know your narrative

Bruce Feiler’s “This Life” essay, “The Stories that Bind Us,” in the past weekend’s New York Times shares that “studies indicate that children learn resilience when they hear what their relatives before them have faced.”

Psychologists have found that every family has a unifying narrative, he explained, and those narratives take one of three shapes.

First, the ascending family narrative: “Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you. …”

Second is the descending narrative: “Sweetheart, we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”

“The most healthful narrative,” Dr. Duke continued, “is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”

Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.

My husband and I–we each grew up with that third narrative. We each grew up with fathers who proudly, repeatedly, and emphatically shared the stories of their families, of themselves as youngsters, of ups, downs, challenges and accomplishments. About a dozen years ago, my sister started a family writing project, wherein instead of giving Christmas gifts, we exchanged brief stories, written by each of us, to be given and read aloud when the families got together. (My favorite stories are those by my mother… only because I knew all my father’s stories by heart.)

The telling of stories, a family narrative, a larger entity of which you are a part… it’s powerful, apparently. If the research is any guide, it’s protected my family… my families… from a messy, sad, happy and scary set of experiences that make up our lives: Ascending, Descending, Oscillating.

Maybe it applies to marriages? To a couple? Maybe a sense of being a part of something bigger than oneself is what makes some marriages succeed and recover from trauma, or overcome obstacles, or avoid obstacles in the first place.

Maybe the connection one has to another is maintained and strengthened, or repaired, with that oscillating narrative. Maybe? Maybe some marriages are stuck in a descending narrative that seem too steep to climb out of. Maybe some marriages are expecting their narratives to be in constant ascension.

Then again, some marriages simply seem to need new characters. And stories end.

So many are ending.

What do you think?

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