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  • Writer's pictureVancouver School For Narrative Therapy VSNT

Memory, Practice as Art, Couple Conflict, and a wee NIRI transcript to peruse

Danielle O'Connor Akiyama, Rising Moons I

“The stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own” ― Mary Oliver

Hello Everyone.

Whether you are on this side or that side of the equator I send on harmony, hopes for peace and trusting your narrative therapy session work continues to grow up and move forward.


Throughout the course of COVID lockdown, I experienced a stronger than usual sense of tenderness towards my most longstanding friends. Through daily meditations, cooking meals, ocean walks, hiking trails, reading, writing, listening to music, or simply staring out into nothing (an ever-growing pass time), these friends pop up, stand by, and fill me with pleasant memory, all along the way.

Kind-hearted feelings and memory remain.

Memories, as VSNT resident philosopher Todd May teaches, are not simply photographs. Nor still life never changing phenomenon.

Memories live and breathe and shift and change, always. The movement of memory and remembering memory is shaped shifted through context, politic, and cultures surrounding them and relationally influenced by.

Memories then, can never be exactly as we once thought they were. Never.

Many of my longstanding friendships hatched open at a young age.

I suppose unknowingly, we grew our relational selves up together. We continue to flourish, laugh out loud, squiggle closer.

Enroute to teaching and supervision stops in Norway during mid-March of this year, I stopped off to visit one of my dearest friends.

This friend of mine is (among other descriptors) a highly regarded painter. Living half the year in a Georgian home on the shores of the wild Atlantic Way, near the Mizen Head, in West Cork, Ireland.

She and her late husband designed a dazzlingly large, peaked roof painting studio, made of glass and steel.

Like many of the people closest to me we share a lifetime of friendship, although she and I go back even further, than most.

Visits are filled with full-bodied Bordeaux red and boundless discussion. Alongside food, laughter, tears, and memories. Memories remain curiously similar and feeling the same but shaped and felt differently each visit.

This difference is one of the lovely features of shared memory. A feature that finds me questioning - can there ever be such a thing as an unaccompanied single-handed memory? I don’t believe so.

Before I was leaving West Cork, my friend presented a housewarming present for my new digs on Bowen Island. A gorgeous new painting of astounding stature and beauty standing close to 8 ft tall and 4 ft wide.

Later that day we found and tricked out a hard case traveling tube in the town of Bantry to carry the art on forward travels and then, back home.

Last week, the art delivery people showed up with the painting under glass and fully framed. Magnificent splendour.

If you have a spare moment, listen to her interview discussing 6 new(ish) paintings before her twice-yearly solo exhibits in London UK and beyond.

Two other long-time friends from Toronto just left after a sweet visit to my home on Bowen Island. Great days and long nights immersing ourselves in story, memory, humour, art, creativity, as we do.

She is a highly talented 30 yr. documentary film maker (6 award winning feature documentary credits), a print maker (Ontario College of Art & Design University), and photographer (I have several of them up on my walls). We’ve been close friends for 40 years. I met her partner when they first met during their 2nd ‘date’ 23 years ago. He holds a certain kind of circa Kind of Bluecool, and is widely considered (there are too many awards and motion picture credits to list) the world’s best foley artist.

As a team they are forever creating.

On this visit a tale was told of how they spontaneously made their film ‘There is Something about Alice” on the Lewis Carrol Society celebrating 150 years of Alice and Wonderland. He has many side projects involving Alice including a new book of photographs and history of artists (including the likes of Ralph Steadman) and their draw towards drawing Alice.

Don’t quite know what foley does? Sit back and enjoy Andy and his team:

Danielle O'Connor Akiyama, The Original Dream

Practice as art

The point of all this?

I suppose I’m writing as a way of appreciating how artists effect our therapeutic practice. How we draw inspiration from their expressions and conceptualizations of the world around us. Be they poets, painters, photographers, film makers, and yes, maybe even candle stick makers.

I’m blessed to have enjoyed decades in discussion with close non-therapist artist friends who, unknowingly, continue to relationally forge new ideas throughout my practice of narrative therapy.

Since the early beginnings of my apprenticeship in narrative therapy, I experienced questions (questions inspired by these non-therapist friendships) that as narrative informed therapists could we ever begin to consider ourselves ‘artists’? I wasn’t so sure.

