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Narrative Therapy-Informed Relational Interviewing - Emotionally Preparing Conflicted Couple Relationships for Possible Re-unification, Separation, Mediation, and Family Courtrooms

MSW, MSc, PhD. Director of training at the Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy in supernatural, Vancouver, Canada. He consults and work together with the Norwegian National Couple Conflict Team on Narrative Therapy informed Relational Interviewing. narrativevancouver@gmail.com

In the majority of Western countries, the principal focus involved with mediation/separation/divorce is to abide by the dictates of contract law and uphold the individual and property rights of each individual. Procedurally, all parties involved engage to achieve a fair-minded, signed separation agreement between the separating parties of the couple relationship. However, high levels of emotional relational conflict often displace the fair-minded intentions. The article outlines a new practice of narrative therapy-informed Relational Interviewing (RI) with conflicted couple relationships. The article demonstrates a therapeutic method in support of both legal professionals and conflicted separating families. Relational Interviewing emotionally prepares highly conflicted couple relationships ‘before’ they enter into structures/discussions of mediation, separation, separation agreements and/or family court systems. Narrative therapy-informed Relational Interviewing practices are highlighted through a detailed case example. Commentaries on the RI practice are included – written by a Norwegian judge, a Canadian family lawyer/mediator, a Norwegian psychologist, and a CEO of Relationships Australia.

Keywords: Relational Interviewing, ethics, couple conflict, remembering conversations, mediation, narrative therapy

A Few Theoretical Underpinnings of Relational Interviewing Practices

Relational Interviewing is informed by post-structural theories (Brinkmann, 2016; Butler, 1997; Deleuze, 1968; Foucault, 1979, 1980; Illous, 2007; May, 2006, 2012) supporting a relational/contextual/discursive/non-individualist therapeutic view of lives and relationships. Relational Interviewing practice is coherent with post-humanist, non-structuralist and relational views of identity. These ideological positions set out to unsettle any essentialist psychological notion of the stable autonomous person, the original author (of problem conversations or otherwise), or a given reality of what constitutes the self.

Relational Interviewing questions ideas of ‘self ‘determination, ‘self’ realization, and ‘personal growth’ (through an independent transcendence of the ‘self’) central to most modern-day couple therapy practices. However, French philosopher Michel Foucault (1976) suggests the construct of a self-realized identity would be difficult to achieve, since all our actions, from eating to dressing to working are tied to and indelibly influenced through a prevailing normative cultural discourse.

Couple therapy practices in support of humanist ideas of the self and relationships, suggest that self-realization can only be completed by identifying the complication in the story of: ‘what prevents the individuals in the relationship from being happy, connected, properly attached, successful?’ Their answer is situated within internal state psychology and a practice where the client ‘works through’ the historical event (often viewed as deficit attachments and/or developmental trauma) from one’s individual past.

This narrative of the self-realizing, individual-focused, couple therapy practice is fundamentally one of historical memory and – more specifically – a memory of suffering. That is, that one exercises one’s memory of suffering in order to free oneself of it and to then achieve – what is culturally considered – a successful relationship life1.

In contrast, Relational Interviewing supports the idea that our identities, and our remembrances of our identities, are profoundly political – both in their relational origins and in their implications (Madigan, 1996, 1999, 2011).

Relational Interviewing is intrigued with a question posed by Queer scholar Judith Butler (1997) when she asks: What is the value of our values? Leading RI to abandon a focus on the individuals of the relationship, and instead, inquiries about what made up the ‘moral character’ of the relationship previously preferred/lived through prior to the onset of conflict. Remembering the relationship’s memories concerning ethics, values and preferred moral principles. Through these remembering conversations, Relational Interviewing acts to circumvent demoralizing stories of the conflict (shame, blame, accusation, anger) that hold relationships frozen within the conflict. RI begins the session with ‘re-moralizing’ dialogues once important to the relationship’s values and ethical story.

Remembering the memory of the relationship’s moral character stimulates a ‘companion’ storyline (personal conversation with sociologist Arthur Frank, therapeuticconversations.tv, Vancouver, Canada, 2016) to accompany the dominant story of conflict. Questions asked make it possible for the couple to reimagine (the now restrained) preferred intentions of what the relationship once were (love, respect, laughter, acceptance, trust etc.). By expanding and exploring the plot and difference of the companion story, remembering questions act to disrupt the finalized story of the conflicted past and destabilize it.

The dialogic process of remembering is not simply the return of the ‘old’. Rather it is the old story of the preferred ethical relationship returning in new ways. The relationship can begin to remember what the story of the conflict has helped the relationship remember to forget. This conversation affords the relationship an opportunity to consider what it has already experienced and known in the realm of ethics and values – differently. Relational Interviewing is therefore not about ‘discovery’ or a passive remembering of the past. Nor is it about a simple recollection. Rather RI moves therapeutically towards critical re-engagements with significant ethical practices of the relationship’s history.

