How Storytelling Can Help a Troubled Marriage


When couples understand where their stories come from, they are in a better position to rewrite the story of their marriage.

A forty-three-year-old husband and father of two came to see me in therapy. He’d been married for almost fifteen years, but said he and his wife had had problems even when they were dating. “I’ve always had to play by her rules,” he said. “She doesn’t accept me for who I am. I need to figure out what I want for a change.”

Whenever I hear a story like that, it gives me pause. How is this person rewriting his story in hindsight? Why does he feel compelled to represent himself as her victim? More generally, I wonder, Is this narrator reliable?

“To tell a story is inescapably to take a moral stance,” wrote the psychologist Jerome Bruner. Every story we tell, of marriage or life, involves judgments about salient facts, the details to amplify, the impression we wish to leave. No doubt this husband—like so many of the clients in my therapy practice—is telling a story that is skewed in some way, obscuring a fuller truth of his relationship and making it harder for him to move forward.

In my new book, The Rough Patch, I show how the stories we tell about our love relationships have enormous power, and how changing your story can have a transformative impact on your relationship. Why is storytelling so important? Because we humans simply can’t help telling stories about ourselves and our lives—it’s how we understand who we are and figure out what to do next.

Many of the challenges people face in their relationships—fights over money, extramarital affairs, addiction, children leaving home—become crises when couples lack the emotional and relational skills needed to move through them. The ability to reflect on their stories and how those stories shape emotions is one of the key skills that can help couples right their relationship, or at least choose to part for the right reasons.

The importance of early attachments in our stories

Over the course of our lives, we choose which elements of our story to emphasize and which to obscure. The same is true in our love relationships. As the emotional centerpiece of many adult lives, love relationships are one place we look to determine whether our lives “make sense,” and whether we are moving forward or stuck.

It helps to realize that the story we are telling about our intimate relationship isn’t simply about what’s happening now, but also draws upon our early life experience of relationships, particularly early attachments. Babies are wired for attachment, and our parents’ responses to our attachment seeking molded our behavior, forming the basis for our expectations in intimate relationships. If that attachment was loving and attentive, we grow up feeling that we’re safe in our relationships, and we can be free to reflect on, review, and explore situations and thoughts that arise. If not, we may feel less safe or free in our partnerships. To read more from DAPHNE DE MARNEFFE, click here.

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