“Love is a story we tell with another person. It’s cocreation through conarration.”
I am referencing an article in the This Life section of the Sunday New York Times that highlights the significance of a rather natural routine of couple’s joint storytelling, (for example, the “how they met story”). Storytelling is integral to the deeper process of establishing a bond with another person. It is both challenging and rewarding to create an intermingled identity with another. Couples may engage in joint narratives without realizing that it is a stabilizing vehicle as they try to embrace each other’s differences. Creating a shared story of the couple’s life and how it has unfolded actually strengthens the relationship. Often, new couples share the story of how and when they decided to partner up or marry with family and friends. The stories can include mystery, humor and laughter, synchronicity, hardship, and elements of destiny. As the couple’s life evolves over time, their story becomes more elaborate and the feelings deepen through their varied shared experiences and inevitable challenges. Possibly children are added, the spice of extended family, and all matter of ingredients are poured into the pot. The co-creation of the story establishes the identity of the couple and reinforces their shared life. Mr. Feiler, the author, notes that as couples construct a joint reality, it balances the “contradictory impulses of independence and interdependence or selfishness and selflessness”. Those conflicting needs battle within all of us as we try to establish an intimate bond.
Inevitable hardships and “unforgiveable” events become integral parts of the story; a break-up that threatened to destroy the relationship, difficulties with blending families, a betrayal – there can be many obstacles along the path of solidifying a relationship over time. After an initial attraction, there is a long road ahead and you either hang-in for the reward of a stable, committed bond with another or move on and start the search all over again.
This leads me to the second point in this article that you might find of interest: the difference in brain chemistry between early stage romantic love and later stage bonded relationships. (Of course, not all of you are nerds interested in such technical information.) Mr. Feiler cites the research of anthropologist Helen Fisher who found evidence of long-term relationships mapped into the human brain. “Those who scored highest on marital satisfaction showed increased empathy and a greater ability to control their emotions.” She discusses the reason: “In the early stages of romantic love, a distinct cocktail of chemicals juices through our bodies—dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin.” These create the initial longing and passion; but “as everyone knows, that cocktail dries up.”
Successful long-term relationships have their own cocktail of neurotransmitters: oxytocin, vasopressin, and dopamine. Scientists named long-term relationships social pair bonding and distinguish that type of relationship from general friendship. Social pair bonding can include sexual attraction. These hormones facilitate social bonding (associated with memory, attention and positive illusions). In humans, they help us accept the other’s flaws and differences while focusing on what we do appreciate. To wrap this back to our discussion of the function of the couple’s narrative, “the couple agrees on enough to have a good story to tell”.
These particular hormones affect social behaviors, maternal responses and pair bonding across species (each hormone works in specific ways). It’s important to understand that these hormones help us to emotionally bond with another and are very active, as well, in our relationship with our pets. These hormones help with our empathy skills and our willingness to help others in stressful situations. Our biology can reinforce the importance of bonding, monogamy and selflessness.
All to say that intermingling lives, creating family and respecting the importance of bonded relationships can help us resist our restless, rejecting natures that want to flee commitment. Many of us need help so that we can establish trust and bond with another. Due to difficult relationships and circumstances in our early lives, our capacity to bond and create lasting relationship may be compromised.
It is important to periodically readjust the joint narrative. As couples realize they have changed over time, discussing those changes and supporting a new narrative reinforces the couple and their flexibility and willingness to change. The couple includes new aspects to their relationship story even if, in the midst of it, it was difficult and challenging. The ultimate result of the readjustment is reconciliation and resolution, incorporated into the new narrative over time. “Love is the act of constantly revising your own love story.”
Learning to intermingle once autonomous lives is fraught with challenges and many couples and families break apart under the stress. There are therapeutic interventions that help couples learn to build solid bonds and restore broken ones so that couples can share life in a meaningful and satisfying way. Coupledom encourages individual growth and change because, in order to thrive in a couple, you must develop skills: acceptance, empathy, patience, courage, selflessness and the capacity to feel love and compassion.
Feiler, Bruce. (April 1, 2017). Love Tips From the (Very) First Couple. New York Times.