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  • Writer's pictureVancouver School For Narrative Therapy VSNT

Friendship Therapy, Therapeutic Letter-Writing Campaigns with Couples, and Supervision 2.0

Bright Future, Laurie Snow Hein

“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.” — Aristotle

Once upon a time I was a decent little public-school speaker. In fact, one speech took me all the way through competitions to the City of Toronto’s public speaking finals.

The topic of my speech was Friendship.

I was in grade seven at the time and just eleven years old because I was “a year ahead of myself’ in school. And, had my parents allowed me to skip grade seven as my grade school principal suggested I do after I’d completed a hybrid grade six and seven in Mr. Curtis’s class, I would have been in grade eight and eleven years old competing in the public speaking finals.

In the end my parents decided against letting me learn two years above my grade which really didn’t matter to me one way or the other because all I really cared about was being with my neighbourhood friends and playing triple ‘A’ hockey. Anyway . . .

Years before I’d experienced my older sister Anne speak her way into the Toronto public speaking finals. Anne placed second in the finals and was awarded a large silver trophy that we all thought was a pretty big deal. And it was (!), and thanks to my father and my sister, a few years later, I too came second in the city finals on my first time out.

I was taught how the beginning of any speech had to be super engaging for the audience. So, my little speech started off by questioning the complex friendship between Lucy and Charlie Brown, and how perplexed I was by the fact that even though Charlie finds Lucy rather crabby to him and mean to Linus, he still cares for her and trusts her as his friend.

But what I remember most about the packed auditorium on night of the finals was the kid who won first place in the competition. His speech was about how cool it was to be growing up with two deaf parents (that was the lingo of the day) and how he ended his speech with a message of love he gave to his Mom and Dad, using sign language. I mean come on! My entire family stood up to offer a fierce round of applause for this definitely first place worthy speech.

Sunsplash #2: Four children from Banse La Grace Combined School in Saint Lucia, Jonathan Guy-Gladding

She thought of how precious it was to be able to know another person over many years. There was incomparable richness in it.” — Alice Walker, The Way Forward Is with a Broken Hear

Friendships remain at the centre of my life and, I like it this way. Friends and family will testify that throughout the course of my life, from beginning until now, this remains true.

I love my friends. I love friendship. I love spending time with the friends I have. I find my friends fascinating, and hold them in the same league with nature, and literature and music.

I’m thrilled when they’re thriving and excited about this or that. I care deeply when they are suffering and always ready to lend a hand. And, I now it in spades, that I hit have the relational jackpot with the remarkable people who make up the friendships of my life.

Like many of you during lockdown I thought a fair bit about the well-being of my friends. It was during this time that I began taking a much closer look at the constitution, construction, norms, practices etc. within friendship relationships, in general.

I began making lists of questions regarding what I saw as differences within relational friendship sites with those classified as familial, parental, collegial, and intimate relationships.

Holding my attention was how differences within these differing relationships related to practices and ideas regarding: commitment, responsibility, the body, temporality, rituals, values, power relations, cultural expectations, desire, sex, risk, suffering etc. All the time wondering . . . how might our friendship relationship experiences be experiencing this relational complexity - differently?

And I think it might be because I spend so much time therapeutically engaged in the company of conflicted couple relationships and learning from these relationships about an intimate relationship’s preferred historical values, conflicts, and practices and the influential cultural context and norms these relationships are embed within – that led me to wonder what we do, and how do we culturally frame, speak about, and respond to friendship relationships that become conflicted and separated?

And this led me to wonder that if we can for a moment agree to the following:

a) friendships belong in their own separate relationship ‘category’,

b) friendship relationships are emotionally enhancing and necessary for persons to thrive,

c) friendship relationships are embedded in and influenced by cultural contexts and norms, and, d) friendship relationships like all other relationship categories experience conflict, loss and separations . . . the question becomes - why is it the various disciplines of psychotherapy have not yet developed a dedicated specialty in ‘Friendship Therapy’?

SO the question becomes - why is it the various disciplines of psychotherapy have not yet developed a dedicated specialty in ‘Friendship Focused Therapy’? This question became a bit of a graduated mystery, and it hasn’t let go of me, yet, so . . .