Relational Interviewing supports philosopher Gilles Deleuze’ (1968) ideas on relational difference – in that it is difference that brings forth the possible new identity. Difference therefore precedes identity. And for the relationship, the comparative difference represents a potential rich space yet to be articulated. Relational Interviewing provides the relationship an entry point towards these pre-existing possibilities that are (already) discursively and experientially available.

Deleuze (1968) uses the term ‘virtual’ to refer to an aspect of reality that is ideal, but nonetheless real. The virtual is the kind of imagined potentiality that can be fulfilled in the actual – the practice of the construct. The idea is still not yet material, but it is real. What emerges through a practice of RI is the re-collection of how versions of the ethical relationship the couple once served and created relationally, might somehow become imagined, practiced, transformed and transported towards a preferred relationship future (either a newly formed separated or intimate relationship – or some other kind of relationship frame possibility).

Emotionally Preparing Couple Relationships for Mediation, Court Procedures and Separation Agreements

In the majority of Western ideologies/countries around the world, we commonly experience the practice involved with mediation/separation/divorce having a principal focus of/on upholding property and individual rights of each individual. Procedurally, all parties involved engage and agree upon a goal to achieve a signed separation agreement between the separating parties of the couple relationship.

The importance of constructing fair-minded couple and family separation agreements cannot be understated. In their highest form, agreements make every attempt to uphold gender equity and responsibilities; secure a child’s rights to reasonable relationship health, education and living standards; and safeguard against violence and abuse (to name a few). However, many of the family lawyers, mediators, Family Court Judges, assessment psychologists, therapists and couples we are in regular contact with experience ongoing, intense, (and often) escalating emotional conflict within the therapeutic, mediation and separation agreement process.

A mediator I work alongside recently outlined the experience of escalating conflict this way «... as much as all persons involved in the separation and mediation process appear to be pulling the rope towards settling the agreement in the same way – conflict pulls us the other way.» Within all corners of the mediation, court and agreement procedure, relational conflict is said to be what most undermines the pragmatics of mediation and separation/court agreements being secured, signed and upheld (Fiddler, 2013). Unresolved relational conflict acts to prolong legal agreements and mediation (sometimes for years), and is viewed by all persons involved as a highly disruptive and harmful influence to the process.2

The consequence of ongoing, escalating and unresolved emotional conflict is that mediation and judicially sanctioned separation agreements are often difficult to resolve, and are readily and repeatedly broken once they have been signed. As a result, unsettled conflicts contribute to a furthering of enormous emotional and financial costs in the lives of couples, children, families, communities and institutions (Fiddler, 2013).

The Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy set out to find other ways to investigate, reconsider and reconstruct therapeutic practices involving relational conflict. At the time of our inquiries we were working alongside a variety of conflicted couple relationships3 including: couples who wished to separate, couples attending mediation, couples working with their respective family lawyers within the legal system, relationships where only one person wished to separate, couples experiencing a new and unresolved event in the relationship (affairs, illness, loss of work, substance use etc.), couples trying to reach a pre-nuptial agreement, and those couples who had a desire to re-unify the struggling relationship. The couples we work with are from a variety of race, class and religious/non-religious orientations, and locate themselves as heterosexual, bi-sexual, gay, lesbian, transgender, and gender-fluid.

As a practice of investigating/supervising our therapeutic work, we began to pore over our videotapes and session transcripts with these differing couple configurations, to help us solve the puzzle of escalating relational conflict within a context (initially) of separation. What we eventually came to realize was that our traditional methods of narrative therapy practice with conflicted couple relationships needed to be fundamentally transformed.

After interrogating hours and hours of videotaped sessions, a novel therapeutic question surfaced: what if we didn’t begin the first couple therapy session with an investigation of the relational conflict/problem? What if we didn’t follow our narrative therapy teachings of beginning sessions with a broad description of the problem and waiting on a unique outcome/counter-story to emerge from the dialogue?

We decided to begin therapy sessions by exploring the relationship’s historical ethics, values and moral principles that preceded the conflict. We did this by simply asking the couple if we could catch up on the history of the relationship – and richly inquire about the stories of where they first met, what values they were attracted to in one another, how it was the friendship turned intimate, and the stories they first told their friends and family about the relationship etc. We were left summarily stunned by the couple’s response to our change in practice – specifically – how quickly the stories of conflict were retreating and how transformations in preferred relational meaning making were emerging.

The practice of Relational Interviewing views itself as working in concert with and supporting of legal narratives and mandatory judiciary structures by assisting in the emotional preparation and repair of the relationship prior to any financial/child-related discussions of mediation/separation agreements. After the process of emotionally preparing the relationship, relational interviewing provides a bridge for the couple relationship to travel through a ‘rite of passage’ from our therapeutic narratives and into legal narratives. We strongly support the idea that the ‘initial stages’ of mediation, court proceedings and writing separation agreements be therapeutically driven.

