Stories and narrative

Humans are storytelling animals. We like things to have a reason, a why, a beginning-middle-end. We tell stories about our own lives, about other people’s lives, about invented lives. We don’t like it when things ‘just happen’, with no cause and effect. We tell small stories (the way that weird guy on the bus talked to you becomes, once you’ve relayed it a couple of times, an anecdote – it changes in the telling from a simple statement of facts to a Event, with dramatic pauses and tension and humour) and we tell big stories about our own lives and what it all means.

We tell ourselves that the things that happen around us and to us say something about who we are. But the stories we tell are far more revealing. The exact same life, with the same series of events, could be construed in opposite ways by two different people:

‘Oh, I’m so unlucky, my life is terrible; I’ve never had a relationship that lasted and none of my exes even speak to me any more. My family are distant and cold and I don’t have anything in common with them – I don’t even know why I bother trying to stay in touch. I should have tried harder at school and got better exam results but I just mucked around and achieved nothing, I’m such a loser. My professional life has completely stalled and I’m undervalued at work, I have no idea what to do with myself and it feels completely pointless to even go into work these days. I don’t have enough money and I’m constantly worrying about the future.’

Or:

‘My life is great. I’ve had some wonderful relationships with people I loved a lot and learned a great deal from; I hope they’re all out there being happy still. I’m not close to my family as an adult, but I know if I needed them I could call on them with absolutely no questions asked, and we had some wonderful times when I was a child that I still look back on with happiness. I might not have got amazing academic results in school, but I learned so much – not just about the subjects we studied and how to learn, but about people and myself and the kind of adult I hoped to be. I think I’ve gone about as far as I can in the job I do at the moment, so I’m using this quiet time to plan carefully what I want to do next – I’ve got some really exciting ideas!’

It’s an extreme and an obvious example, yes, but it resonates I think. We construct stories around everything, and we create meaning where there is no meaning.

I have a theory: that relationships end when you can no longer make your narratives match. When you’re telling two different stories, and are no longer ‘on the same page’.

Relationships become a construction of narrative, a complicity and collaboration in that beginning-middle-end structure, complicated by the cute fictions we’ve learned from romantic novels and films – ‘we met and I just knew she was The One, instantly’; ‘it’s so funny, we must have walked past each other a million times when we both worked there, but we never met until a year later’; ‘oh god, he never even noticed me at first, did you darling?’; ‘we’re just so similar, she really gets me’… and so on. We love to tell ‘our story’, and one mark of a successful relationship shows up when both partners can tell the same story. And, conversely, things begin to fall apart when you can’t tell the same story any more.

Think about it: you resolve a disagreement by understanding each other’s stories – here’s a hypothetical Chris and Alex who’ve had a disagreement:

Chris: “Oh my god I can’t believe you didn’t call me like you said you would, I’ve been going crazy and wondering where you were all evening, it’s so disrespectful.”

Alex: “I feel terrible, I totally meant to call but I just got caught up in the date, and I didn’t want to be so disrespectful of her time as to just walk out and call you.”

Chris: “But you could have just explained to her that you’d promised to call me – or even sent a text saying ‘sorry, can’t call, going great, back later’. You said you’d call, so I was really worried. But I do understand that feeling of a date going fantastically and not wanting to break the spell.”

Alex: “Yeah, sorry. It’s difficult to find a way of making a call without breaking the flow, though. I know we agreed I’d call you when I was on a date, but is that essential? Could I reassure you in the same way by sending a quick text or something, or calling you before or after?”

Chris: “I see what you mean. Yes, next time try sending me a quick text, maybe that can be enough – but you have to promise that you’ll do it, because I’ll only worry more if you don’t keep to this agreement.”

Alex: “That’s fair, I’ll do that.”

Look at my fake-people hanging out and resolving minor issues happily! So there’s now a narrative: Chris was worried because Alex hadn’t called like they promised they would; Alex didn’t call because they were too caught up in the date and didn’t realise how important it was to Chris. Then when Chris realised it was important to Alex not to interrupt the flow of an evening, and when Alex realised it was important to Chris to keep to the agreement and get some sort of contact, they came up with a different agreement. And everyone lived happily ever after.

If they hadn’t resolved this, we’d be stuck with two stories that don’t match: Alex is inconsiderate and disrespectful and probably cares more for whoever they were on a date with than for Chris. Chris is neurotic and needy and completely over-reacting and making unreasonable demands of Alex.

And those mismatched stories become the beginning of the end. Over time, as you realise your stories are pulling further and further apart, it becomes “I feel like I never really knew her”, “he just doesn’t understand me”, “I can’t seem to get through to her”.

One of the sad things in the aftermath of a relationship is realising how much further apart your stories will move, in each other’s absence – if one of you tells it as an over-dramatic tragic love story, and the other tells it as a misguided diversion, those narratives are only going to diverge further as time goes on, without each other’s balancing influence.

It’s so subjective that it’s all true, or maybe none of it is; these sorts of emotional stories don’t have a Real Truth buried away somewhere – people don’t work like that. A successful relationship is two people who have chosen to try and see the world – and their stories, both individually and interlinked – in the same way, and by applying the same narratives to it. When they are no longer able to do that, the relationship falls apart.

And that’s as true as any other story I might tell 😉

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3 responses to “Stories and narrative

  1. This is a really lovely and beautiful way to visualise and describe the path of a relationship. I’ve never thought of it this way before, but it makes perfect sense. You are eloquent, as always. 🙂

    • Thank you! I’m glad it resonates with you.

      I find the stories we tell ourselves fascinating – I think it’s one of the reasons fiction is so compelling; because it does what we wish we could do with our messy real lives. When you’re reading a novel, more often than not, there is a Real Truth – some characters only realise it after being deceived or deceiving themselves, and some never realise it, but there is an objective truth in there. Unlike real life, in which at best there are many many truths, some of which are contradictory or illogical (even just within one person’s understanding), and sometimes things just happen, without rhyme or reason.

      Sometimes, stories are just unfinished – you don’t get to have ‘closure’, they just stop in the middle of a

  2. Devil's avocado

    Genius.

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