Removing the problem from the relationship: narrative couples therapy

I was excited to find a blog post that focused on how couples can benefit from narrative therapy.  I have always been intrigued by narrative therapy and use it often in my practice, but my couples therapy training had never specifically touched on how to integrate this post-modern approach with relationship work.  Narrative therapy is an innovative and collaborative therapeutic approach that is intrigued by the stories of people’s lives.  It focuses on understanding how the stories our lives lead are based on influences from society, culture and politics and how these factors can create problems in relationships with ourselves and others.  Integrating the postmodern approach of “there is no objective truth”, narrative therapy believes that our lives are built of many stories that interact with each other and form a network of experiences and memories.  In individual and family therapy, I might work with a client on “rewriting her life story”, either literally or figuratively, so that she feels she has the power to direct her life in a healthier, more peaceful route.

Narrative therapy also uses the technique of “externalizing the problem”, which is a way of removing the problem from within ourselves and seeing it as a separate thing that influences us and interacts with us in ways we might not even realize.  I find this to be one of the most dynamic and healing aspects of narrative therapy: how many of us feel as if we are the problem?  As if it is a part of us that we cannot do anything about and it therefore gains control and makes us miserable? I sure know the feeling.  In relationships, each partner’s life stories interacting with each other, multiplying the complexity and depth of the ways that each partner has chosen to live his or her life thus far.  How does your story impact the way you relate to your partner?  For example, if your family struggled with financial security for many years of your young life and you survived by learning how to budget and live modestly, you might have a story that is written about survival, responsibility with money, and thinking very hard about each decision you make.  Your partner may have had a completely different background and his life story may never had the chapter of needing to learn how to manage money in a careful manner.  These backgrounds, ingrained in us, might navigate the ways that we talk to our adult partners about money.  Using narrative approaches, the couple could explore the influences of society and culture on money management as they grew up, and they could collaborate to write a new story on how they would like to approach money management as a couple.

Often times, couples come to therapy focused on a problem.  They have already “tried everything” and therapy is a last gasp at saving the relationship.  A popular marriage therapy blog offers a very honest account from the perspective of one partner as the couple enters marriage therapy at this stage.  Using narrative therapy to externalize the problem can be a very powerful intervention that makes the blame game completely disappear.  Through exploring the couple’s story, I learn what the underlying issue is (*note: this is not often the first thing they present with.  Couples often present with issues surrounding sex, money, in-laws, and parenting responsibilities and it takes a lot of work to find the raw feelings that lie underneath these).  Perhaps the couple presents with issues of jealousy and dishonesty in being accountable to their partner.  After exploring for a session or two, I am able to fish out that each partner is feeling lonely in the relationship.  By removing “lonely” and using it as a separate entity in their relationship, both partners can see it as something they do not own and thus do not need to feel guilty or ashamed about.  I might ask them “how is loneliness affecting your ability to relate to one another on an intimate level?”.  Or “in what was does jealousy harm the relationship?”.  And, further down the line, we could work on figuring out “What steps can you take as a couple to lessen the powerful and dangerous effects of ‘withdrawal’ on your relationship?”

This is just a taste of some of the interesting facets of narrative therapy, as I begin to dabble in ways that it can effectively help couples heal wounds and start writing new and liberating life stories together.  When we are able to feel that we are not the problem, that we do not own it and it is not a deficit of ours or our relationship’s, I think that partners can start to adopt a solution focused outlook instead of a toxic problem-infused mentality.