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Flirtations, Not Knowing and Couple Therapy

Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” - Voltaire


Edvard Munch, Melancholy, 1891


Hello Everyone,


We have made our way all the way to the month of December 2020. A December that felt so unclear and so far away back in September. And, despite the not knowing future we face, here we all are. Together. Again. Well done.


This newsletter tells a partial story of personal learning through a time of not knowing. It is a story involving flirtation, imagination, humility, frustration, and throwing oneself into the void. A tale of a time trying to re-negotiate something I cherished in order to create an alternative architecture.


Students and professional narrative therapists are familiar with not-knowing stories. Of gravitating to a new theory and practice but feeling estranged from knowing how to perform this new knowing in the therapy room. So for whatever it’s worth, I thought I would join my story of moving through a not knowing time and link it with yours.


But first . . . Back in September, after months of unknowing what the path forward was going to look like, a stark realization settled in that the pandemic wasn’t going anywhere and - nor was the isolation.


Walking along the beach one day in late September, I heard myself speaking with myself about our relationship and how we needed to ‘kick it up a bit’ if the lock-down project was going to continue. Calling for a new spirit of engagement and a revitalisation of interests. Fair point.


Taking this relational conversation seriously, I decided to keep up the 4 or 5 activities I’d been enjoying and begin flirting my way around a few interesting ideas and people. Nothing too sexy, but enough to possibly spark new vitality and verve.


I jumped in with Tristan Harris (called the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience”), traveling and researching beyond his documentary The Social Dilemma and joining his Center for Humane Technology.


I also discovered a passionate interest in something I do thousands of times a day - breathing. Can you believe the Chinese Tao (dating back to 400BCE) wrote 7 books focused entirely on the topic about how breathing could kill us or heal us, depending on how we used it? Trying out new kinds of breathing in my infrared sauna is fairly trippy and enjoyable (perhaps even healthy). It’s not quite as trippy as the pre-COVID float tanks excursions use to be but - trippy and interesting enough.


There is also chess playing. Something I re-connected with from childhood after revisiting the passion playing against the computer on so many pre-COVID long haul flights overseas (I believe there is a direct correlation between the number of 9 hour plus flights one takes and the fewer inflight movies one watches.)

Ok lets take an inventory. Algorithms. Breathing. Chess. Hmmm. Now that I look at it, I may have to find a few more things to flirt with. Ha! Oh but I forgot, there is one more . . . I have developed a deep relationship with push-ups.


My intention today is to speak about a practice flirtation that dates back a few years and runs up to the present. More specifically, I’d like to address a feeling of not knowing what to do with an excitable passion once it arrived.


Way back when in my practice life, perhaps six or seven years ago, I began inventing/creating a fully relational, non-individualist method of couple therapy now known and practiced as narrative therapy informed Relational Interviewing (RI). But early on, I didn’t quite know this was what I was doing!


I fell quite hard for ‘the spirit’ of Relational Interviewing well before knowing what the practice of it would be. So at the beginning of the relationship it was all a bit non-discursive. It was a feel. I felt sensations. Flashes of something I couldn’t quite see or articulate, let alone know what they would look like in the therapy room.


As this relationship was forming, and well before I named it narrative therapy informed Relational Interviewing, the experience was much like being in the presence of a curious, different language – one that felt mysterious, untouched, quite extraordinary and gave me the goose bumps. The phenomenon uplifted, excited, and slowly, ever so slowly, transported me towards a distant unknown location.


Most relationships I’m involved with are somehow related to water metaphors. There are those that feel like going over a waterfall or big wave surfing at Jaws in Maui. Others slow boil or simply drift and flow just under the surface. There are those that quench an immediate thirst and some give exquisite comfort like the sound of tropical rain. Relational Interviewing felt like all of the above at one time.


I wish I could to say Relational Interviewing was love at first sight. But it wasn’t. Because I couldn’t see it! The relationship with RI took time, endurance, imperturbability, discipline, and a bit of blind faith before it showed itself.


I was game but - didn’t know really what the game was. The RI relationship had me living on the outside. And it felt like flirting with free diving down towards the unknown. I held my breath. And I was ok with this.


Let me back up a bit. Historically, I have enjoyed a lifetime of falling into relationships with people, places and things with unadulterated passion. Passions that are never scripted or on a timeline – allowing them to freely come and go and return for shorter and longer periods of time.


For example, in my teens, along with playing ‘Triple A’ hockey 4 times a week and coming home with the joy of playing and fighting and way too many stitches and bloodied eyes and lips, I began to experience deep sensual intimacies leading me to Herman Hesse, transcendental meditation, the Village Voice, environmental movements, the West coast of Ireland, long distance hitchhiking, every live music show (big or small) available, and left wing politics.


Flirtations were helped along through having a cool older sister. I simply chose a few certain things I was exposed to with no real goal or intention. So in my 13 year-old bed room were two posters hanging side by side. One was of hockey legend Bobby Orr scoring an overtime playoff goal and the other was Ravi Shankar playing sitar (the later I once saw play live with George Harrison).


