Wednesday 2 October 2019

How to Spot a Scripted Relationship and What to Do about It

Fran and I were talking the other day about scripted conversations. You know the kind I mean; where you pretty much know what the other person is going to say and how you’ll respond. If pressed, you could probably write the whole thing out in advance.

There’s nothing wrong with this. Scripts help us navigate socially with people we don’t know very well or have no wish to engage deeply. Whether it’s our morning chat with that person we see at the bus stop, the barista in our favourite coffee shop, or water-cooler moments with colleagues, scripts reassure us we are on the same page.

It’s unhealthy, though, when our core friendships and relationships come to rely on scripted conversations and behaviours. That’s what I want to explore in this article. I will focus on essentially benign situations but toxicity and abuse can be scripted too.

Am I in a Scripted Relationship?

If you’re unsure, think ahead to the next time you’re going to meet this person. It might be face-to-face, a phone call, video call, instant messaging, or even by text (SMS) message — however you usually connect. Close your eyes and imagine how the meeting might play out. How did it go last time? The time before? If you can anticipate the topics you’ll discuss and who will say what — maybe even the words and phrases you’ll use — you’re in a scripted relationship.

How Did That Happen?

I don’t believe anyone sets out to live an overly scripted life so how does it happen? What’s the alternative? Unscripted is dynamic, risky, interesting, engaging, fun, exciting — and scary! It takes courage to be honest and open with someone. Putting our needs and emotions into words and allowing the other person to do the same invites challenge and confrontation. How much safer it is to simply not go there; to slip instead into familiar patterns of behaviour and dialogue.

Scripts mean we don’t have to think about what to say. We know what’s coming up and how to respond without ruffling feathers or risking upsetting the other person or exposing ourselves to criticism. There is safety in the familiar.

And let’s be honest, unscripted relationships can be exhausting! Sometimes we simply don’t have the energy to go off script and be open about stuff. In those circumstances, it’s understandable that we turn to a familiar script. One maybe that starts “Hi hunny, I’m home” at the end of a busy day. But if that script runs all the way through to “Goodnight” and picks up again next morning maybe there is cause for concern, especially if the same script plays night after night.

What’s the Problem?

Why should this be a cause for concern? If it’s the cashier at the grocery store or the woman you see at the bus stop you might not be missing out on much. Then again, you’ll never know unless you can set the script aside.

It’s different when it’s someone important to you; a friend, partner, colleague, or family member. Scripts are by definition limiting, predictable, and ultimately boring. Relationships which rely on them tend to become stale and utilitarian. As one friend expressed it to me, “I’ve had relationships like that. They are very... flat.”

The thing is, life does not stand still. We do not stand still. Our feelings, situations, needs, hopes, and fears change. The hallmark qualities of a scripted connection — stability and structure — can mask what is going on beneath the surface, until everything breaks down. And there is no script for that. To remain healthy our relationships must be flexible enough to adapt.

What Can I Do about It?

Ask yourself if you genuinely want to lose your reliance on scripted conversations and behaviours. This is not a trivial question. It takes courage to make changes, especially when other people are involved. If you want to proceed here are a few approaches you might find helpful.

Start with one of the scripts you rely on most. Play it over a few times in your head or even jot it down on paper. There’s no need to throw it away altogether; by definition it is something you are both familiar with. The idea is to adapt or alter it so the conversation is less regimented and closed. You might add in a non-confrontational question or share something uncontroversial you wouldn’t usually share. If it’s feasible suggest meeting somewhere new or at a different time of day. Or connect face-to-face instead of by phone, or vice versa.

One consequence of scripted conversations is that you stop listening. Why would you, when you know what’s coming up? You’ve heard it all before. So whatever else you do to mix things up, pay attention and listen as much as you speak.

Think about other people in your life where things are less scripted. Where and when do you meet? What do you talk about? Do you feel safer and more open with them than with the person in your scripted relationship? Why is that? See if there are things you can bring into the mix. Don’t expect too much to change all at once but persevere.

Have you ever had a scripted friendship or relationship? Were you happy with things as they were? If not, did you manage to change the nature of your connection with this person? Leave a comment below, we’d love to hear your thoughts.



  1. If I’m in a scripted relationship, can it be unscripted? Can anything change?