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April 01, 2017

During (and after) moments of conflict, we tend to create, for ourselves and others, linear stories that focus on cause and effect, good and bad, winner and loser. "You showed up late for our dinner reservation and ruined my evening." It's a simplistic approach, black and white in its thinking. Our linear stories have good guys and bad guys...someone at fault and someone who's been injured (and we're rarely the person at fault).

In her book Loving Bravely, psychologist Alexandra Solomon offers an example of a linear story.Marius says to Scarlett: "I cannot believe you went into my email to find out if I sent my resume to that job posting! How could you do this to me? You are nosy and you betrayed my trust big-time." This is a blaming, one-sided, simplistic storyline: Scarlett bad, Marius good.

Far more conducive to relationship harmony is circular storytellingii, in which the storyline circles back and forth between both spouses' roles and contributions. Rather than emphasizing who started the conflict, circular stories make room for "my stuff," "your stuff," and "our stuff." Because most couples, according to research, argue about recurring (and usually unfixable) problemsiii, the goal during and after conflict shouldn't be fixing what happens, but "skillfully and lovingly moving through [it] in a way that minimizes damage"iv. Circular storytelling is the best way to reach that end. Circular stories acknowledge both partners' contributions and both partners' emotions, while eschewing a black/white, good guy/bad guy version of events.

If Marius were able to resist the urge to blame and scold, and instead looked at both his and Scarlett's contributions, his circular story might sound like this: "I feel embarrassed about my current unemployment, which leads me to withdraw, avoiding your questions. The more I withdraw, the more you feel alone. The more you feel abandoned by me, the more you pester me or resort to searching my email in order to get information. The more you dig for information, the more I feel embarrassed, and round and round we go."v

Resisting the urge to tell linear, blaming stories frees us to tell more helpful circular stories that acknowledge it takes two to tango. Circular stories call up our best and most generous self, conveying: We're a team and we're in this together.

References & Citations

i Solomon, Alexandra. Loving bravely: 20 lessons of self-discovery to help you get the love you want. (Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.) 2017.

ii Circular storytelling is sometimes referred to as systemic storytelling.

iii Gottman, J.M. The science of trust: emotional attunement for couples. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.) 2011.

iv Solomon, A. op. cit.

v ibid.