I remember sharing these teenage passions with my close friends – but never quite fully. Certain aspects of the mystery, as it remains to this day, were kept private. And (lucky for me) many of these erstwhile teenage flings survived and lived on long enough to join together with other liaisons that eventually became lifelong values – forming a plot. A story.


And of course plot matters, but plot takes a backseat in my telling a good story because the what of what happened is never quite as interesting as how it happened as you will hopefully see.


As the flirting and yet to be articulated practice expression/idea of Relational Interviewing moved forward, I began to realize that what I might be experiencing had something to do with a gap I could feel in my narrative therapy thinking.


What was it I was missing? Something uncommon? Something beyond my reach? I kept the search on with eyes wide open, and gradually, it began to feel like I was starting my therapeutic trip from the beginning. I wasn’t as happy with how I knew how to do narrative therapy and I couldn’t find what I was trying to do differently. Floating between two worlds. I kept this private. I struggled.


I struggled knowing my narrative practice thinking to this point in the journey could only take me so far. And I was not quite sure what it was that might push me forward and/or closer to this unknown territory.

I’d for sure felt uncomfortable many times before in missing out on something important in my practice that felt just beyond my reach. Hence, I set up narrative conferences and invited preseters in to discuss issues like internalized racism, privilege, sexism, and homophobia. But with these necessary growth and accountability points, rightly or wrongly, I felt like I had a wide range and dearth of people, texts, friends, consultants and discussions to grow with and incorporate into the frame of my narrative interviewing know how.


Edvard Munch, Moonlight on the Beach, 1892


RI was different. My intuition was telling me a particular ecology of ideas surrounding a relational/political concept was different to what I had known and practiced before and (without trying to sound too dramatic) could be life changing.


I was excited, but I just couldn’t get there. Like I said, I struggled. Humbled.


Looking back, one the more difficult experiences was struggling with the idea that I was struggling this hard with practice! Because I thought after 15,000 + hours of direct narrative therapy practice I had somehow transcended far enough to not have to struggle this hard with a practice question. That somehow my knowledge of everyday narrative practice was enough to carry the day. I was so wrong. Ha!


Here is what I knew: Relational Interviewing was intimately related to how I understood and practiced a post-structural informed narrative therapy but it was at the same time artistically and ideologically somewhat distinct in its relational form, content and meaning.


Thus began a transformative search to go back to what I knew and from this platform – try and figure out what was missing.


So I went into a daily training regime. Part of this training involved quietly and painstakingly re-reading many of my favourite narrative therapy articles, entering into new post-structural, queer and post-colonial texts, as well as readings on art and music and farming (of all things!). Anything relational I could get my hands on.


My study also included re-watching couple therapy video sessions I’d done dating back a decade. I took notes, wrote in the margins, underlined with yellow markers, made files and puzzled over questions.


The process of study felt like being back in doctoral school. However, I don’t want to paint a picture that this process of study came at a cost. It didn’t. The process provided a delicious, flirtatious sustenance to my daily work.


What I found indelibly helpful was studying to understand the couple relationships I was engaged with daily in therapy. Trying to see if I could listen to them more strangely, or perhaps more relationally different than I once had.


In the aftermath of these sessions I brutally dissected a new kind of couple work I was trying to do. I tore the sessions and my skills apart. Hearing myself saying things out loud like “you’re such an idiot or, spit it out man - what are trying to say!”


I would see a few couples on any given therapy day and when this was done – I’d get to the real work – critiquing, reading, and studying. Playing things back, rolling ideas around, and questioning my thinking, questions asked, the couple’s responses, and - feeling like a dullard on many days.


The relational ideas were forming but my skills in the session were lagging behind. Part of the issue was undoing how I would normally respond and receive the couple story, and resisting the temptation of doing what I already knew.


Many days therapy felt like playing guitar left-handed.


I sat mystified in an experience that I could not yet speak exactly what it was I was imagining. I kept studying.


What was perhaps most helpful (and comforting) was being able to study inside the best therapeutic playground in the world – my therapy room.

  • The couple relationships I work with arrived into relationship therapy from a wide variety of sexualities, age, race, class, immigrant/non-immigrant (1st, 2nd, 3rd generation) and cultural, religious/non-religious, working/non-working, right wing and left wing orientations etc.

  • Within the variety of these specific and interconnecting relationship contexts were a cosmos of different relational responses and intersecting practices depending on where the relationship was situated and – the difference this held in relationship with my own locations.

  • For example, where I live in Vancouver has the most bi-racial marriages/partnerships per capita than any other city in the world and the majority of couple relationships I see reflect this (about 65%).

  • 75% of the relationships I work with (regardless of sexualities, culture etc.) relationally locate themselves as cisgender heterosexual/monogamous, 20% as queer/trans monogamous, and 5% locate as straight/queer/trans non-monogamous/polyamorous.