Questions continue to surface as to what might integrating an artist identity create for narrative therapists? What might become of our practice if we considered ourselves artists? How might we become different than what we, and the public, already consider ourselves and practice to be?

As a historical practice, one of the driving ideological values of narrative therapy was to drag what we do away from the fields and influence of science and move towards finding a home within the arts.

I do realize there is no definitive concrete line that divides or demarcates science and art. However, from the beginning, psychology appears to have enthusiastically hitched its legitimacy, power, and economics to the wagon of science and, has never let go.

And during the period when Michael White was first creating narrative therapy, a first step was a committed conscious purpose to walk away from 140 years of individualist/essentialist psychological understandings, expert knowledge, and the wagon train of science supporting its practice.


Big Narrative Therapy Conference

OK now – I’d like to send out thanks to all the many narrative newsletter readers from across the waters and closer to home for emailing a sweet succulent stack of sparkling prose in recognition of our Big Narrative Conference presenters.

Big narrative conference October 2023 presenter abilities deserve high praise, and in turn, they appreciate all your support.

Danielle O'Connor Akiyama, Meet Me Here

Couples, Context, and Memory

Before homing in on another set of 4, Big Narrative Therapy TC conference workshop presenters, the plan is to share a partial couple therapy transcript outlining one interlocking practice piece of VSNT faculty practice concerning the contextual and relational politic involved in working with conflicted couple relationships.

The popular cultural phenomenon of viewing couple conflict as individual personal failure is afforded a look as this subject produces significant disquiet, in me.

A narrative therapy informed Relational Interviewing (NIRI) response to relational conflict receives a couple’s story of conflict differently. The small piece of transcript shown below demonstrates a couple therapy practice situated within an ecology of post-structural ideas and non-individualist/non-essentialist relational understandings and questions.

This common and rather simple transcript expression of NIRI positions the conflicted couple’s intimate relationship within a wide range of contextual and cultural normative understandings, performance, and power relations.

Typically, an intimate couple relationship is relationally involved with other relationships that include relationships with work, extended families, children, friends, cultural, religious, and social commitments, as well as social and physical activities, etc. etc.

NIRI views these relationships as both vital, creative, life sustaining and potentially, highly problematic for the intimate relationship.

The context of relational influencers include how intimate relationship practices are imbedded within sets of social, moral, and cultural obligations, responsibilities, and expectations.

Other contextual relationships include the intimate relationships relationship with collections of internalized, governed, and distributed cultural ideas and meanings that often frame and normalize what constitutes socially accepted practices regarding how to be a proper parent, friend, sibling, partner, employee, neighbour, etc.

The point of the newsletter is not one to critique popular couple therapy practice understandings or take issue with the weight of socially accepted relationship practices, expectations, and responsibilities shaping of intimate relationships.

Rather, the newsletter shines a light on how couple relationships are relational (and can be practice restraining if considered otherwise).

A relational view of relationships necessitates an invitation for couple therapists and persons involved in intimate couple relationships to consider a relational movement away from individualist/essentialist identity

conclusions and how we view expressions of couple conflict.

And to consider a move towards a deepening appreciation of the many influences, social intricacies, power relations, cultural beliefs, and relational complexities that effectively influence and shape practices of intimate couple relationships and conflict.

I often welcome busy modern couples arriving to couple therapy from a variety of social locations who voice concerns about common yet complex experiences giving rise to a relationship conflict they wished to resolve.

And, more often than not, couples frame the relational conflict as forms of individual personal failure.

If readers have flipped through writings, discussions, and present-day opinions shouldering up fields of inquiry like post-modern anthropology, architecture, critical race theory, education pedagogy, queer theory, sociology, literary criticism and so on, they might hold a fairly clear idea as to the how and the why this couple arrived at a non-relational-non-contextual and individualizing account of relationship conflict that summarize and interpret the cause as individual failure.

For couples, viewing the cause of relationship conflict as personal/individual failure is supported through a transport of individualist/essentialist ideas across many dominant arenas of discourse.

These would include teachings and norms set out by religious and judicious institutions, cultural traditions, popular culture (books, movies, podcasts etc.) and academic schools concerning mental health studies.

