My husband and I got in a tiff a few weeks ago. But due to our busy schedules, swim practices, late work meetings, etc., it was several days before we were able to sit down and try to resolve it. Which meant, we both had several days to stew over it. And boy did I stew. I stewed on my way to work, I stewed as I fell asleep at night, I stewed as I recounted the events for a few close friends who immediately saw my side and how it made so much sense I was angry!
We sat down one calm night, when the kids were in bed and it wasn’t too late that we were too tired. We had eaten and weren’t crabby from hunger. All the necessary factors to support a productive conversation were in place. As we each took turns explaining the reasons for our reactivity, it was almost comical. The story I had been stewing on, the story I had been telling myself, was wrong. The reasons he did what he did, the information he had that I didn’t, and the circumstances that I was unaware of did not support the story I had been stewing on. The same applied to him–it was sooo interesting to hear the story he had been stewing on. There were elements of truth in both of our stories. There were elements of mistakes we both made. But mostly, there were a lot of assumptions that fueled both of our reactions.
The story I had told myself about this particular fight is that he was being selfish and only thinking about himself. As he recounted his events, I was able to see that he actually had me in mind a lot. The story he had told himself was that I was being negative and didn’t enjoy my time with him. When I reflected on my actions, I was actually able to see why he saw things that way. I was able to clarify and reassure him of my enjoyment.
The Story I Tell Myself
If you are a couple in my therapy office, you have likely heard me ask this question: “What story do you tell yourself about that?” And I do it because these 5 words, “The story I tell myself” can help change the trajectory of a fight. It’s a quick shortcut to an effective resolution.
Let me give an example. Maria came into session to tell me all about her dissatisfaction with Kyle’s work-life balance. She gave me the rundown of his past few weeks at work, his late nights, his overnight travel and how he logged back into his computer every night to work more. She attempted to lodge into attacks about how Kyle is a workaholic and how his priorities are all out of whack.
“Maria?” I ask, “What story do you tell yourself about that?” “Well…” Maria said, “I guess the story I tell myself is that he cares about his work more than me. I tell myself that he doesn’t like to spend time with me and therefore, prefers to throw himself into his work.” Kyle was sad to hear how his actions made Maria feel so unimportant to him…a far stretch from the truth. Kyle and Maria had a much more productive conversation from here, contrary to the past. Kyle came up with some work boundaries and some ways to unplug at the end of the day to spend time with his wife. Afterwards, I asked Kyle, “What story do you tell yourself about this?” Kyle said, “The story I tell myself is that Maria is just being a nag and that she always finds something to complain about.” I watched Maria as she sat back and reflected on his words…how she had come off as a complaining nag, not so much a hurting wife who felt the pain of feeling in second place. She even said so. “I guess,” Maria said, “I haven’t communicated my feelings to you very well.”
The Story I Tell Myself. I love these 5 words for many reasons. They aren’t an attack. They aren’t presented as an absolute fact. They are a guess, not an accusation. They acknowledge right off the bat, that you are working with limited information. They express an openness to see things another way. They invite a conversation rather than delivering a final conclusion. Most importantly, they can invite empathy, compassion and understanding. I am constantly working with partners to share their hurts in ways that draw their partner closer instead of pushing them farther away. This is one simple way to do this.
Here are some more examples. Pay attention to the feelings they evoke in you.
“You don’t care about me…that’s why you do what you do.”
“When you do this, the story I tell myself is that you don’t care about me.”
“You don’t care what I think or how I feel…that’s why you do what you do.”
“When you do that, the story I tell myself is that you don’t care what I think. I tell myself that my thoughts and feelings aren’t important to you.”
“You never want to have sex.”
“The story I tell myself is that you never want to have sex. I even tell myself that maybe you have lost interest in me and don’t find me desirable anymore.”
“You never do what I ask. You don’t listen to me.”
“When I ask you to do things and you don’t, the story I tell myself is that my needs are not important to you.”
What to do:
When you are in the midst of a disagreement with your spouse try using these words…The Story I Tell Myself. It isn’t…“This is the way it happened.” or “This is why you did what you did.” It is…“This is the story I tell myself about what happened and why you did what you did.”
- The 5 words “The Story I Tell Myself” can change the trajectory of a fight or disagreement.
- They are a non-attacking way to share your perspective.
- They can evoke empathy rather than defensiveness in your partner.