We all swoon over a good love story. We are inspired by movies and novels that highlight love’s powerful ability to overcome all obstacles. We cry at weddings. We enjoy telling people how we met our significant other. And let’s face it, we’re captivated by the beginnings of love.
But, what about after the beginning? Do you see your relationship as a story—the whole of it, from the start until now—as an ongoing narrative that makes you both ever-developing characters? Drs. John and Julie Gottman, the world’s leading researchers in making relationships last, say you should.
After years of research, the Gottmans have found that “creating shared meaning” through shared vision, narrative, myth, and metaphor is one of the nine essential components of sound relationships.
Many couples that I know who have been together for a long time can remember how things were in the very beginning, but forget the details of the “middle” of their story. Sometimes, that loss of shared meaning during those periods of time in their relationship contributes to a loss of intimacy between a couple.
The Gottman's research indicates that framing a relationship as a story is one of the most powerful ways for a couple to generate a true sense of meaning for the past, purpose for the present, and excitement for the future. The best stories are full of adventure, discovery, challenges, climactic moments, and are always remembered.
This is the kind of relationship my fiancé and I want to live. By being together and working hard to love each other well, we want to be changed into more selfless, humble, and gracious people, and for our story to impact those who know us for the better.
So, here are tips to help you create, celebrate, and remember your love story no matter how long you’ve been together.
01. Record your adventures together.
Life is full, and it is hard for me to remember details—even the things I swore I’d never forget. And this seems true for so many couples. It’s simply hard to recall moments, thoughts, and feelings from forests of memory as months grow into to years.
Writing things down preserves your personal history as you see it, and through this retrospective practice, you will likely find yourself motivated to create more memorable moments to enhance your narrative.
My fiancé and I created a combined journal early in our relationship that we dubbed our “Lark Journal.” Lark is a bit of an old-fashioned word, but it means a merry, carefree adventure—basically, to have fun. It’s just an ordinary leather journal. But inside its pages, we write down every occasion/date that counts as an extraordinarily positive or playful adventure. We record on one page the day, location, and the details. Then, he writes his favorite memory, and I write mine —but we’re not allowed to read what the other wrote—initially. The Lark Journal is saved to be read together.
On our anniversary, we read entries of our Lark Journal. But, perhaps more importantly, we also read it on an ordinary Tuesday night when we need a pick-me-up.
These kind of shared acts create unity, says psychologist Dr. Karen Bridbor: “When a couple establishes rituals of connection and actively seek a deeper understanding of each other’s roles, goals, and symbols, they move from ‘Me’ to ‘We’ in their relationship.
02. Share it with others, but more importantly, with each other.
People will ask about your relationship, and oftentimes all you’ll get to share is, “It’s going well!” Or maybe you’ll share a photo of the two of you at the beach on Facebook and get a hundred likes. Telling your friends about your relationship is important, as we need these listeners to add perspective, but it is even more important to share how things are going with each other.
Tell your significant other what you specifically value about your relationship right now:
- What is good?
- What do you love about him?
- What is a memory you’ve been thinking about lately?
- In what ways does he love you well?
- What do you love about your relationship?
- What challenges are you proud of overcoming together?
Tell him. And then ask him the same. According to Gottman, these affirming conversations are one way to build positive interactions that are so necessary to healthy relationships.
It's easy to assume that you both know your story because you’ve lived it together. But this is a practice in being present and using your words to give the most important character in the story feedback and affirmation.
03. Decide who you (collectively) want to become.
My fiancé came to me one day and said he wanted to write a mission statement together. I didn’t know what he meant. Companies write mission statements, not couples. He went on to explain that he wanted us to write down who we want to be as a couple, to also have something in writing that addresses the present and the future of us. I’d call it an exercise in dreaming, but in this instance, I don’t mean dreaming about things you want to do together, such as “backpack Europe” (though that kind of dreaming is needed, too).
This activity was to practice jointly dreaming about who we, as a couple, strive to be. In other words, to answer the questions: What do we, when we look back on our relationship, want our story to read? What would others see in our relationship? Who are we committed to being as a couple?
We each wrote a draft separately, and then we sat down one day and identified common core threads between them. Then we wrote a final draft that we felt represented our values well.
As it turns out, there’s a reason companies do this sort of thing. Dr. Bridbord points out, “In work cultures that thrive, employees are guided by organizational values and understand what is expected of them. Defining and building a shared purpose—a key component of culture—becomes the glue that binds members of an organization together.” The same is true in relationships.
Our mission statement, our shared culture, is something that inspires and challenges me as we make a mutual effort to love each other well each day. It reminds me that as a character, I am always shaping, and being shaped by, our relationship.
Your relationship’s story is powerful and can be a source you, your significant other, and your friends learn and grow from. The hard part is, of course, you don’t know the ending. Nor can you control the actions or words of the other character. But I urge you to commit to your relationship wholeheartedly: remember what has taken place, pay attention which chapter you’re in, and love with purpose.
Photo Credit: Jordan Voth