I find this last groups collective participation altogether fascinating, disquieting, and puzzling.

Quick story . . . 1st session with Joe and Joey.

My first question asked in the session was wether the purpose of couple therapy was to separate, repair, or if either person wasn’t quite sure where they stood.

Both Joe and Joey stated they were looking to repair the relationship and “put an end to bickering”, “building resentment”, “un-togetherness”, and “distance”.

The interview continued by asking for a ‘thumb nail’ sketch of what specifically had brought their relationship to therapy, at this time.

Described (direct quotes in parenthesis) was how their “sex life and togetherness” was “on the rocks”, how they are feeling “miserable” and “exhausted”, how they “bicker over the slightest thing”, and leaving them to feel like “a couple of complete and utter losers”.

They also agreed on how they would like to “find their comfort zone with each other again”.

Next bit:

For the better part of 45minutes, (1st NIRI session interviews with conflicted couple relationships are 90 minutes in length), I slowly, purposefully, and painstakingly interview Joe and Joey about the history of their pre-conflict relationship. My primary focus is gaining an understanding about the mutual values they created and practiced that formed the foundations of their preferred intimate relationship and imagined future.

A long discussion of relational values and shared common ground arrived through the couple’s revived memories and stories of how they practiced these values within the relationship, for many years.

Our interchange appeared to help Joe and Joey find a common ground to temporarily stand in, outside the conflict. And while the conflict was still present in the session, the dominance of the conflicted story began to fade into the background.

The embodiment of preferred memories and practices created a purposeful NIRI tension and difference between the practices of conflict and the practices of their preferred values. Allowing for distinctions that this experience (as Gregory Bateson described) was different in form and function to this other one.

As our discussion continued, the tension and difference escalated while never actually spending too much time discussing the intimate particularities of the conflict (I’ve written extensively about the use, meaning, and purpose of escalating difference and using this traditional narrative practice, differently).

Throughout their embodied recall, the joy of remembered, refreshed, and revived memories through telling’s of stories upon stories, framed a history of relational relationship values. An NIRI practice invites the couple to explain (at length) the intimate practices, particularities, and experience of giving and receiving each preferred value.

For Joey and Joe, the most important relationship values of their intimate relationship they created were described as - “love, fairness, passion, adventure, integrity, responsibility to family and community, laughter”.

I then proceeded to ask a series of relational-contextual questions to help relationally situate the conflicted couple relationship in a much broader context of cultural responsibilities, social norms, expectations, and ongoing pressing obligations.

SM – Thank you for catching me up on a full and I would say more ah interesting description of the relationship beyond, well beyond the story of conflict and the way you show the relationship – let me read back to you from my notes - “love, fairness, passion, adventure, integrity, responsibility to family and community, and laughter” – the values you created the relationship to live through and I guess feel gratified by for many years.

I’d like to take a moment to interview your relationship and ask what you feel the relationships felt listening on and receiving your stories.

Joe – Oh, all the fun and love and amazing times we shared. We were free. Yeah, and how easy it was just you know being together. And how long all this lasted.

Joey – Yeah, I agree, just how easy we were together, just how like Joe said how easy life was no matter what else was happening to us. We were together like a team. We had and you know like an Us.

SM – (I pause to write down exactly what Joe and Joey have said) Let me see if have this right – (reading back the couples experience for them to listen and experience their experience given back to them) “all the fun and love and amazing times shared” “you were free”, “ and how easy it was being together and how long all this lasted”, “how easy life was no matter what else was happening”, you” were together like a team” where it felt “like an Us”. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

(Couple shakes their heads no).

SM – And if I was to interview your relationship and ask if there is anything from this history of being a team, an us and feeling easy together no matter what, do you have any thoughts or could imagine what your relationship would most like returned back at this time?

Joey – Interview our relationship? Ok. What would our relationship be feeling now?

SM – Yes. Is there anything you can imagine from the stories you’ve been remembering and telling me, that would perhaps your relationship would most like back at this time?

Joey – Ok – well I’d like to well have to say time to enjoy each other. You know be together and not just like talking about problems we have to solve all the time. Like the stories, you know we were actually pretty cool if you can believe that (laughs). We have zero time for this now. None. It’s awful because we’re super busy all the time. Really frustrating.

