By Sarah Lebeck-Jobe, MS, Associate Marriage & Family Therapist
Some psychologists believe the key to a happy, resilient relationship is expanding your everyday conversations from transactional exchanges (such as what’s for dinner and who’s picking up the kids from school) to a deeper level of communication: sharing the meaningful aspects of your past, present, and future with your partner. If your relationship needs rejuvenating, you may find the following suggestions helpful. This article is part one of a three part series.
Focus on the Past: Enhance Your Family Narrative
“If you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones,” Bruce Feiler writes in The Stories That Bind Us. It is crucial to remember both positive and negative stories about your family. All too often, we let ourselves fall under the spell of cognitive distortions that can hamper our ability to be happy. Two common cognitive distortions are Mental Filtering (when you let one aspect of an experience color the entire event) and Discounting the Positive (when you think good things don’t happen or aren’t important). If you find yourself having trouble recalling positive memories about your life or relationship, here’s where a good reminiscing session with your partner or attending your family reunion can come in handy. Researchers have found that by talking to others about your larger family’s history, it can help you weather the storms that come your way.
Feiler interviewed Dr. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University, to find out what kind of family conversations seem to build resiliency in children. Dr. Duke stated, “The most healthful [unifying] narrative is … called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”
By recounting both the rosy moments and the setbacks, you can build a narrative that showcases the strengths of your family. Focusing only on the positive may make current struggles seem overwhelming if they aren’t balanced with recognition of the hardships in life. You don’t have to reminisce about the past every day, but if you happen to remember a time that was important to you, share it with your partner and see if he or she has additional memories to enhance the collective story.
Ideas to Spark Conversations about the Past
1) Ask your partner, “Remember when we first met? What was your first impression of me?”
2) Look at photographs of vacations you have taken together.
3) Ask your parents, “What was I like as a little kid?” (You may need to involve others at that family reunion to get a complete answer here!)
Stay tuned for the next article in this series … Focus on the Present: Knowing the Details of Life