Madigan Narrative Therapy Newsletter: Gregory Bateson, Michael White & More Relational Alternatives

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question. 

 e.e. cummings

Hello Everyone: Hoping all is going well in your Narrative Therapy practice.

First off – thank you. After the last newsletter, I received an avalanche of enthusiastic emails supporting Relational Interviewing’s alternative practice understandings regarding (three proposals) outlining a relational response to suffering and emotional distress in conflicted couple relationships.

Therapist and Graduate student readers were meaningfully and measurably concerned with more dysfunction-focus therapy’s wanton desire to individualize, normalize and pathologize couple relationships.

Thank you for your stellar analysis and numerous (albeit tragic) personal stories relaying your private close up experience with dysfunction-focused couple therapists and therapy.

My Relational Interviewing practice proposals today look at the limitations of the ‘partial story’ focus of dysfunction-focused couple therapy. 

I contrast the partial problem story emphasis with relational focused theories of Gregory Bateson regarding relational ideas on restraint and double description.  

The concepts of restraint and double description organize not only the practice of Relational Interviewing with conflicted couple relationships but the foundation of narrative therapy practice.

And once again, my appraisal going forward is not one of questioning the moral character of therapists who practice dysfunction-focused models of couple therapy.

I refer to couple therapy practices as ‘dysfunction-focused’ solely based on circulated literature, educational videos and training workshops outlining their preference for locating and interpreting the aetiology (cause) of the couple relationships problem originating within individual dysfunction. And the therapeutic cure to the cause of the couple relationships problem demands a ‘working through’ of this individual cause of the problem.

In today’s proposal, I forward a rather simple idea: Stories of suffering conflicted couple relationships report to the therapist/mediator linked together with what therapists/mediators initiate as the focus of the problem - represent a restricted memory and/or fractional piece of the relationships story and lived experience. 

Let me give you a bit of background. In books I’ve written on Narrative Therapy (1998, 2011, 2019) I emphasize that to fully grasp Michael White’s narrative practice knowhow one had to understand his passionate reading and relationship with the work of Anthropologist Gregory Bateson.

Early on during my apprenticeship in narrative therapy I gradually came to realize how Michael’s theoretical and practice work (well before it became universally known as Narrative Therapy) was dramatically influenced by Gregory Bateson’s writings found in Steps to an Ecology of Mind & Mind and Nature. 

Although there were many of Bateson’s ideas that held significance to Michael, two in particular resonated throughout the future of his practice (right up until he died in 2008). And these involved Bateson’s theories on restraint and double description.

Bateson’s thinking about restraints was as follows: 

Events, persons, ideas, and so on, travel their course of action not because they have to (or are born to) but because they are restrained from taking any other course of action. Hmmm. 

Michael interpreted Bateson’s idea on restraint this way:

Restraints take various forms and include the network of presuppositions, premises, and expectations that make up the family members map of the world, and this establishes rules for the selection of information about perceived objects or events, thus contributing to sensory limitations.

Bateson’s theoretical position of restraint led Michael to categorically realize: 

Any therapeutic story about a person that did not involve a theory of restraints would inevitably end up being a statement that pathologized the person/ family/couple/group. 

Ok . . . are you still with me?  Good (: Let’s take this a little further.

Another ideas of Bateson’s to heavily influence narrative practice was how the meaning we make of any experience comes from contrasting it with another experience or set of experiences. 

Bateson referred to this meaning making as double description (leading to a key narrative therapy practice known as double listening). 

Double description assists the practice of non-individualist understandings of relationships in that no experience has a set of particular meanings that exists independently of other experiences. 

To quickly recap . . . placing Bateson’s ideas within a context of narrative therapy informed Relational Interviewing with conflicted couple relationships:

1. Couple relationships travel their course of action not because they have to (or are born to) but because they are restrained from taking any other course of action. 

The relationship’s course of action is restrained through a network of presuppositions, premises, and normative expectations that make up the relationships map of the relational world.

To view this otherwise and to not involve a theory of restraint will inevitably end up being a statement that pathologizes the couple relationship.

2. A singular description of couple conflict (as opposed to a double description of relational phenomenon) can be thought of in Relational Interviewing practice as: an expressed side o conflict in need of a double description.

 Couple relationships make meaning then through operationalizing that “this set of experiences are different from . . . this other one”. 

