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Changing the Narrative in Relationships by Deepening Empathy

Oftentimes in relationships, it can feel like we are stuck in place or like we are repeating the same mistakes (and the ensuing arguments) over and over again. This can be felt in romantic relationships – and is often the focus of couples therapy – but also exists in our familial, professional, and platonic relationships. Having the ability to identify our relationship narrative allows us to intervene to make a change, enabled by empathy for ourselves and others.

What is a relationship “narrative”?

A relationship narrative is how we describe our relationships, the story we tell ourselves and others, influenced by our experiences, expectations, interactions, assumptions, and dreams. Our relationship narratives can shape our concept of reality and of who we are. Within the narrative, there can be patterns that emerge; some patterns repeatedly lead to conflicts, poor quality of relationships, or disappointments. In these instances, “re-storying” the narrative can help repair and strengthen relationships. Here is a simple approach to changing your relationship narratives and some questions to ask yourself (and those around you) to guide your journey:

Step 1: Identify the Relationship Narrative and Patterns

  • How do I tell the story of this relationship? How would my partner/friend/coworker/family member tell the story differently? Why?
  • What boundaries exist in our relationship? Are we both comfortable with the boundaries? Are they too rigid? Too permeable?
  • What patterns exist in our narrative? Are we often playing the same roles? Do our conflicts play out the same way even if the subject is different? Do we have rituals of togetherness?
  • Am I holding myself accountable in the relationship? Do I take responsibility for my actions and my emotions? Am I quick to assign blame?
  • Am I aware of my wants, needs, and emotions? How do I feel in this relationship? How do I feel when we fall into a pattern? What are my needs, and have I communicated them? Am I responding to the other persons’ needs?

Step 2: Work to Deepen Empathy

  • Do I know how to be empathetic in a relationship? Am I considering how they think and feel?
  • What is it like for them to be in a relationship with me? If I don’t know the answer, do I feel comfortable enough to ask them? 
  • Can I imagine myself as them in our relationship or a specific conflict? Can I think about playing a different role and how that might affect how I feel or behave?
  • Am I treating them how I want to be treated or how they want to be treated? Do I know their values or what is important to them?

Step 3: “Re-Story” The Narrative and Intervene to Make Change

  • How do we tell the story of this relationship? How would my partner/friend/coworker/family member tell the story differently? Why?
  • What are our natural reactions when a pattern repeats itself? How do we wish we reacted?
  • What would happen if we only communicated in emotions? Would that minimize arguing and blaming?
  • We are listening, but are we hearing? Can we work to communicate back what we heard to make sure we’re on the same page (i.e. “What I heard you say was…”)?
  • When there is conflict in the relationship, what solutions do we employ to resolve the issue? Are these solutions working? What else could we do to effectively resolve the conflict?

CFC Therapists are relationship experts; whether you’re looking to create a more positive dynamic with family and friends, a significant other, or simply with yourself, we can help you get there. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment or consult call with one of our therapists please feel free to contact scheduling@cfctherapy.com.

By: Dan Suffoletta

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