Darling, What Was the Turning Point in Our Relationship?
Narrative identity research and the study of romantic relationships
Posted Sep 10, 2020
If I asked you about your life, what story would you tell me? What are the high points and what are the low points? Did you experience any turning points in your life? Let’s say you really worked hard in school but nobody saw your efforts. But then there was this one teacher who recognized your efforts and supported you. Meeting this teacher could have been a turning point for you in your life.
Personality psychologists are interested in the story that people tell. According to Dan McAdams from Northwestern University, the narrative that people tell about their lives, called narrative identity, is one of three layers that constitutes personality. The other layers are the more dispositional aspects, such as personality traits (which were discussed in last month’s blog post together with the Michelangelo phenomenon) and characteristic adaptations, such as life goals or attachment styles (part of next month's posts). So, what is narrative identity?
Narrative identity is an internal and evolving life story, in which the narrator integrates conceptions of the personal past, present, and presumed future within a coherent story-based framework. It is typically in late adolescence and early adulthood that individuals begin to develop such narrative identities. As a psychological resource, narrative identity provides an individual with a sense of meaning, purpose, direction, and coherence over time. Features of this construct, such as its affective quality, have been associated with important factors such as people’s health and well-being.
When measuring narrative identity, researchers commonly prompt participants for narrative descriptions of self-defining memories or key autobiographical scenes. These are specific, emotionally salient moments in life (e.g., high points, low points, and turning points). To assess them, researchers use approaches such as via the Life Story Interview (LSI), which takes between one to three hours to complete. To illustrate the LSI, here is a prompt about a participant's turning point:
In looking back over your life, it may be possible to identify certain key moments that stand out as turning points—episodes that marked an important change in you or your life story. Please identify a particular episode in your life story that you now see as a turning point in your life. If you cannot identify a key turning point that stands out clearly, please describe some event in your life wherein you went through an important change of some kind. Again, for this event please describe what happened, where and when, who was involved, and what you were thinking and feeling. Also, please say a word or two about what you think this event says about you as a person or about your life.
Yet, narratives go beyond storying personal lives. Narrative processing is a way by which individuals make sense of and derive meaning from various aspects of their lives, such as their romantic life. As such, more recently, a research field at the nexus of narrative identity research and romantic relationship research has emerged and has been discussed in a recent review on this topic (Bühler & Dunlop, 2019). Two major threads are identifiable.
One focuses on the narratives of singles. In fact, the current romantic relationship often reflects only a part (rather than the entirety) of a person’s love life. As such, researchers including William Dunlop from the University of California Riverside have begun to focus on the narrative construction of entire love lives. To this aim, a variant of the LSI targeting narrative representations of entire love lives— the Love Life Story Interview—has been developed. Among other insights, research that used this measure has shown that those participants who disclosed affectively positive stories tended to be lower in avoidant attachment.
The other research thread focuses on the narratives of couple members. In fact, additional to their entire love lives, individuals also have the wish to make sense of their current romantic relationship. One way to assess this story is to independently prompt partners for their relationship story. But how to capture someone's relationship story? Again, a variant of the LSI targeting narrative representations of the current romantic relationship—the Relationship Narrative Interview (RNI)—has been developed. The RNI includes a series of prompts for autobiographical recounts of relationship-specific scenes, such as relationship high points, low points, and turning points, as well as sexual high points, low points, and turning points. Findings from a pilot study with 40 couples in the Chicago area that were assessed with the RNI revealed interesting insights: Those couple members who disclosed affectively positive stories tended to report lower levels of avoidant attachment and higher levels of relationship satisfaction.
So, what to take from these findings? We live our lives in stories, and because all is storied, we also story our romantic life and our current romantic relationship. People tell these stories differently—partly because of their personality—and how people tell their stories is linked to how satisfied they are. Yet, researchers have only begun to examine the fascinating nexus between narrative identity research and the study of romantic relationships. A more extensive integration of narratives in research on romantic relationships might not only contribute to better understanding of romantic relationships, but might also be a meaningful complement for couple trainings.
Bühler, J. L., & Dunlop, W. L. (2019). The narrative identity approach and romantic relationships. Social and Personality Psychological Compass, e12447. doi: 10.1111/spc3.12447
Bühler, J. L., Maghsoodi, H., & McAdams, D. P. (2017). The Relationship Narrative Interview (RNI): A manual to assess romantic partners' relationship stories. Unpublished manuscript. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University. Accessible at: https://osf.io/tf2d5/
Dunlop, W. L., Hanley, G. E., & McCoy, T. P. (2019). The narrative psychology of love lives. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36, 761-784. doi: 10.1177/0265407517744385
Dunlop, W. L., Harake, N., Gray, J., Hanley, G. E., & McCoy, T. P. (2018). The rises and falls of romance: Considering redemption, contamination, and affective tone in the narrative construction of love lives. Journal of Research in Personality, 74, 23-29. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2018.01.003
McAdams, D. P., & Pals, J. L. (2006). A new Big Five: Fundamental principles for an integrative science of personality. American Psychologist, 61, 204–217. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.61.3.204