Looking For Smiles: How Stories Shape Relationships

When my daughter was younger, we had a ritual. It happened when something went wrong, and she felt disappointed or frustrated. Sometimes it was easy to comfort her – I'd give her a hug or read her a story. But other times it felt impossible. Her frustration would trigger my frustration, which would trigger hers – a spiraling "cycle of frustration". Distracting her didn't work. Ignoring her made it worse. So sometimes we would step out of the frustration cycle and do something different. We would head into our back yard, hand in hand, and look for smiles.

Smiles can be elusive, especially when you're frustrated, so sometimes our search took awhile. We'd look behind bushes and under rocks. We'd walk up a hill to the very top of our yard and look along the fence behind the vines of bougainvillea. Sometimes we'd pick an orange and eat it while we thought about where to look next. And the amazing thing was, we always found one eventually. There was always a smile hiding somewhere in the yard.

As I think back on this ritual of ours, I focus on three things. First, it's something we did together. Second, we kept at it. And third, we found a new way to see the problem. What started out as frustration ended up as a journey. Together we were looking for smiles.

Stories Couples Tell

When couples first come to my office, both people are frustrated, and there is often a lot that isn't working. Each person has a story about his or her partner, which goes something like this: “He doesn't care.” “I don't matter.” “She doesn't need me.” “Nothing I do is right.”

They also have stories about their relationship: “We're too different from each other.” “All we do is argue.” “We can't agree on anything.”

They have tried to talk it through, but the frustration cycle kicks in and undermines the conversation. Some have tried ignoring their problems, sometimes for years. Others have focused on work or raising kids, with the hope that things will get better over time. Still others distract themselves with consuming jobs, computers, or sometimes alcohol.

As I talk with these couples, I learn that what they really want is to be with each other in a way that feels secure, comfortable and fun. They want to share warmth and pleasure. These couples are looking for caring, respect, teamwork, and relaxed time together -- the “smiles” in their relationship.

Creating New Stories

In my office, I help these couples create new stories.

We start by taking a new look at old problems. Underneath criticism and blame is often a genuine wish to connect. Beneath silence and withdrawal is often a desire to keep the relationship calm, peaceful...and connected. Our journey includes new ways of talking about the dilemma they are in.

I suggest practical strategies too -- spending relaxed time together, and showing daily appreciation. Sometimes I explain how the brain works, and why we react so quickly and dramatically to the people most important to us.

But the most important thing I do is to help couples look for the intangible treasure – the smiles – in their relationship. I help them dive beneath the words and understand the intention, the wish to feel close again.

I think there are three reasons the kind of counseling I do works so well. First, both partners are in it together. Both people have been feeling lonely, both come to the sessions, both want a closer, happier relationship.

Second, they keep at it. New conversations aren't always easy, and there are difficulties and setbacks along the way. But they are committed, and we keep going.

Third, couples end up with a new way of looking at the problem. What started as, “We're too different to live together” ends up as “I love the way he's so outgoing. It's different from the way I am, but it's fun.”

What started as, “He doesn't understand how I feel” becomes “He's not used to noticing how he feels, but he's trying.”

What started as, “She doesn't care” becomes “I know she loves me; I can see it in her eyes.”

As counseling comes to a close, couples find new ways of connecting when one partner feels disappointed or frustrated. Their frustration doesn't spiral any more; they can calm each other. They often often create new rituals to mark the comings and goings each day and each week – a few words, a touch, a look. They know that even when life is rough, they have a secure connection with each other. They know how to change difficult stories to hopeful ones. They know how to find the smiles in their relationship.