Madigan Narrative Therapy Newsletter: Dysfunction Focused Couple Therapy and an Alternative Proposal

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

ROUGH NOTES ON RELATIONAL INTERVIEWING AND COUPLE CONFLICT (2019) Stephen Madigan PhD Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy

Conflict in Conflicted Couple Relationships A Proposal and Practice Alternative:

To no ones surprise, our field of couple therapy remains overly populated and dominated by demonstrations of  practice that reveal a keen support of more dysfunction focused internal state psychological understandings regarding relational pain and emotional distress relating to couple conflict. 

Respectfully, my critique put forward today is not one of questioning the moral character of therapists who practice dysfunction-focused models of couple therapy. And nor am I suggesting these approaches involve corrupt or dishonourable intentions. In referring to these practices as ‘dysfunction focused’ I am referring to the literature of structuralist based couple therapy practices who do in fact look for individual dysfunction as the starting point to explain couple conflict. Please view several of Michael White or Todd May’s videos on explaining this structuralist/essentialist phenomenon.

Dysfunction focused couple therapy is situated within traditional Oedipal orientations, are attachment centred, and deficit centric. The foundational beliefs view couple conflict as a by product of individual failure while blazingly overlooking the influence relational context, normative expectations, and dominant cultural trainings have on the shaping of expressions of couple conflict. 

The aftermath of these practices has never been a pretty sight to witness second hand. The sad truth is that the majority of couples who eventually find their way to see me in therapy, report being subjected to these rituals of degradation and shame by at least one or more couple therapists before they arrived onto my doorstep. 

My short proposal today is not to dismantle the modern day project of couple therapy. Rather, I’m asking you to consider a narrative therapy informed Relational Interviewing practice proposal offering an alternative relational understanding of couple conflict.

Before we proceed, I’d like to take a quick moment to clarify how I understand a different meaning and use of the word ‘practice’ as it relates to narrative therapy informed Relational Interviewing. I refer to the use of the word ‘practice’ as it relates to French philosopher Michel Foucault’s in depth study of how social practices intersect and interact with other practices and – how specific social practices can be viewed as actions in relationship with different and restraining other actions. I’d say if Foucault ever claimed an otology (which he surely did not!) – I’m guessing this might be it.

PART ONE: Re-configuring relational conflict through narrative therapy informed Relational Interviewing with conflicted couple relationships.

A) In our day-to-day working lives as narrative therapy informed couple therapists and mediators we often witness couple conflict expressed through practices of: silence, sadness, isolation, distance, regret, anger, shame, blame etc. 

Over the past few years, I’ve been rigorously (and most happily!) working alongside my Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy (VSNT), Danish, Norwegian and Spanish colleagues (through a wide variety of narrative therapy informed Relational Interviewing (RI) investigative projects), to create alternative therapeutic practice expressions and explanations related to relationship conflict with conflicted couple relationships. 

To start us off, RI practice expressions are viewed as significantly different to ideologies and practices supporting more popular couple therapy views on relationship conflict. 

Relational Interviewing is in concert with narrative therapy’s historical understandings of trauma (and in this case conflict) as a response/reaction to a transgression undermining (perhaps threatening) a person's or relationship's foundational values once cherished, respected and expected. 

I’d like to take a quick moment to clarify how I came to understand the word ‘value or values’ as it relates to a Relational Interviewing practice that is perhaps different to contemporary meanings of the word value or values embraced by narrative therapists. 

Briefly, Philosopher Todd May (who recently joined our VSNT teaching faculty!), has helped us interact with the concept of value or values a bit differently than we traditionally had. 

He suggests that, as Michael White explained, and as narrative theory and practice writings suggest, our lives can be viewed as trajectories. Meaning that we do not live a string of disconnected moments but instead, our lives unfold as stories - chronologically according to a plot and sequence of events that has coherency across time. Todd suggests how we might see this like threads unspooling through time that are often connected with other threads themselves unspooling. 

However, there is another but related way to take up the trajectory of our lives. This is similar to the idea of stories, but has more to do with theme than plot. And this brings us into the realm of “narrative values.”  

The idea behind narrative values is that if we look at the chronological unfolding of a life, it might exhibit one or more theme, just as a novel exhibits certain themes. Specific themes like loyalty, adventurousness, trustworthiness, connect us together with what we value and unfolding overtime, help create what we desire and wish to become

It may be important to note that although values create difference they do not point the relationship against something. 

Values can be viewed as a reflective measure to point the relationship towards a direction of where the relationship ‘might’ like to go – to what might be possible, desired, created and celebrated.

Secondly, RI contemplates expressions of relational conflict as respect worthy protest on behalf of the ‘ethos’ and narrative values the relationship once stood for. And, perhaps more significantly, a protest and push towards a preferred direction of where the relationship might consider moving towards. To imagine what might be possible, desired, produced, created and relationally celebrated. 

