How to Reframe Your Narrative About Difficult Relationships

Imagine your nemesis as the personal trainer of your emotional muscle workout.

Posted Jun 03, 2019

Sabel Bianco/Pexel
Source: Sabel Bianco/Pexel

Every human relationship, whether familial, romantic, or platonic, is more or less an ambitious, hopeful, but potentially hazardous psycho-chemistry experiment. When you combine two unique sets of genetics, backgrounds, and life experiences, you never know whether you’ll get sparks, combustion, or something in between.

Most of us aspire to the sparks and “in between,” anticipating the occasional misunderstanding or disagreement. But as much as we may try to steer clear of the combustive ones, they usually have a not-so-funny way of finding us.

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Obviously, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse should never be tolerated. But a little conflict can be potentially beneficial, depending on how we see and respond to it.

One of my favorite models for reframing conflicts comes from literature. When we read a story or watch a film, not only do we expect conflicts, but also we recognize that tension is an important part of the protagonist’s psychological evolution.

In life as in literature, every protagonist has a character arc, a particular way he or she evolves in response to the friction in the plotline. At the outset of every narrative, the protagonist possesses certain viewpoints and capabilities that have gotten the character by until now.

Inevitably, situations arise, usually presented by an adversarial character known as the antagonist, that challenge the protagonist’s perspective or demand skills he or she doesn’t yet possess. The degree to which the protagonist embraces this challenge, or tries to avoid it, determines who he or she becomes, for better or for worse.

Similarly, every person is the ever-evolving protagonist of their own unfolding drama, with choices to make about how to respond to adversity. If you can accept that conflict is an inevitable part of any story, rather than blaming yourself, feeling like a victim, or pretending it doesn’t exist, you’re on a path towards an empowering resolution.

This doesn’t necessarily mean engaging your adversary in verbal battle, but rather doing the important inner work that can and often leads to personal success and redemption.

Your Emotional Muscle Workout

For example, suppose you have a sibling that treats you like a doormat. Perhaps you avoid confronting them about your mistreatment because you fear they’ll explode or get mean. Taking the self-respecting path of standing up for yourself—simply stating, “Please don’t speak to me that way,” or, “I’m going to walk away if you don’t stop yelling”—would leave you feeling stronger and more confident.

Such a courageous stance might be hard to take if you’re feeling insecure. Often, our antagonists have the power to hurt and trigger us precisely because they poke at our vulnerabilities and insecurities. But understanding, healing, and changing our reactions to these wounds, often through psychotherapy, is an important part of our psychological and spiritual development.

Drs. Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt, Ph.D., the husband and wife co-founders of Imago Couples Therapy, assert that we humans often unconsciously attract people who possess the best and worst traits of our parents. The reason is that we secretly hope to work through the issues we weren’t able to resolve with our caregivers—for example, to win the love and admiration from a withholding, critical parent.

This principle applies to romantic partnerships, as well as friendships and work relationships. If you find yourself constantly knocking heads with bosses and other authority figures, it may stem from a confrontational relationship with a domineering parent.

In my practice, I invite my clients to reframe the antagonist of their story as the personal trainer of their character development workout, a custom-made, emotionally aerobic and weight-bearing exercise designed to push them to develop their under-utilized emotional muscles. (It’s worth noting that most real-life antagonists aren’t one-dimensional demonic characters who are trying to destroy us, even though sometimes it might feel that way. But rather, they are usually people like us with positive qualities, wounds with antagonists, who may be us!)

As with a personal trainer, we might feel like swearing at our antagonist or grin at them through gritted teeth. We might assign sadistic aspirations to them, thinking they are out to wear us down. But what’s really happening is that the antagonist is helping us strengthen our emotional and mental muscles—for example, pushing us to exercise courage, compassion, flexibility, trust, etc.—while further honing areas within ourselves that haven’t been fully developed.

Such character development workouts can help us stretch beyond our perceived limitations to discover the true depth of our own capacity to love, succeed, and overcome obstacles.

Reflect on the following questions:

1.    Who is the primary antagonist of the current chapter of your story? What makes the antagonist so challenging?

2.    As the author of your story, suppose you were asked to create the perfect antagonist to help you stretch beyond your comfort zone into a more evolved version of yourself. What would the antagonist be like and what obstacles or challenges might he or she present? Does this resemble the antagonist of your story?

3.    What emotional muscles/virtues might this challenge help you cultivate—for example, courage, assertiveness, discernment, flexibility, compassion, forgiveness, self-awareness, patience, etc.

4.    What are the antagonist’s redeeming qualities? How do these qualities affect or complicate your thoughts and feelings about the situation, if at all?