Historically, the fields of psychotherapy have developed all manner of specialized interests, designated schools and departments of theory/research/practice/policy, thousands of Graduate school mental health programs, booming self-help and wellness industries, specified government agencies, and corporation management coaching strategies.

And as we know, these psychotherapeutic disciplines have laser focused on various aspects and models regarding family, individual, couple, community, employee/work-related relationships etc. As have I (!)

I’m fascinated with how, somewhere along the line, a culturally conscious political decision was somehow made to turn our therapeutic curiosities away from any therapeutic interest in friendship relationships. How did this happen?

Given how important friendships are to me, I wonder how I missed the friendship therapy boat in my own work? I mean it’s kind of crazy, like the friendship relationship is hiding in plain sight.

Do you wonder how Mr. Aristotle (the champion of the friendship relationship) would feel about all this? And just what would historian philosopher Michel Foucault’s take be on this cultural phenomenon? Hmmm. I suppose there are miles and miles of books and dissertations getting ready to be written. Ha!

Swim, Roger Wedegis

Like most of us, through years of narrative practice I’ve take great pleasure in thousands of hours of therapy sessions with relationships comprised of: Children and parents, parents and grandparents, grandparents and children, multiple extended family members, brothers and sisters, dead people and the living, a whole range of couple combinations, and of course working with people mourning the loss of ‘mans’ best friend.

Many of us have also enjoyed engaging therapeutically with business partners, employees and bosses, unions and employers, community groups and government officials, agency staff members, teachers and students, hospital staff and patients.

A central part of my work as a narrative therapist tis inviting clients to bring their friends to therapy. However, through the years I can probably count on one hand the number of times I have been asked into therapy to assist in sorting through a conflict or loss in a relationship, between friends.

I was looking for inspiration on this topic, so I began a re-reading of my close friend and VSNT colleague philosopher Todd May’s deeply inspired book entitled: Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism.

Todd’s elegant writings offer us a novel take on the philosophical histories and different experiential meanings, purpose, and intentions involved in friendship relationships.

Reading his work offered an increased transport in getting more deeply in touch with how much I have always valued and cherished my friendships, the unique complexity and types of friendship relationships I engage with, and a roving curiosity about why the world of therapy has not given friendship relationships a special place of service, interest, and care.

This newsletter attempts to situate you inside a few recent experiences of long-term friendships and places them alongside the virtuosity of Todd’s beautiful writings on friendship.

It’s an experiment (:

My hope is the newsletter writings on friendships bring you closer in touch with your friends and the purpose and meaningfulness of these relationships.

Another hope might be that after you finish reading the newsletter it transports you towards taking part in a general discussion on what a narrative therapy informed friendship focused relationship therapy might look like. Your feedback will of course be shaped by whether or not you find a therapy practice dedicated to friendship, necessary. Let’s see how this goes . . .

Circle of Friends, Edward Henry Potthast

Todd writes, “We might say of friendships that they are a matter not of diversion or of return but of meaning. They render us vulnerable, and in doing so they add dimensions of significance to our lives that can only arise from being, in each case, friends with this or that individual, a party to this or that particular life.”

“Rather than the rhythm of pleasure followed by emptiness, or that of investment and then profit, friendships follow a rhythm that is at once subtler and more persistent. This rhythm is subtler because it often (although not always) lacks the mark of a consumed pleasure or a successful investment. But even so, it remains there, part of the ground of our lives that lies both within us and without.”

The whole point of booking my recent 6am ugly hour flight from Vancouver to Toronto was for us to get clear of Friday’s traffic and up to her cottage on Georgian Bay, by cocktail hour. These were the instructions. And be it Ireland, Spain, or an off the grid cottage in Canada, all my long-time friends know the drill. Real-life chatter begins during the cocktail hour.

She and I first met as fourteen-year-olds. Our world was fresh faced big friendly and adventurous and, between us, to this day, it remains this way.

Pre-cottage, we both understood the magnitude of the truly big rite of passage moments about to take place in our lives involving for each of our families and friends just after this cottage occasion. So of course, as is her generosity in our friendship, a special number of her best bottles of St. Emillion Grand Cru had been set aside to help us contemplate (:

We sip and slip so easily between the movements of our histories. Of past and present and future as we have so many times before. We do this while there is no electricity or running water to speak of at the cottage. Each evening candles get lit, water is checked and, of course, campfires light up alongside a canopy of night stars. We fall, as we do, into deep friendship.

