A while back, I shared with you a “magic phrase” that helps with tough conversations.
The phrase comes from the brilliant social scientist Brené Brown, and it goes like this:
“The story I’m telling myself is…”
Her insight is that it’s not a person’s behavior that bothers us the most. It’s what we make that behavior mean.
A guy shows up consistently late to your dates. You tell yourself that his behavior means he doesn’t respect you or realize how valuable your time is. Maybe that’s true… or maybe that’s a story you made up to explain his behavior.
Maybe he’s always struggled with being on time, even when he wants to be. The only way to find out is to ask him.
We make up stories in our heads about why people do what they do all day long.
Quite often, those stories aren’t generous.
That driver cut us off in traffic because he’s a jerk. That barista didn’t smile when she took our order because she’s rude. Our boss overlooked our contribution to the project because he’s sexist.
(These are all examples of the fundamental attribution error, where we blame people’s bad behavior on flaws in their character rather than mitigating circumstances.)
In other circumstances, we might not even bother to think about the driver who cut us off in traffic; we just give him space.
We might not even notice whether the barista smiled or not; if she didn’t seem friendly, we assume she was tired or distracted.
At work, we might wonder if our boss even knew how we contributed to the project; we might take it on ourselves to point it out.
None of those situations have to make us upset.
But if we’re already feeling irritated or underappreciated or down on ourselves…
We’re more likely to make up a negative story about other people’s behavior, a story that then gives us the right to react with anger—anger that makes us feel better.
Stories in Relationships
Imagine this scenario. A man is feeling irritable because of something that happened at work. He comes home and opens the fridge, and there’s nothing to drink. He goes into a fury at his partner. Why?
If it were simply a matter of restocking the fridge, he could go ahead and do that himself.
But the story he’s telling himself is that she’s making his life difficult. He works hard all day, and he should expect to be able to have a cold drink when he gets home.
He gets to feel angry, and that anger feels good. It makes him feel powerful again.
The story he tells himself about your behavior matters.
Research shows that partners who make generous interpretations of each other’s behavior—e.g., she didn’t get it done because she was busy, he was late because of traffic—have happier, more satisfying relationships.
What story is your guy telling himself?
Stories Can End Relationships
When a man wants a relationship to continue, he interprets your behavior in a generous light.
If you’re the one showing up late, he tells his friends, “I can’t expect her to be on time. That’s just not who she is.”
But when a man is on the fence about your relationship, he begins to interpret your behavior in a less flattering light.
Perhaps you’ve been staying late at work to finish an important project. The story he tells himself is that your work is always going to be more important than he is.
Perhaps you have a standing Thursday night date with your girlfriends. The story he tells himself is that you go out with your girlfriends to scope out other guys.
He can’t (or doesn’t want to) distinguish between the story he’s telling himself and the truth of the situation.
For him, his story is the truth. He doesn’t have to ask you. He knows what your “true motives” are.
Why He Believes His Own Stories
I hear from a lot of women who ask for my help in getting their guy to believe them.
They tell me that their guy believes they’re cheating on him or lying to him. Nothing they can say can convince him otherwise.
This comment by a woman named Jenny is representative of so many women’s experiences:
My partner always feels like I’m doing things on purpose to him to get a rise out of him or upset him. He thinks in a way I’m manipulating him on purpose and trying to fight but I’m not. Sometimes I just feel like he has an expectation on me and if I don’t do that then he’s immediately so angry at me. I just feel like I’m always the bad guy and I’ll upset him with anything I do and it makes me feel like he doesn’t trust me or my character. All I want to do is love him and I would never hurt him intentionally. Why does he always think I’m out to get him??”
Why would a man do this??
Why would he rather believe the stories he’s telling himself than the truth, especially when those stories paint the woman he “loves” in such an ugly light?
The answer is simple:
Because he needs you to be the enemy.
Let’s say that your partner came home from work, looked in the fridge, saw there was nothing to drink, and began shouting at you.
His anger was unjustified. He was the one who drank the last of his favorite beverage. It’s his job to keep the fridge stocked with what he likes to drink, not yours.
Now he’s got a dilemma.
He can either admit to himself that he treated you poorly, feel guilty, and apologize…
Or he can twist the facts of the situation so that you were the aggressor and he was just defending himself.
Which do you think he’d rather choose?
A man who’s just come home from work feeling sorry for himself is not going to want to further humble himself.
He may know that what he did was wrong, but he’s sick and tired of being the bad guy.
So he tells himself a story that makes you the bad guy. You provoked him, he thinks, and he had every right to react the way he did.
Telling himself that story reinforces his belief that he is constantly being wronged by those around him and he has to fight back.
Stories Serve a Purpose
A man always gets something out of telling an untrue story about his partner.
It serves his purpose.
For example, if a man is ready to break up with you, he might tell himself the story that none of your relationship was real and you were manipulating him the whole time.
There’s no evidence. He’s taken a few facts and twisted them so that they fit his narrative.
Even if you tell him it’s not true, that you love him and would do anything for him, he has to hold onto his story.
His story means he can break up with you without a second thought. He doesn’t have to feel guilty about hurting you. He doesn’t have to worry about your feelings. You were just playing him the whole time, after all.
Making Allowances for Stories
I wish this didn’t happen.
I wish we could all see when the story we’re making up isn’t serving us.
But the human brain is a storytelling brain. It weaves events together into a story, even when those events have no objective connection to each other.
We can’t stop ourselves from making up stories, but we can be aware of the stories we’re telling ourselves.
We can choose to ask questions. We can choose to get more information.
We can choose to make generous interpretations when it comes to those we love.
And when we’re with a partner who consistently chooses the worst possible interpretation of our behavior, we can recognize that he believes his own stories. That’s a choice to turn away from love.