  • And roughly 55% of the relationships I work with came to ‘improve/repair’ their relationship, 20% stated they did not know if they wished to separate or stay with their relationship, 15% came to couple therapy to separate, and 10% were currently separated.

Ok – a little bit further . . . it was not only a matter of whether or not couples brought relational practices and politics walking into the therapy room but how they were also walking into a therapy room structured by relational politics.


As a side note: to leave this fact unquestioned and assume the therapy room and the relationships fostered were not under the influence of cultural norms, normativity and procedures would in many ways guarantee that practices of therapy would necessarily be more complicit in reproducing dominant cultural and psychological practices about relationships and the practices of couple therapy. Ok.


If this was the case, and if I were to respond in some serious way (and this was a bit of a crucial moment), without exception, everything I did in the arena of the therapy room would need to support the idea that relationships were relational.


And if all relationships were relational (and all practices intersected with other practices alla Foucault’s ideas) the question I posed to myself was: What would this ‘simple’ idea that relationships are relational (with a view they cannot not be otherwise) look like if expressions of the idea became the central organizing feature of my couple therapy practice? How would this concept be therapeutically expressed and remain consistent? What would the receiving context couple stories were being received into look like? What were the intersecting movements within this ecology relying on? How would the concept not be expressed? Sorting all this out in real time in front of conflicted couple relationships was, for me anyway, far more difficult than it may seem.


While all this flirtation and exploration with RI was afoot, I was bringing the ideas forward into workshops. Cheeky as this might seem, host cities would often invite me to teach “whatever it was I was currently exploring” and in turn, they took excitable risks to sponsor large RI gatherings in places like: Buenos Aries, Cape Town, Copenhagen, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Oslo, Ottawa, Reykjavík, Saskatoon, Sao Paolo, and on and on.


In each workshop taught, I took participants to the far end and limits of my RI practice knowing. I couldn’t of course do otherwise.


Participant questions, relationship puzzles and after hour drink discussions from one workshop - acted to push the borders of what was taught in the next. If a city witnessed the RI work in 2015 it inevitably looked quite different in 2017 and again in 2020. What was cool about this collaborative teaching and learning recursion was how it made possible for us to accurately demarcate the moment many of the now numerous RI therapeutic practice ideas first emerged.


Over the past 6 or 7 years, the creation of a narrative therapy informed Relational Interviewing couple therapy practice has involved a tight inner circle of brilliant ‘therapynauts’ who could travel up onto the high ground and beyond everyday therapy. Whether it was the RI supervision groups based in Norway, the VSNT teaching faculty, interested friends, or couples that found their way to RI, we forged mutual responsibilities and commitments to venture further into this new unknown. And for all these relationships I am thankful.


Through the recent course of the 2020 lockdown my RI practice has grown forward. Perhaps it has something to do with what Israeli psychologists Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky (big flirts of mine back in 2015) advise, that it is always better for creativity and imagination to keep yourself a little bit under employed.


In the present day, RI situates the entirety of couple relationships relationally. Think about it: conflict, communication, trust, desire, attraction, work, fitness, busyness, duty, kindness, parenting, sex, loss, extended family, death, resentment, love, employment, loneliness, values, affairs, power, respect and the like . . . are under direct and undeniable contextual, cultural and relational influence. To consider couple therapy otherwise – through biological, attachment theories, family of origin or anything individualist – seems, to me, blazingly preposterous and rather discourteous to the relationship. Quite.


Within this backdrop I marvel at how remarkable intimate relationships are; hold deep appreciation and compassion for what these relationships are attempting to become within the context they find themselves in; and bewildered with how unfair and limited our present culture treats, views and discusses couple relationships.


Edvard Munch, The Separation, 1896


It’s a few years down the track from flirtation and I’m becoming comfortable with my relationship with Relational Interviewing practice. The journey into the unknown inspired much more empathy for Graduate students and new narrative therapists starting out. I imagine your flirtation with narrative therapy can be both wildly exciting, perplexing and outright terrifying at times. Keep at it.


I feel the way forward for narrative therapist’s young and old is to never stop at the limits of what you already believe you know, or what you are expected to do in the contexts you work in.


Knowing you don’t know is comforted with the idea that I may not know something now, but in a month, 3 months or whatever – eventually - I might know more.


Not knowing is sexy. So flirt a little. Try it on. Take a risk. Let learning the unknown thrust you over the waterfall. What’s the worst that can happen?


Edvard Munch, The Lonely Ones, 1895


Our online narrative therapy learning platform VSNT.live is growing at an exponential rate, tripling in size since August with all projections indicating it will triple again by March 2021. Thank you.


We feel your gravitation to the site and involvement in VSNT.live represents your hunger and passion for learning what is not known - yet. Your enthusiasm and support acts to push us forward to ever-growing diverse content and experience.


All right then. As we approach the New Year my wish to you is this: let your flirtations be many and your passions intoxicating. Be wild, squeeze the unknown, and . . .


Take care.


If you’d like to contact me directly reach me at: yft@telus.net


Stephen

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