New Research Reveals The Value of 'Marital Storytelling' In Relationships
Researcher Amy Duchsherer provides insight on what a couple’s storytelling habits reveal about their marriage and identity.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | December 07, 2023
A new study published in Marriage & Family Review examined the stories that married individuals share in social settings and what these narratives reveal about their marriage and individual identities.
I recently spoke to co-author Amy Duchsherer of the Department of Communication, University of Mary, North Dakota, to understand the implications of these "marriage stories" and how they contribute to building better marriages. Here is a summary of our conversation.
What inspired you to study the connections between storytelling, marriage and individual identity?
For this project, we drew inspiration from observing interactions among friends involved in couple relationships. It became evident, particularly with married couples, that recurring stories tended to emerge over time. This observation made us wonder about the connection between the stories we share frequently and how they reflect our identities.
It wasn't until we read through the interview data that we recognized a dual identity at play—that of an individual identity and a couple/marriage identity.
What were your key findings?
We found that couples typically share stories that demonstrate positive functioning in their relationships. Some of the ways positive functioning is revealed through stories include partners meeting the emotional needs of each other, sharing positive experiences together or having a shared vision for the future.
While not as common, couples do sometimes share stories that reveal negative and overlapping (a mix of positive and negative) functioning in the relationship. Stories that reveal negative functioning often include themes such as boundary mismanagement, unchecked negative behaviors or stresses external to the relationship.
How do positive, negative and overlapping aspects of marital functioning impact individual and relational well-being?
As part of our demographic survey, we collected a Couples Satisfaction Index, and all but two participants reported having high to extremely high levels of satisfaction in their relationship. We didn't analyze if the negative facets of functioning were shared by individuals with low levels of relational satisfaction, but it could be that the stories we tend to tell about our relationship reflect our level of relational satisfaction. I am making this leap since our participants typically told stories that revealed positive functioning in their relationships and also reported high levels of satisfaction in their relationships.
What does your study reveal about individual motives to share stories in social settings?
When we tell stories, we want to reveal something about who we are as individuals or as a couple. Storytelling, in this case, is a means to impression management—the process of shaping others' perceptions about us. It makes sense that we share stories that paint us and our relationship in a positive light. That is, we tell stories that show others who we are or who want to be.
How do these findings contribute to our understanding of what constitutes a happy and satisfying marriage?
The themes present in positive functioning often overlap between satisfying the needs of the storyteller's partner and the needs of the storyteller. For example, participants who shared positive facets of functioning most often focused on sharing positive experiences with their partner.
These experiences range from everyday interactions to larger life experiences, such as going on a special vacation. The most important aspect of these experiences was the investment of time spent with their partner.
Another theme often shared in positive functioning was teaching something to their spouse or learning something from their spouse. Being able to teach something to one another gave storytellers a feeling of accomplishment. In this case, the partner learning gains the benefit of the knowledge, but the partner teaching also gains a sense of pride from helping their spouse accomplish a new skill or become successful in some way.
What wisdom does your research offer for couples seeking to enhance their marital relationship?
Most couples who have positive functioning in their relationship tend to engage in similar behavior patterns. The top three positive functioning behaviors include positive shared experiences, teaching and meeting emotional needs.
Based on what we learned from our participants, I would suggest that couples who want a strong relationship integrate these behaviors as a starting point. For example, you might try taking a class together, which would be a shared experience and provide opportunities for you to teach your partner a new skill or learn from your partner.
Meeting emotional needs in a relationship is important to any interpersonal relationship. Working on skills like active listening, perception checking and practicing empathy are all good first steps to developing healthy relationships.