A relationship is a story. I don't mean that as a metaphor. I mean it literally: A relationship is a story. In particular, a relationship is a story about two people responding to each other and with each other over time.

Like all stories, the story of a relationship is told from a particular point of view — some person's point of view. The nature of the story, the nature of the relationship, depends a great deal on who is telling the story.

If you want to influence others, relationships matter. Of the four factors that affect the way people respond to your proposals and requests — expectations, communication, relationship, and environment — relationship may be the most important to nurture. Every time you talk with someone, your relationship enters the conversation before you do. You each bring a story into the room, a story that carries your history and expectations, providing the structure that integrates this conversation with your past and your future, and the context within which you attach meaning and significance to each other's words and behaviors. As you interact, your story guides your experience — perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors — even as you weave your experience back into the ongoing, unfolding story.

I've been thinking about this idea, about relationships as stories, for a few weeks. It feels like a rich vein for me — every thought leads to three more thoughts. I struggled for days to start this article because I didn't know where to begin. I struggled for hours to write it because I didn't know where to stop.

I'll stop here for now, having set out only the basic idea, and leave you (and me) with a few thought experiments.

Experiment: Think of a relationship that you are enjoying. If you were to tell an empathetic listener about this relationship, what would you say? What story or stories would you tell? How did the relationship begin? What events or patterns of events stand out for you as being especially important to you? What happened? What meaning did you make of those events? How did you feel? What role do you play in the story? How do you describe yourself? What role does the other person play? How do you describe the other person? What do you think will happen in the relationship over time? How does all of this affect the way you interact with the person? How does it affect the way you think and talk about the person when you're apart?

Experiment: Think of a relationship in which you are feeling some stress or pain or frustration. Answer the same questions as above.

Experiment: Compare the two relationships from above. What similarities do you see? What differences?

Experiment: How would the other person in each relationship answer these questions?