break-up, but no change in feelings of love.” How sad is that? You still love each other deeply, but that love is not delivering what was promised, and somehow things are just not satisfactory. A woman who was seeing a couple’s counselor described it like this “…after a while screaming into the silence is just too hard.”
The length of my own relationships tends to match both that average and the general description, so I’m not going to give you any secret tips here from my own personal knowledge. However, as I’ve gotten to know Ali over the years of seeing each other at occasional conferences, I’ve always admired the way she handled relationships – whether it be a friendly acquaintance (such as myself), her family (I’ve met her sister) or her significant other.
So I asked her: how do you manage to make it work? Her answer relates to a theme that we’ve already discussed a few times: the stories we tell.
In this case, it’s not the stories we tell ourselves, it’s also the stories we tell each other. Dr. Robert J. Sternberg is a psychologist who has been working from the model of “love stories” – finding, to the surprise of no writer, poet, or songster anywhere, that people tended to resonate with a narrative view of relationships:
In a series of interviews in the 1990s with college and graduate students who ranged in age from 17 to 26 years old, Sternberg identified about 25 stories that people use to describe love…Sternberg and his co-authors found that the type of story wasn’t the deciding factor in forming a lasting relationship, but having matching stories was. (emphasis added)
These stories range from an idealized 50’s model of heteronormative domestic bliss to the “travel” mode of a journey the two of you take together over years. Some of them are comedic (“Why so serious?“) and some are tragic (“No matter what happens, no matter how far, I will always be there for you!“). It may be the Waltons, it may be Bonnie and Clyde, but couples tended to paint their relationships with some kind of genre.
It’s that last part about the “matching stories” that really got me. With all the reframing that I’ve done for myself, all the techniques for changing the perspective and the flavor of events that I’ve talked about here and (even more) in person with people and groups, I’ve never sat with a partner and co-created the story of us.
HEA or HFN
It doesn’t have to be a very serious, a very accurate, or even a very detailed story. But as Ali pointed out to me, in her romantic story – which, without revealing too much, is above-average in length – she had “reinvented” the relationship more than once. Rather than simply give up when things started to get rough, rather than simply grit her teeth and power through it until she needed silences to scream at, she and her partner told each other a different story of who and what they are together.
The result? They are together.
Now, I’m not going to jinx things by saying this is the answer and obviously they’ll live Happily Ever After. No, instead I’m pointing out that they have that other romance novel ending: Happy For Now. Considering the changeability of the universe, that’s a pretty awesome place to be, especially after years.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to start looking at what narratives I’m applying to relationships – past and present. I might even try to explore potential story treatments for the future. What about you?
Whether you realize it or not, your life is telling a love story. Don’t you think it’s worth reading?