… and why we tell ourselves just what we need to hear.
“Beth” and “Rob” were happily married. You could feel their harmony. Talking with them, you never got that awkward impression of unresolved issues trying to surface. When telling stories, they would duet smoothly, neither yanking the other this way and that. From the twinkle in their eyes, you could tell that they loved holding stories in common.
Jeremy E Sherman Ph.D. I’ve had the luxury of circumstance to spend the second half of my life wondering carefully without a lot of social constraints. I write, teach and research full time. My income doesn’t depend upon it so I don’t have to curb what I think to keep myself fed.
Editor: Muhammad Talha
For any of us—the members of a church or a tribe, a business or a family—our love is as strong as our common identity, the fable we tell of who we are together and the values, missions, and purposes we share.
But then Rob, once an infrequent drinker, began drinking much more. Beth didn’t like it and she let him know, giving him lots of chances, encouragement, and help to get on the wagon.
It was all to no avail.
Her patience exhausted, Beth decided she had to leave Rob. She told friends that Rob had become an alcoholic. Rob, sobered by her departure, resolved that he could and would change. He told friends that he was a recovering alcoholic and that he was getting his life back together.
The couple’s once-harmonized stories now diverged. Rob was busy convincing himself that he was getting sober; Beth was busy convincing herself he couldn’t.
These weren’t merely their neutral assessments of Rob’s prospects: Beth needed to believe Rob wouldn’t stop drinking. Believing he could stop would have eroded her resolve to find happiness elsewhere. If she believed he would stop, she would be tempted to go back to him—and give him still more chances. The last thing she wanted to hear was that he could stop, and the last thing Rob wanted to hear was that his effort to sober up was futile: That story would erode his resolve.
They still talked to each other occasionally as they worked through a painful divorce. But after years of being able to say no wrong to each other, they now could say no right: Rob repeatedly telling his story of self-encouragement; Beth insisting on her un-encouraging story about the likelihood that he could get sober.
Neither wanted to hear the other’s story about what had become of them.
In partnerships of all kinds, we try to find harmony—to persuade and be persuaded in our attempts to harmonize our stories. When a partnership ends, we’re better off giving up on that harmony. The consolation of a breakup is that you can retire from efforts to find that harmony. You’re freed from that work.
Beth needed more than to give up on trying to get Rob sober; she needed to give up on trying to persuade Rob of anything—and he on her. Telling stories in common is its own addiction. When it stops working, we should stop trying to make it work, and instead agree to disagree (outside of each other’s earshot).
The habit of telling harmonized stories dies hard. At a separation, we’re tempted to convince each other of our reasons for it. We don’t stop trying to generate a story in common—but we should.
Rob accused Beth of being a quitter, of lacking faith, and of being uncaring and callous. She was more tactful, but between the lines, she hinted that Rob was delusional to think he could change much. They told their divergent stories to friends, often with exaggerations, each telling the narrative they needed to hear so they wouldn’t be swayed from their new resolves.
We find this pattern in all sorts of breakups due to issues from alcoholism to divergent parenting styles. It applies to schisms of all kinds—within families, business partnerships, or political circles.
Recognizing the pattern, we can take it less personally. Rob deciding Beth was a quitter wasn’t really about Beth. We just say need to say what we need to hear to make the transitions we decide we need to make.