It was the worst thing I’ve ever heard: a recording of a 911 call a woman made just as a man attacked her with a knife in her living room. As he made attempts to stab her and she tried to fight him off, she only said one thing. Why? Why are you doing this to me? Over and over, until he’d finally stabbed her to death.
She spent her last words, her last breaths, seeking an explanation for what this stranger was doing to her.
That’s how deep and strong our need for a story, a narrative, an explanation is when something bad happens to us, when someone does something bad to us. Why did this happen? Why did you do this terrible thing to me?
Because we ask why, we believe there must be an answer.
I feel we all need to understand how there are times when there is no answer. And how to deal with that.
Now lots of times, of course, there is an explanation. Why is the car making that funny noise? Because we ran over a box and now it’s trapped under the car. We have to stop and pull it out. We do, and the noise is gone.
Ah, if only life were always that simple. Usually, it’s not.
Why is grandpa lying on the floor? He had a heart attack! Okay, and easily confirmed. But how do you explain the heart attack? Risk factors! How do you explain the fact that lots of people with those risk factors don’t have heart attacks? Oh! Don’t know. And where did those risk factors come from? Grandpa didn’t take very good care of himself. Okay, but why not? Oh! Don’t know.
You see the problem.
Where this becomes an issue in relationships is mostly when our partner hurts us or disappoints us or betrays us. They do something awful and we want to know why. And so we fly into the arms of the most likely, most comfortable, most available explanation.
Why did he cheat on you? Because he’s a rat. Cheaters cheat. Once a cheater, always a cheater. So you gotta dump him, fast.
Well, that’s certainly an explanation! Some people would swear it’s always true, by definition! Which is why those folks were angry when I wrote a book called When Good People Have Affairs. Which I wrote because it was abundantly clear that basically decent people cheated because of a variety of circumstances.
But this is a perfect example of where our need for explanations or stories or narratives runs smack dab into reality.
There are two main risk factors for cheating. Need and opportunity. To put it bluntly, if a guy is very happily married and is never around other women, the odds are way against him cheating. Same guy: if there are problems in his relationship and key needs of his aren’t getting met and he’s out there in situations where there are available women, then he’s at risk of falling into an affair.
But have I really explained anything? Well, yeah, if you’re an epidemiologist! But the odds are you aren’t. You’re looking for a strong, clear link between this guy and this affair. Because, let’s face it, no one was holding a gun to his head and at every step along the way he could have said no.
Now here’s how it plays out in real life. The guy’s wife wants to know why. She’s looking for a narrative with a motive that makes sense of the whole thing. So she pounds away at the guy for months, years even, asking questions. Did you love her? Was she prettier than me? What did she give you that I didn’t give you?
I’ve witnessed countless conversations like this. They’re just like the woman who was stabbed to death asking why over and over. There is never, believe me, never a satisfactory answer from the guy. (Well, there’s one satisfactory answer, if you can call it that, but it’s a game-ender: “I cheated with her because she’s way better than you and so I don’t want to be with you anymore and I want to be with her.” Except most guys don’t feel this way!) If the guy still wants to be with his wife, there never can be a satisfactory answer.
Some guys fall back on, I was stupid, I was crazy, I didn’t know what I was doing. No wife really believes this. She’s pretty sure she herself could’ve said no! Why couldn’t the husband?
The problem is what I call the explanatory gap. You can add up reasons why—that’s the easy part—but you can’t make them add up to why this affair had to happen, why this guy had to say yes when he could’ve said no. Nothing really is ever found to bridge this explanatory gap. Leaving us terribly unsatisfied.
And when people are involved, this explanatory gap is everywhere. Why did this woman attempt suicide? We can add up all the risk factors, all the reasons, all the circumstances. But they don’t say why this suicide had to happen. Plenty of women in the exact same situation wouldn’t have attempted suicide. So if you come up with an explanation, let’s face it, you’re really just coming up with a story.
And here’s the thing. What do we really want? Narratives and explanations? Not really. I think what we want is to feel safe, more than anything else. Of course, common sense tells us that you can no more be perfectly safe than you can find a solid, complete explanation. But at least you can in a very solid way become more safe, much more safe. And that’s worth a lot.
In a way, our last three (!) books were all about achieving greater safety in your relationship:
If you can possibly let go of your search for an explanation of why the thing happened and instead focus on becoming safer, you’ll actually get somewhere, and you’ll feel much better.
There’s something else most of us want and that most of us can get. When something bad happens to us, we want a sense of meaning. Why in a cosmic sense. Something that turns a random victimization into our discovering a purpose. It’s not that the thing happened so that we’d find this meaning. No. But the thing happened—the affair, the divorce, the death—and now we’d be so enormously grateful to find meaning for ourselves in it.
And that can happen. That’s what our best-seller Everything Happens for a Reason is all about.