These Five Words Changed My Relationship

Confession: I am not the best communicator…

Sometimes, I liken myself to a very early computer, slowwwly processing my feelings, while my partner stares at the spinning wheel, wondering what on earth is happening. Many are the times I’ve wished for a magic phrase that would help me speak my mind without feeling silly or placing blame. As it turns out, such a phrase exists.

Enter perennial genius Brené Brown. Have you seen her latest Netflix special, The Call to Courage? Much like her viral TED talk from 2010, it was 75 minutes of truth bombs that made me laugh and cry.

In the middle of the talk, she describes a time when she and her husband, Steve, got into an argument on a family vacation. I won’t go into the particulars, because a) you should watch it and b) she does a better job recounting it than I possibly could. While telling her story, she offers this brilliant takeaway. In her years spent interviewing couples, the most resilient partners all had one phrase in common, said during times of conflict:

“The story I’m telling myself…”

She explains that when something bad happens, our brains, which are hardwired to protect us, naturally make up a story. “Your brain doesn’t want a wishy-washy story,” she says. “It wants a clear-cut story — where there is a bad guy and a good guy.”

This is why, when a partner doesn’t answer a text quickly enough, or they come home late, or they don’t help clean, or they act defensive or withdrawn or exhibit any other human emotion, we might make up a story about it, often fueled by our own insecurities.

The story may be something like, “INSERT PARTNER’S NAME did that annoying thing again! I always have to do everything in this relationship! They don’t care about me! It must be because of INSERT PERSONAL ACHILLES HEEL!”

When, in reality, maybe your partner was late because they heard the wrong time. Or maybe they were distant because they, too, were grappling with some sort of vulnerability.

The point is, whatever you’re telling yourself in these moments is just a story. Everyone has one. And acknowledging this makes it much easier for both parties to communicate.

Since watching the show, I have invoked this phrase multiple times, and let me tell you: It’s some kind of magic.

Last week, my boyfriend was out of town visiting friends. On a weekday afternoon, soon after his departure, he sent me a text with a picture of cocktails. “Nice!” I replied, and I meant it. I truly did not begrudge him his vacation drinks. I just happened to be in the middle of a 36,756 item to-do list and could not type something more robust.

Some time later, another text popped up. “The story I’m telling myself is that you’re annoyed by my text and you don’t want to hear much about this vacation.” Be still my heart.

“No!” I replied. “I’m just super busy right now so my reply was short. I’m happy to hear about your trip! In fact, I want to hear all about it, otherwise I’m liable to make up some stories of my own.” (This last part could not be more true.)

“Phew! That was a very effective way to communicate,” he replied. “Thanks Brené!” (Yes, this is the exact text that he sent.)

It’s amazing how much easier it is to share your anxieties when they’re couched as stories. With this one little turn of phrase, our BRAINS — not our partners — are the enemy, so no one has to feel blame.

Brené reports that she and her husband have come to rely on this phrase. Since that fateful day, they’ve rarely had a fight that didn’t include each of them saying, “The story I’m making up right now…” (even if it is sometimes said through gritted teeth). Try it! It’s truly a game changer.

Have you ever used this phrase? Do you have any other advice for communicating in challenging moments?

P.S. Another brilliant Brené quote and hilarious marriage pet peeves.

(Photo from Catastrophe.)