After three days and nights we arrive back in Toronto to see my sister standing on the sidewalk outside her house speaking with a neighbour when we pull up. My sister has known my friend for as long as I have, however, being older than us, they come to know and appreciate each other, more, through time.

As I witness my family (who I love so much) and close friends (who I also love so much), come together relationally I experience a manner of relational peace and contentment. I hold this. Not squeeze just, hold.

Todd writes . . . “Of course, to have friendships like this, one must be prepared to take up the past as a ground for friendship. This ground does not come to us, ready-made. We must make it our own. And this, perhaps, is the contemporary lesson we can draw from Aristotle’s view that true friendship requires virtuous partners, that “perfect friendship is the friendship of men(sic) who are good.” If we are to have friends, then we must be willing to approach some among our relationships as offering an invitation to build something outside the scope of our own desires. We must be willing to forgo pleasure or usefulness for something that emerges not within but between one of us and another.”

Three Friends, Salman Toor

The next day I have lunch with a very cool friend I have known since the day he was born. We grew up three houses away on the same working-class street. Our mothers were best friends, and my parents are his god parents so, we have a lot of friendship history this friend and me.

Our friendship first found its relational footing through our families being interconnected and our playing outside, a lot, with his brothers. Within our dedicated friendship, we find it cool our big sisters remain best friends and, how I have an entirely separate super close friendship with one of his three brothers who I use to share afternoon naps with. Ha!

My point is this - throughout my friendships we, all of us, cherish the relationships the others have, with one another.

Through time and circumstance, he and I crafted a separate relationship away from the families through the miles we travelled together.

It seems sometimes seems it’s the random and the unplanned unpleasant stuff we go through that develops most friendships further. Like the unfortunate time he and I found both our marriages dissolving during the same year. And how our actual physical morning moves out of our homes and into separated homes - arrived on exactly the same day.

Experiences like this are hard scabbled and difficult to get a handle on. Yet, in a strange kind of firming up way, going through this lousy landscape together proved comforting in the knowledge that, our friendship understood, just how hard it was.

Friendship events, the memories remembered about the events, and the stories told about the events are embodied, and add themselves into the friendship’s relational archive (this includes a relationship between the experience of this friendship and what we know of the experience of friendships.)

The ecology of the friendship archive also holds the framing, telling, embodying, developing, transforming, imagining and, experience of the friendship becoming different to what it was.

Our friendship relationship capacity easily stickhandles through a full range of topics. On this day the menu includes: Federal housing and poverty issues, proud stories and concerns about our kids, the latest on American foreign policy, book and film suggestions, and a few upcoming NHL stats – all during the time it took to drain our first coffees.

As lunch arrives our ‘possible’ conversational table has been set. Through joint action and ability to ‘read’ one another and the relationship, we loop back and focus in on one topic, just for today.

Three hours disappear with him in a flash and we want more but that’s ok because - we have plans to meet up again with my daughters and our families, in a few days’ time.

In the aftermath of these times together I chuckle at how smooth all this friendship between us, always goes. It’s an art.

Milkman Meets Pieman, Stevan Dohanos

Todd writes:” To be this ground, friendships have a relation to time that is foreign to an economic orientation. Consumer relationships are focused on the momentary present. It is what brings immediate pleasure that matters. Entrepreneurial relationships have more to do with the future. How I act toward others is determined by what they might do for me down the road. Friendships, although lived in the present and assumed to continue into the future, also have a deeper tie to the past than either of these. Past time is sedimented in a friendship. It accretes over the hours and days friends spend together, forming the foundation upon which the character of a relationship is built. This sedimentation need not be a happy one. Shared experience, not just common amusement or advancement is the ground of friendship.

The following afternoon I’m sitting outside and in the back of one of my favourite Toronto bars taking a pint with three guys I met in grade nine. Our friendship together first developed at the same co-ed Catholic high school and during undergraduate University. For many years after this each of us might say we have not stayed close, but we have stayed in touch.

