Opening the Book on Your Hardest Relationship Dynamics


My wife Kari and I took our three kids and dog for a weekend away. Just the act of getting everyone in the car is a major milestone. When we arrived at our destination, through tantrums, nagging and barking, Kari mobilized to unload the packed car of kids with focus and purpose. I let the dog loose and chatted with a nice couple who happened to stop on their walk to ask me a question.

While unpacking, Kari prevented the kids from drowning in the lake, the dog from eating a dead squirrel and the baby from melting down. I got the car halfway unpacked, went inside, looked around, decided that the dog needed exercise, and went outside to entertain her.

That’s when Kari stopped, looked at me out the window and yelled, “Are you serious?”

“What?”

“Why can’t you be more helpful?”

According to Brene Brown, “Our brain is wired to make up a story to explain every difficult human interaction—whether it’s true or not.” That story helps us interpret the discomfort by protecting our ego and self-image.

My story? Kari was suddenly being overly controlling and unfair to me. So I shouted:

“What are you talking about? I’ve done nothing for myself since we got here!”

“Are you kidding? I’ve done everything since we’ve gotten here!”

Now at this point, I vaguely remember entering a dark mental fog of anger and confusion as the battle ensued.

This incident, and so many others like it, came to mind when I heard Brown speak at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit last week about the fact that “who you are when you don’t understand what’s happening and can’t see in front of you is what defines leadership.”

In this conflict with Kari, I did what I often do—I told myself a story that went something like this:

She must think that I’m an unworthy husband who isn’t living up to his responsibility as a father.

This is a particularly important story for me because being a strong provider is core to my identity. I unknowingly protect this identity with anger, which comes out as self-righteous defensiveness.

Brown offered an alternative to defending my self-image: “Transformational leaders get curious about their emotions when their emotions are triggered. These leaders rumble with what’s really true and uncomfortable.”

When I replace my defensiveness with an acknowledgement of my self-protecting story, I’m no longer a helpless actor—the victim, villain or hero; instead, I am the storyteller.

As Brown says, “When we pretend that the hard things inside us aren’t happening, they define us. When we own the story, we get to choose the ending.”

Our lives are full of interpersonal confusion, disconnection and dysfunction, which can bring out the hard things in us. When we have the courage to tell that story of what’s really happening, anger and fear won’t own us. Through the pain and discomfort, we get to decide how the story ends.

Kari and I are learning be less defensive and instead to tell each other the stories that we are telling ourselves. We’re finding that it allows us to speak more truthfully and resolve the deeper stories that are being told.

How about you? Will you remain an actor in a story that owns you, or will you own the story and decide how it ends?

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7 Comments

  • Laura
    August 12, 2015 at 8:37 pm

    Great post Matt! John wasn’t there for this session and I kept wanting to elbow him! I know he would have wanted to elbow me also! 🙂 We need to work on this too – asking each other questions to better understand the story we’re each telling ourselves.

    • Matt Norman
      August 19, 2015 at 2:34 am

      Thank you Laura! I really appreciate your comment and recognition that it’s difficult even for such a strong and loving relationship as you and John.

  • Susan Arico
    August 14, 2015 at 11:30 pm

    This is awesome. Impressed with both your self-confrontation and your self-disclosure. That’s leadership.

    • Matt Norman
      August 19, 2015 at 2:35 am

      Thank you, Susan. Appreciate your affirmation of the story and its connection to leadership.

  • Peter
    August 28, 2015 at 2:19 pm

    Having recently read Emotional Intelligence 2.0 this was a wonderful reminder about the importance of being self aware…. and your story really helps because it’s so easy to relate to.

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