Can You “Story Your Way to a Happy Relationship”?

It's a trap!

March 26, 2020

We recently stumbled onto an entertaining TED talk titled “Story Your Way to a Happy Marriage,” by Rachel Terrill, PhD, a college professor in Seattle. It reminded us how mired our culture is in approaching everything, even relationship, from an individual point of view.

Dr. Terrill points out that perspective is critical in shaping your story and, consequently, critical to how you feel about your relationship. She is onto something – but only partially. She leaves out a critical player in your relationship story – the other person, who inevitably has a different perspective. At any moment there are two stories in a relationship.

Dr. Terrill asserts that you can be happier in your relationship by changing how you tell your story. She’s saying, “I will determine how I tell my marriage story so as to make me happy.” She even offers techniques to train your brain to do this.

But it's a trap! This advice doesn’t take into account the experience of the other participant in the relationship, and what makes them happy – except to the extent it feeds “my happiness.”

In our workshop, “Relationship: The Real Deal,” participants confront the fact that we are all in relationships to get what we individually want, to make our individual selves happy. And each of us is the judge and jury in assessing whether we are unhappy, happy, or happy enough. It’s all about me. Nothing wrong about that; it is just what’s so. Dr. Terrill operates entirely within that reality, yet fails to see that this reality dooms us to get upset, frustrated and disappointed from time to time when the fantasy of happiness – all of it, all the time, forever – is not fulfilled.

Dr. Terrill recommends that you retell your story about your marriage and your spouse in a way that makes you happy. However, her solution is doomed to fail: unilateral action can’t transform a relationship. Since it takes at least two to create a relationship, it strikes us as futile, even silly, to try to shape a relationship by yourself. 

Creating a new relationship story together is a big, fun game to play. It is about the future, not a retelling of the past. And it can enrich the rest of your lives! We hope that Dr. Terrill and other relationship experts will consider this perspective, start speaking of a relationship as two stories, and invite people to create their relationship stories together.

What if your relationship were a story about what we want together? In our workshop “Extraordinary Relationship: Creating It,” couples design their relationship together. It’s radical. It moves people beyond our cultural fixation on the pursuit of “what I want” to be happy. It’s a different game altogether.

Carol & Paul
Relationship By Design Workshop Leaders


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