To make any order of meaning (through a process of distinguishing and recognizing this experience is different to this other experience), suggests the other experience (perhaps less dominant, subjugated, or local) is always present. Always present.

For example, in couple therapy we begin to understand how practices of relational respect are experienced differently to those that are less respectful. And in order to make meaning of an experience of disrespect the relationship would necessarily have to have had experienced respect. 

For those of you who were brought up within family therapy practice traditions like I was, you will note Bateson’s understanding of relational phenomenon proposes: “It is difference that makes the difference”. 

And this difference he refers to is punctuated via information.

Double description is the same material of the relational story being told of the relationship - differently. 

The confusing and at times profound experience of couple relationships experiencing a doubly described and re-told experience excites a rising tension between the relationships preferred narrative values wand possible future desires - with the present expressions of conflict. 

A companion story emerges living side by side with the story of conflict.

A narrative therapy informed Relational Interviewing therapist raises questions to allow for a single sided story told about the conflict to be raised into stark contrast with relational experience that is preferred (what relational values, preferences, beliefs might create if they were less restrained by the conflict?)

News of difference in Relational Interviewing requires that couple relationships perceive a contrast between two or more descriptions. This receipt of ‘news of difference’ is crucial for the possible disclosure of new ideas and the sparking of possibilities and creative imaginings going forward. 

I propose that when the primary focus of dysfunction-focused couple therapy is placed on the dual focus of finding and interpreting the dysfunction through the ‘partial story’ told - the relationships pre-problem history (a history that is always present however much it is presently subjugated and/or not re-membered) is left unrealized and unaddressed. 

To resolutely leave out the more complete story of the couple relationships pre-problem history of preferred narrative values (in favour of focusing on the partial story of dysfunction) serves to cellblock the possibility of discovering alternative relational pathways. 

Efforts to create less conflicted possible counter-storylines (in support of the relationships preferred narrative values) - is thereby limited. 

Limits to the development of counter-storylines are further restrained when methods proposed by internal state principles view the expressions of couple conflict as a surface manifestation of some element or truth that lays beneath the surface regarding the true cause of the problem. 

The couple’s expressed experience of pain is received by the dysfunction focused couple therapist and therapeutically explained through a process of what we might refer to as deductive reasoning. 

Deductive reasoning is at the heart of psychological counseling methods that separate out what the couple reports as ‘content’ from what the couple therapist expert interprets as ‘process’ (please refer back to your 101 classroom training).

For beautifully crafted discussions on narrative therapy’s questioning of internal state psychological practice principles and deductive reasoning please go to the members section of to watch both Michael White and philosopher Todd May address this topic.

Readers have been asking where I’ll be teaching and demonstrating Relational Interviewing couple therapy practices next? And the quick answer is in quite a number of countries through 2020. We’re just working out the ‘final’ schedule of dates and will soon post them on our website. Thanks.

I am especially looking forward to presenting on narrative therapy informed Relational Interviewing practices in workshops alongside Helene Grau from Copenhagen and David Nylund in February in Vancouver Click Here - where they present their new applications of Relational Interviewing with Parents and  Supervision relationships.

I’ve also been given a great opportunity to present alongside the Trondheim & Bergen Norway High Conflict Teams where I’ll do a Live Relational Interviewing couple therapy demonstration during the 3rd Nordic Narrative Therapy Conference in May in (beautiful!) Bergen Norway. Click Here.

BEGINNING OUR ONLINE NARRATIVE THERAPY SUPERVSION COURSE.Soon into the new year the Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy brings you low cost (!) online, year long, intensive group and individual supervision. VSNT supervision provides a special focus and care directed towards growing the practice skills of Graduate Students and newly graduated narrative therapists. Advance Practice Supervision is going to be amazingly creative and profound!Please note: The model of supervision you will experience is based on the practice we invented alongside the Norwegian National High Couple Conflict Team and the Trondheim Family Agency High Conflict Team (used since 2016) involving live practice, response teams, video, unaltered transcripts, group study and TCTV.liveExciting. Stay tuned. 

2020 Narrative Therapy Interview Lineup, Supervision and Weekly Schedule of our Quickie Practice Workshops coming soon. 

And finally . . . the Second Edition of my book Narrative Therapy (2019) published by the APA is now outselling the First Edition of my best selling book Narrative Therapy (2011). Ha! Click Here

Thanks so much for getting yourselves all the way to the bottom.

Please feel free to contact me directly at my personal email:

Take care stephen


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