I like each of these guys in their own way and we quickly fall into a full range analysis of: times arrested, ‘girls ‘we dated, early travels abroad, goof ups, drug stories, rock and roll bands we saw together, their beloved Maple Leaf’s, and then can’t help ourselves moving into our common left-wing political passions we share together now in much the same way we did, way back then. Talking shit, having a laugh, and being friends, again.

The day after, my daughters are flying in late in the evening, and I slip out to have an early dinner with four of my close women friends and one of the more gracious guys I’ve ever known. I met one of these friends when I was fourteen, another at fifteen, and the rest when we were nineteen. We’ve stayed intimately intertwined and close. All of us.

There’s a baker’s dozen of us.

I happily belong to other fabulous friendship squadrons but this one runs deepest and longest.

They all work incredibly hard, are reputable creators and leaders, and as per usual, when we settle into our group, our conversationnever strays over an invisible line into work. Never.

Cocktail hour commences and the banter is so super smart, funny, and fast I begin thinking I’ve missed a step or two during Covid. Art, politics, film, books and of course our histories, together. By cocktail two I’m rounding back into form. Boy oh boy how I have missed sitting live and in person with this crew.

Todd writes: Todd Writes: “It is precisely this non-economic character that is threatened in a society in which each of us is thrown upon his or her resources and offered only the bywords of ownership, shopping, competition, and growth. It is threatened when we are encouraged to look upon those around us as the stuff of our current enjoyment or our future advantage. It is threatened when we are led to believe that friendships without a recognizable gain are, in the economic sense, irrational. Friendships are not without why, perhaps, but they are certainly without that particular why.

In turn, however, it is friendship that allows us to see that there is more than what the prevalent neoliberal discourse places before us as our possibilities. In a world often ruled by the dollar and what it can buy, friendship, like love, opens other vistas. The critic John Berger once said of one of his friendships, “We were not somewhere between success and failure; we were elsewhere.” To be able to sit by the bed of another, watching him sleep, waiting for nothing else, is to understand where else we might be.”

I won’t say much about what happens next when my daughters Hannah and Tessa arrive, and the cousins show up, and their partners jump in . . . other than to say all and absolutely everything is outright beautiful. I experience whatever it is that lives beyond joy. And whatever this is, it is surely the high ground. The sacred. My sisters and I are chuffed. Our days and nights as a family together, linger. We are at home.

- - -

Perhaps it was the experience of existential reckonings occurring through COVID. But . . . whatever it was, I reflected more than usual on relationships (family, work, intimate) and eventually friendship relationships took over the top spot in my thinking. It was some of this thinking that led me to realize and question how there isn’t, as far as I know, a therapy catering specifically to friendship relationships.

I’m so pleased to introduce and whet your appetites on Todd May’s writings on friendship relationships. The Newsletter offers but a small taster. His book Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism Is sure worth a purchase.

I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have on why the phenomenon of friendship relationships has not (yet) found a place in our therapy rooms. Thanks a lot.

Sunhats on the Beach, Best girlfriends, Nicole Roggeman

6-month Cross Training Supervision Immersion

VSNT faculty designed the upcoming 6-mont/100 hours + Cross Training Supervision Immersion Course to thoroughly develop the theoretical and practice ecology of the next generation of brilliant narrative therapists. We are very serious about this commitment.

Enough said (:

New forms of writing and naming: Therapeutic letter-writing campaigns (with conflicted couple relationships)

For many of you who practice and follow narrative therapy and more specifically, the practice traditions and values emerging out of the Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy, you will already know the reasons why I first created the practice of Therapeutic Letter Writing Campaigns alongside a few amazingly talented narrative colleagues (Madigan and Goldner 1995, Madigan, 2004, 2008, 2019.)

Briefly, the theoretical ecology of the receiving context in support of creating community-based letter-writing campaigns is one response to a problem identity growing stronger within the structures of the institution (psychiatric hospitals etc.). The narrative practice framework of letter writing campaigns brings together a community of support to offer the persons struggling an alternative voice, protest, and counterview to the problem story being told and experienced.

Therapeutic Letter-Writing Campaigns are designed to assist people in the experience of re-remembering creatively generative aspects of preferred relational selves, values, relationships, and communities, the problem (and their life support systems) has helped them remember to forget (by skillfully dis-membering persons off from communities of love and concern.)