Ethos is a Greek word meaning "character" that is used to describe the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize a community, ideology or in our case – a couple relationship. Lately, we have been using the word ethos so as not to be confused with the (potentially) moralistic meanings and productions of the word ‘ethic’. 

When relational conflict is viewed as a response to a relational transgression and a protest in support of what the relationships ethos and values might create and become, the RI therapist’s practice reply to the couple’s relationship begins to discursively organize itself differently.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the RI therapists engagement and intention is not structured around the idea, orientation or therapeutic intention of reducing or eradicating relational conflict; or locating the cause or individual dysfunction to explain the relational conflict; and nor is it in the habit of reproducing normative cultural teachings in the therapy room that are designed to instruct and persuade the couple relationship on how to be successful, safe, and/or much better communicators/interlocutors. 

Relational Interviewing practice shifts towards more fully understanding the meaning (and practiced expressions of this meaning) of what the practices of the conflict are restrained by, responding to, protesting on behalf of, and the expressed desire, passion, and creativity of the expression to produce what the relationship might possibly become. 

As this view of relational conflict is unwrapped what emerges is a therapeutic curiosity surrounding questions of: 

What are the values of the values the relationship most values? 

Which relational value does the relationship most wish to re-member?

What does the conflict most want to forget?

What are the expressions of relationship conflict protesting, proposing and preferring to become? 

How is the relationship expressing a difference to what it otherwise knows itself to be?

What might the values of the relationship desire to produce in the future? 

The question of ‘’what are the values of the values the relationship most values”, begins to collaboratively and relationally co-produce a ‘companion counter-narrative’; an alternative of becoming something different than the relationship already is. 

The ‘double description’ the companion counter-narrative narrative reveals, affords a critical reflexivity of the same material, relational themes and story being told of the relationship - differently. 

This somewhat confusing experience of double description allows (and insists) the companion stories live side by side. The relative proximity of what seems like difference excites a rising tension between the relationships preferred values/future intentions, with the present expressions of conflict that – in many ways – desire the same outcome. 

To view a beautiful encounter with the original practice ideas of double description please refer to several videos of Michael White’s early use of double description in narrative therapy through his study of Gregory Bateson.

A third relational view of couple relationship conflict is demonstrated by our RI practice by raising questions to determine if expressions of conflict might be a creative act of recovery or rediscovery.Relating to the ethos and values once preferred and practiced that have been lost that might be transported and actualized differently in the future. 

RI raises questions to investigate if relational conflict is the relationships attempt to recover, rediscover and create preferred relationship integrity considerate of changing power relations that has somehow been forgotten, degraded or viewed as a measure of the relationships thirst for change. 

When a relational conflicts ‘intensity’ is considered as one of many possible expressions to help maintain, stabilize, change and/or reconnect the relationship back (or towards) the relational ethos it values most, it raises the question of how this changes the Relational Interviewing therapist’s relationship with the questions they ask surrounding the conflict they are relationally interacting with. 

I credit my long time friend Esther Perel - and in particular her latest book The State of Affairs - Rethinking Infidelity (published in 2018) - that I am presently reading for the third time - as a solid influence on my ideas regarding the shift towards more fully understanding the meaning - and practice expressions of this meaning - of couple conflict. Although there are a few ideological, theoretical and practice differences between Esther's couple therapy work and my own expressions of Relational Interviewing, I happily consider her a kissing cousin.

A question for couple therapists to consider is how does an RI practice view of relational conflict influence the therapeutic directions taken and – not taken? And how do these views of relational conflict raise suspicions, influence and intersect with more popular deficit identity conclusions the conflicted couple/therapist/legal system/community hold about the relationship? 

In the next few weeks I’ll propose a few other Relational Interviewing practice alternatives. The first proposal up for viewing suggests the memory and stories of suffering a conflicted couple relationship report represent only an ‘incomplete memory’ (a fractional and unfinished story) of the relationships lived experience. 

This proposal affords an opportunity to address the critical reflections and experience of the couples I see and their questions regarding dysfunction focused couple therapy. 

In the weeks to come I will also offer a few proposals on the merits of the idea that Relationships are indeed Relational. Advanced Relational Interviewing Practice & Supervision

I intend to bring you unaltered session transcript accounts and client letters outlining a practice of relational letter writing – a practice where I write a therapeutic letter of consultation directly to the couple relationship. More specifically, I will engage you with a recent letter writing exchange I had when consulting the twelve year old dead child of a couple who came to see me for relationship therapy

Hoping this little piece on relational conflict was helpful and I look forward to seeing you back here next time around. Please feel free to contact me directly at

Take care and thanks again. stephen


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