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By Alana Gregg, MA

Relationships can be tricky. There are two flawed human beings trying to navigate a stressful and difficult world while doing their best to love each other well. This is probably one of the hardest tasks in life. No one does it perfectly because, oh right, that human thing. We become irritable, cranky, take our frustrations out on each other, and at times hurt the people we love the most. If you’re in this place, life can be different and marriage counseling can help turn things around. 

How can we slow this process of hurting each other down and avoid those big arguments.? One way is to use a simple phrase when you are starting to feel upset: “The story I am telling myself…” This phrase is coined by Brene Brown, a well known author, speaker, and psychological researcher. She says this phrase has saved her marriage and helped her avoid countless fights. 

Filling in the gaps

What happens is when someone says or does something that hurts us but we don’t have all the information, our brains start to fill in the gaps. Our brains are wired to make meaning out of what’s going on around us. However, we also have fears and insecurities that color the interactions we have. So the story we begin to tell ourselves has more to do with what is going on inside us than what is actually happening.

For instance, after a busy day the other day we started to hunt for something to eat. My husband said, “We have nothing to eat for dinner.” I took this as criticism because it is usually my job to go food shopping and do the meal planning. So I said, “Well, you can plan the meals once in a while too you know!” My defensiveness could lead to an argument if he began to feel hurt and angry; feeling that I was implying he doesn’t do enough to help our family. Throw in the other stress and hunger factors (you don’t want to see me when I’m hungry), and we could have had a recipe for disaster.

Before things escalated, I decided to take a breath and say, “I’m really sorry I responded that way. The story I was telling myself was that I wasn’t organized or on top of things enough to have a meal planned and you were criticizing me for that.” And then my husband said, “I didn’t mean anything by it. I know it’s been a busy week. Why don’t we order a pizza?” In my head, my insecurity about falling short could’ve set off a massive fight because I was making the assumption that my husband saw me that way too.  

3 tips for making “The story I am telling myself” phrase work for you:

  1. I statement- If you say “the story I am telling myself is that you’re a jerk,” it’s not going to work. It has to be something that you are feeling at this moment. Take a minute to reflect on what is going on inside of you that is causing a bigger reaction. 
  2. Vulnerability- It has to be a deeper emotion that you cannot necessarily see on the surface. Anger is usually our best defense mechanism. It’s like putting on a suit of armor. No bullets can get through. But what happens when you say “the story I am telling myself is that you think I’m not enough.” That’s an extremely vulnerable thing to say. But how can we experience real connection unless we are honest about what is going on inside of us (with safe people)? In a marriage counseling situation, taking the step into vulnerability is essential.  
  3. Courage- Using this phrase is risky. It takes so much courage to be vulnerable and have these hard conversations. You are putting yourself out there. And when we’re exposed there is always a chance we will get hurt. Maybe the other person is responding out of fear and insecurity and your courage will enable them to be courageous too. There is also a chance that what we think is happening is not the real story and that we really are loved and safe. Isn’t that what we are really longing for?

Some of us are caught in the same argument over and over and it doesn’t matter if you are fighting about bills or how to load the dishwasher, the same thing happens. This can be incredibly painful. If you are struggling in your marriage or relationship, our counselors would love to help you identify the cycle you are stuck in. Call us today to schedule a marriage counseling appointment in Ambler, PA or an online therapy appointment.