We designed letter-writing campaigns for persons as young as 6 years and as old as 76 years. Our community-based campaigns have assisted persons struggling with a wide range of difficulties, for persons living both inside and outside institutions struggling in relationship to: anxiety, child loss, HIV/AIDS, anorexia/bulimia, depression, perfection, fear, trauma, neglect, violence, and abuse. The community letter writing campaigns created a context where it becomes possible for people struggling in relationship with problems to bring themselves back from the depths of the problem’s grip, formidable isolation, self-harm, and attempts that choose death over life.

Below is a basic and quick sample letter written to a community of concern Peter chose to invite and include after our 3rd therapy session. During our therapy sessions Peter was living on a psychiatric ward at a hospital I had previously launched therapeutic letter-writing campaigns from. Peter found himself in hospital after attempting to kill himself following the drowning death of his 3-year old daughter and, a subsequent giving up on hope.

Letter Sent to Peter’s Friends and Family

Dear Friends and Family of Peter,

My name is Stephen Madigan, and I am a family therapist working alongside Peter. Since Mara’s tragic death, Peter has let me know that “he hasn’t known how to face the world.” Until recently, a sense of “hopelessness” pretty much “took over his life” to the point that it almost killed him. Another debilitating aspect of this profound loss is that Peter can’t “remember much of his life” since before Mara’s death. Peter also feels in an “odd way responsible for Mara’s death,” even though he knows “somewhere in his mind” that he “was out of town the day of the accident.”

Peter believes there is a “strong message out there” that he “should just get on with his life.” Peter says he finds this attitude “troubling” because each “person is different” and he believes that he “might never get over it but eventually learn to live alongside it.”

We are writing to ask you to write a letter in support of Peter explaining (a) memories of your life with Peter, (b) what you shared, (c) who Mara is to you, (d) how you plan to support Peter while he grieves, (e) what Peter has given to you in your life, and (f) what you think your lives will be like together once he leaves the hospital.

Thank you for your help,

Peter, Stephen, and the Team

The general structure for reading and witnessing letters of the community campaign during the therapy session is as follows:

  1. All campaign writers are invited to the session after they have received the therapeutic letter I have written to them with the assistance of the person I am working with. It is preferred the community come in together if this is geographically possible – and these days the letter writing session(s) take place on Zoom.

  2. After a brief welcome, each community member is in turn asked to read aloud the letter of support they have written – in this case to Peter.

  3. The session usually includes the client, me as therapist, and the invited letter writers from the community. Note: During live demonstrations of this work, we also include a therapeutic Response Team that may include insiders.

  4. After each writer reads aloud their letter, the client is asked to read the letter back to the writer, so both writer, client (and members of the community group) can attend to and experience what is being said/written from the different positions of speaking and listening (telling, re-telling, re-telling of the re-telling.)

  5. After each letter is read by the writer and discussed with the client, the community of others in the session (who are sitting and listening) offer a brief reflection specific to what the letter evoked in their own personal lives and where the letter may have transported them towards.

  6. The telling, re-telling, and re-telling of the re-telling process continues until all letters have been read, reread, responded to, and reflected on.

  7. Copies are made of each letter and sent out to everyone in attendance.

  8. I then follow up the session with a therapeutic letter addressed to everyone who attended the session including the client, the commu­nity of concern, and the response team.

Personally, I remember finding the reflections and readings with Peter and the eight members of his community who attended our community of concern therapy sessions quite profound.

Our letter-writing campaign meetings sometimes lasted over 2 (we scheduled them at day’s end.) The texts written by the community members involved included his brother, sister, partner, mother, a neighbour, a workmate, and two old friends. His group of support responded to Peter’s desire to be understood, listened to, and be accepted for who he was, his rite to grieve the death of Mara in the way he wanted, support his own timeline for any anticipation of hope, and his willingness to further live his life.

Four weeks later, Peter left the psychiatric hospital on a forward-stepping path towards becoming free of medication and concern. Peter and Mara’s mother Caitland then decided to enter into couple therapy with me.

Their stated intentions were to try respond to Mara’s loss and the effect of this loss had on their relationship and (hopefully) restore their relationship.