Joe – I’d agree with that, yeah, with everything she said we do like with well everything we barely see each other. Maybe just TV late at night.

SM – Do you ever feel that when you feel your relationship looks onto the changes from then to now it feels that it holds a sense of compassion for you both?

Joey – Hmm that’s nice. You mean it understands? Like wow have they become different.

SM – Yes.

Joey – Strange to think this way but I guess in some ways the relationship might maybe likes Joe and I no matter what’s going on and not sure how it feels us the past while. Is this what you mean?

Joe – Yeah, like the there they go again arguing about nothing and doing everything for everyone (laughs).

SM – When your relationship experiences you not having any time and restricted in the amount of time spending time with the relationship, what do you imagine this experience is like for the relationship.

Joe – I guess it feels dumped. Yeah, maybe just empty (long pause).

Joey – Like what hello what about me!

SM – When your relationship experiences you not having any time is there something you are asking of the relationship?

Joey – Yeah. Like wait. It’s not your turn (laughs). It’s kind of non-existent.

SM – Would you agree Joe?

Joe – Yah its complicated. Its busy. I mean Joey does everything for everyone. She works full time as a nurse, and you know sits on 2 community boards, ah we have two great kids, her mom is having a hard

time . . .

Joey – And he works a lot and there’s always pressure from the higher ups expecting him to do more and more work and that sucks and but still coaches the kids and his brother broke well recently his back so he jumps in to help and yeah. Like time disappears.

SM – (Reading their words back for them to witness) Let me just see if I have this right – Joey you “work full time as a nurse,”, “sit on 2 community boards,” you are a parent” to “two great children”, and your “mother is having a hard time” - while Joe you “work a lot” and there’s “expectations” for you to do more at work, and you also “coach the kids” with their sports teams is that right and your “brother recently broke his back” so you help out with his family. Do I have this correct?

(Couple nods yes).

Given all that your intimate relationship is relationally involved with regarding your work, extended families, family illness, children, children’s activities, and the community boards etc. – do you think it’s fair to conclude the conflict the relationship is experiencing is just about you being losers and failures?

Joey – Is it fair?

SM – Yes is this a full and fair description of your relationship difficulties?

Joe – No it’s not fair at all.

SM – Joey would agree with Joe that the conclusion you both arrived at about the relational conflict you are experiencing is because you’ve both personally failed – is this a fair conclusion?

Joey – No. Absolutely not!

SM – Joey and Joe could you help me understand why you feel this isn’t a full and fair description?

(I then ask a few questions as to why their initial description may not be a

fair telling of this now more complex/complete contextually situated story).

We continue:

SM – In looking after your relationship’s obligations, expectations, and responsibilities you’ve just described, is your intimate relationship in a position to accept that it must wait its turn? Wait its turn for this attention,

love, passion, support, and caring?

Joe – Well when you put it that way – yes. Our relationship used to be priority number one. It was great. (Long pause). I really miss it. I think we both do.

Joey – I do too. I miss us and what we had (crying now – Joe reaches over and caresses her back).

SM – Do you feel the present expressions of (reading back to the couple from my notes) “ongoing bickering”, “building up of resentments”, and “distance” is somehow your intimate relationships way of asking you to help recover and and maybe revive the values your relationship, values, ah values most?

Joey – Values the most? Yes that could be right. I dunno I just feel shitty now and so sorry for our relationship. That like in doing all this other stuff with everyone we’ve let it down.

SM – Do you feel you are experiencing a conflict that might be your relationships way of protesting that you return to and revive the values you created your relationship through? In the past?

Joe – You mean the relationship is about to go on strike?

SM – Yes.

Joe – Well it has every right to.

SM – Do you feel the assistance we spoke about in changing to living your intimate relational life in this way?

Joey – It’s just the way it’s done – or at least most couples we know do it kind of this way and we and you know they end up losing each other.

Joe – Like yeah we’re supposed to you know we’ll go out of our way to help everyone but at the end of the day we’ve left our relationship kind of hanging in the wind.

