One way of seeing the shift in a relationship from harmony to crisis is in the way that each person makes sense of what is going on. I will refer to how we make sense of what is happening as a story, not in a derogatory sense but in the sense that it is a narrative that makes sense to us. We do it all the time and the stories we tell ourselves condition how we perceive and relate to everything and everyone.
Once a story has become well established in our way of making sense of the world then it will condition what we notice. Each time something happens that confirms the story we will notice it and use it to reinforce and justify the story. However the story will also make us blind to material that challenges or even contradicts it – we literally do not notice it. This is especially true when the story involves strong emotions and goes some way to explaining why it is impossible to argue someone into adopting a different story.
If the two people involved in a relationship crisis want to find a way out then they have to find a way of changing their stories. This is never easy. What follows are a series of suggestions and exercises that we have found helpful. You should not expect to be able to let go of your story completely as a result of any of these. It is enough if you can see that there might be an alternative view, or if some of what you believe might be an exaggeration.
For example in a recent difficulty between Eva and I, I had a story that whilst she would consider me in many contexts, whenever something really important to her arose, she would ignore my needs, no matter how important. I had recently had part of my lung removed surgically and was in poor health, so I wanted her to consider me more. I said to her “you never consider me whenever there’s an option for you to go to a party.” Eva thought for a moment and said “But I did consider you last year when I did not go to the HoH party!” I recognised that this was true and it enabled me to realise that my story was not completely true. There was a lot more to resolving the difficulty we were in, but this example shows how a story can be an exaggeration and that if you can be open to conflicting evidence, it creates an opening for something different to happen.
Incidentally stories that include the words “always” or “never” are usually exaggerations. So as a preliminary take a careful look at your own story about the relationship and check out all the times that you use the words “always” and “never”.
The first exercise is also something that simply requires you to check out your own story. It is extremely common for people to construct a story about a relationship in crisis where they blame everything on the other person. Logically if you do this then you are giving all the power to change things to your partner. Is that really what you want? If you were to take back your power to change things how would that change your story?
The second exercise aims to provide you with a way of ‘reframing’ what goes on between you and your partner. This does not change what occurs between you but changes the context within which you interpret what has happened. The process is described in detail here.
The third exercise is more difficult. One of our core principles is that in all relationship issues the responsibility for what is going on is 50% with each partner. There are NO exceptions to this rule. So accepting this for the moment, what is your 50% contribution to the current crisis? If you want some clues listen to what your partner is saying to you! Just accepting that you have a role in creating the mess will loosen the grip of your story. You really are not a helpless victim, you are just someone who feels very hurt and probably lost and disappointed as well. If you go to the Core Principles page read all the first four principles, they are all very relevant to resolving crises.
The next exercise is aimed at reducing the negativity between you and reminding you of the person that you initially fell in love with. To start with it will be very difficult to undertake this properly, but if you persist for about 30 minutes you should find some relief from the acute despair associated with crises. The exercise is the Relating Dyad.
Finally, and this is the place of last resort for Eva and me when we are in difficulties, try the exercise set out in the Joint Reality section. For this to be really productive you need to agree an intention for both of you – not individual intentions. Do this before embarking on the process itself. Also make sure to complete the integration process the next day. This has helped Eva and me out of many a dark place.