They brought the letters from the letter campaign to the first session and relationally together anticipated the possibility of recon­structing their marriage. Hope is a wonderful potion.

~ Anyway . . . over the last couple of years I began to quietly try out and reinstate therapeutic letter-writing campaigns working with conflicted couple relationships and this meant taking time to think through what turned out to be a major overhaul in the theory, the structure of the letter campaigns, and the interviewing framework.

The primary reason why therapeutic letter writing campaigns needed so much of an overhaul was due to my narrative therapy informed work significantly (and progressively) changing over the last few years (as all accountable narrative therapist’s work needs to!), as my theory and practice evolved and became more and more dramatically relational and relationally focused.

The experiment . . . Changes made to the ecology of the receiving context of how I receive couple relationships meant transforming the general structure for writing, inviting, reading, and witnessing letters of the community campaign during the therapy session.

In addition, there had been substantial changes to how I receive and relationally understand couple relationships differently to when I first created the letter campaigns. These practice shifts meant a change to the general structure of who I write the first letter to (no longer to the individuals or the community but rather - directly to the couples’ relationship).

After this letter is written by me to the relationship, the first writings and reading of the letters from the relationship’s perspective to the couple are performed by the couple in the session, without the community of concern being present. (Madigan 2017, 2019, Montasano, Bronseth, Madigan, and Ness upcoming, Journal of Clinical Psychology 2023)

After consulting with the couple and their relationship, I then construct letters of invitation and send these out to the relationship’s community of support and concern (inviting them to join us in the next therapy session.)

At the first community gathering session, introductions are made, I lay out the structure of the session, and then I invite each member of the couple to read aloud their letter they wrote from the relationship’s perspective. I then interview each community member to respond back – to the relationship’s letter perspective - after each separate letter has been read.

During these relational minded discussion and responses, the couple often invites the community to consider moving away from more normative individualist ways of viewing couple relationships and instructs them in fresh ways of how to view relationships more relationally and contextually.

After the session, I write a letter of thanks from the relationship to all of us in attendance and invite everyone to respond back to the relationship’s questions.

It’s a party!

In one of the next Narrative Newsletter the plan is to demonstrate more of this letter writing framework through unaltered transcripts and the particular theoretical ideas behind the use of Therapeutic letter-writing campaigns – specific to narrative therapy informed Relational Interviewing (NIRI) with conflicted couple relationships.

- -

Narrative therapy informed Relational Interviewing with conflicted couple relationship is changing and growing from month to month and - if you’d like to learn about the most current theoretical influences and practices . . . Helene Grau, Todd May and I are teaching a course in Relational Interviewing with couple relationships together - as part of the Advanced Narrative Practice Series. Hoping you join us.

And Finally a Little About a Book(s)

The American Psychological Association (APA) are publishing the 3rd Edition of my book Narrative Therapy in 2023.

I am totally fortunate to write alongside a wonderfully bright and easy to work with APA editor Dr. Matt Carlson.

He recently mentioned to me that of the 20+ books in the APA psychotherapy series (designed for APA Graduate programs and working professionals), not only is the book Narrative Therapy the first book to publish a 3rd Edition but, remarkably, my book has sold far more than all the other frameworks.

The series of books (and 6-part video series) highlights different therapeutic frameworks (EFT, Gottman, DBT, etc.), and are written by the creators of these models.

As narrative therapists, I invite you tall o contemplate and question the reasons why these 2 Editions of Narrative Therapy have each outsold them all. (:

The 3rd Edition of Narrative Therapy highlights all the newly magnificent theory and practice work of the Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy faculty. Here we will witness an absolute explosion of new theory and narrative practice ideas. The new book is a big, tall mountain of new work to write up since the 2nd Edition was published back in March 2019. Should be fun.

On another note: APA also appears interested in publishing a book on our VSNT narrative therapy informed Relational Interviewing with conflicted couple relationships (that I’m hoping to have Todd write with me). This is the book I’ve been longing to write up and now, maybe we just might.

Thanks so much to each and every one of you for joining me in this long read. Personally, I like the long reads. They give us time, together.

If all goes well, I do hope to see a few more of you live and in person . . . during 2023.

Many thanks again . . . take care.


PS. Please contact me directly at

Friends, Colin Bootma

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