Joey – Why hasn’t anyone pointed this out before? You know you’re our third therapist (Laughs). I mean like our kids, friends even our our two dogs! (laughs) and whatever, our relationship needs us. But that’s Joe, like we say wait a little longer and we’ll get back on the flipside.

SM – Can I ask you what you feel your relationship might be feeling at this moment listening in on our to our discussion?

Joey – Relieved, I guess. No, it’s really more than that it’s like feeling like a dried-out flower garden and maybe or whatever needing water.

Joe (a fireman) – I’ll get the fire hose and turn it up full blast (laughter).

We spoke more on this theme of the metaphor of their relationship garden needing care and concern, and after our first session I emailed Joey and Joe two days later.

Dear Joey and Joe: Just a quick question I forgot to ask: If you do manage to get the fire hose out and water the relationship this week, what do you imagine your relationship might begin growing towards? Do you feel your relationship will regrow the garden you once had, something new, or perhaps a little bit of both? Until next session. Stephen

I met with Joey and Joe for 60 minutes one week later and focused (almost entirely) on questions regarding their experience of difference. The difference between values they cherish and the present conflict.

Specifically, the difference between the values and practices of “love, fairness, passion, adventure, integrity, responsibility to family and community, and laughter”, and the practices of conflict involving “constant tension, bickering, resentment, un-togetherness, exhaustion”.

During the 2nd session Joey and Joe informed me of a few conflict counter-practice developments like deciding to” take the relationship out for a long walk” and “we also went on a bike ride with it”, and decided to “cook a family meal together” after they realized part way through the week they hadn’t spent time attending to their relationship.

The couple also let me know how they both got into “a habit” of wondering “out loud” what the relationship would like to experience once they found themselves returning to discussions of troubles and solving problems.

They also seemed quite pleased to report one night and another early morning of, as Joey put it, “great sex”.

After this 2nd session I wrote a letter of consultation directly to their relationship (beginning with “Dear Joey and Joe’s relationship. As you already know I’ve been seeing Joe, Joey and you the relationship for a few therapy sessions. I’m writing to you with a few questions I hope you can help me with . . .”) – and I’ll save this NIRI letter writing practice for another time.

The point is, well I suppose there are a few points, that relational change occurred within the relationship without having to rely on a dysfunction focused individualist approach to addressing relational conflict.

As the ecology of a non-individualist contextual and relational centred NIRI practice suggests, at no time during our sessions together was couple therapy under the influence of Freudian repression, Bowlby and Ainsworth’s attachments, interpreting the couple’s individual family of origin as the historical site and influence of couple conflict, corrective teaching through normalizing psycho-education, or creating rudimentary generalizations about who and what Joey and Joe’s intimate couple relationships was , offering tips on how to change – and more importantly – outlining how they should be.

I imagine (if my experience teaching NIRI suggests) some readers receiving the transcript will wonder well, what about couples experiencing gender violence (I don’t work with couple relationships where this recent or ongoing gender violence),. Or what about when there are transgressions like an affair, ongoing substance use, secrets discovered/information withheld, or when couples have separated, describe large cultural and political differences, or have fallen out of love etc.

Well, my response to these imagined questions is that within the many facets and philosophy of an NIRI practice the work described above represents the same way I work with all these relationships.

OK, I have stop now as I seem to be well over my (self-imposed) 10-page newsletter limit. Apologies, this wasn’t supposed to work out this way. I do however promise to catch you back up on the next 4 Big Narrative Therapy conference presenters, next time.

I’d also planned to tell a quick story about a time last year in Norway when good pal Todd May invited me to dinner to catch up with the new owners/senior teachers/administrator of DISPUK – one of our communities’ largest narrative therapy teaching outfits located in Copenhagen, Denmark.

And how at one point during the dinner with the DISPUK Team we arrived on the topic of why it was VSNT included Todd’s post-structural non-individualist philosophical teachings as a central feature in all our various narrative therapy practice certificate training courses.

Perhaps next time.

As always, it has been a pleasure catching up with you. Thank you.

VSNT and the faculty are hoping to get to know you a little better in person over time. Perhaps we’ll get this chance during the BIG narrative therapy conference in Vancouver during late October? Let us know.

Alright then.

Looking forward to our next time.



PS – if you would like to write me directly use -

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