We have also found that it in best interests of the separated couple’s relationship future for legal and therapeutic narratives to be held distinct and separate.4 This affords each professional group the ability to turn their skills and attention towards what they have been trained to do best. The separation of therapy and legal narratives frees therapists up to move away from outlining and offering legal advice, and for legal representatives (mediators, lawyers, judges) to not be put in the uncomfortable position of having to offer couple relationship counseling.

Narrative Therapy-Informed Relational Interviewing Practice Sessions

Phillip and Carol5 arrived for their first couple therapy session in separate vehicles. They presented themselves as a white, middle class, lapsed Catholic, heterosexual couple, married for 13 years, and co-parents of 11-year-old daughter Jade. They presented a ‘snapshot’ of their separation of approximately one year before, and let me know they had not sat in the same room without some form of legally appointed counsel present (mediator, judge, lawyer or testing/assessment psychologist) during this time. The couple had only communicated through short text messages (regarding their daughter Jade) and through long legal documents constructed by their family lawyers.

I responded by asking why they had come to therapy without legal counsel in attendance at this particular time? Carol answered by saying «we feel there has to be a better way to separate». Phillip stated «our friends told us you had been helpful in their hostile separation». Carol and Phillip filled me in on how «exhausted» they had become through the legal process, how «too much family money had been spent on the legal battle» (approximately $40,000 CDN each); how the structures supporting the legal narrative had acted to «increase the conflict in their relationship»; and how they were worried that their ongoing unresolved relational conflict was «negatively affecting» their 11-year-old daughter Jade.

Relationally Remembering Ethics: Critical Reflexivity

After the couple gave a brief 10-minute orientation of why they had sought me out for relationship counseling, I began the first RI session by asking Carol and Phillip if I could start our meeting by ‘getting to know them a little bit’. Through the course of the next two hours6 we explored simple relational remembering questions7 we’ve designed. Please note that each simple question outlined in the text below was followed up with other questions8 (not included in the text due to the journal’s space restrictions) to further the ethical remembering stories’ descriptions and events and preferences, and to more richly explore and thicken the story being told.

– Carol and Phillip, could you catch me up on where and how you first met?

– How did you prepare the relationship to move from a friendship to an intimate relationship?

– At the time, were there particular values you shared in common that you built your relationship on? (For Carol and Phillip these were «trust, kindness, loyalty, respect and love.»)

– Can you recall any stories of the particular ways you served the relationship with trust, kindness, loyalty, respect, and love?

– Why did you feel the relationship felt that these particular ethical practices were vitally important to the building up of the relationship?

– Could you tell me a specific story that you remember when you experienced your relationship experiencing kindness?

– If I was to interview your relationship, what do you feel the relationship would tell me about how it was feeling back then – that may be different from now?

– Phillip, were there any values you shared in common with Carol that helped encourage your desire to have a child (Jade) together?

– Who in your community of supporting others were most supportive of your relationship? Was there a common story you think they would tell me about what they witnessed your new relationship becoming?

Safety in Common Ground

Through the above RI remembering questions/conversations, Carol and Phillip’s relationship entered a dialogic space for creating an experiential common ground. The common ground established allowed for the ‘proximal distance’ of past stories (Lorraine Hedtke, 2015, therapeuticconversations.tv) to transport the relationship beyond the distant past and towards a present experience and future imagination. Remembering conversations allowed their relationship to develop a creative refashioning/reconfiguring of a relationship counter-story. The relational common ground of the counter-story began to slowly un-freeze/un-suffer the relationships experiential discursive conflicted problem orientation frame.

Through relational remembering questions, I witnessed Carol and Phillip begin to recount the nine (pre-conflict) ‘adventurous’ years together; their first date; the first night of intimacy; the stories they told others about their relationship; cool job transfers; hiking and camping holidays; their love of literature and literary festivals and activities; how they first described the other person to their friends/family. I also explored numerous relational rites of passage including stories about: how they grieved the death of Phillip’s parents; how they decided to move together; how they decided what neighbourhood to settle in; how they decided to share joint bank accounts; how they decided to become co-parents; how they decided who would stay home as a full-time job after Jade’s birth etc.

I hovered9 with close up relational questions to solicit vivid relational descriptions – leading to more and more animated remembered stories of favored ethics and values. There were times throughout the interview the couple helped each other ‘fill in the gaps’ and assisted each other with the intimate ethical ‘plotlines’ that made up their relationship story. They found themselves collaborating, remembering, and becoming enchanted with a re-collection of their prior relationship life – in the experiential present. Carol and Phillip also began to share a few glances at one another and (to their stated surprise) – even laughed a little bit. After a year of hardened bitterness and conflict they were surprised to experience a felt «sense of relief»10.

Reconstruction before Deconstruction

How the relationship ‘anticipates’ the possibility of a conflict-free future has direct meaning on the relationship’s present dialogue and practice (Madigan, 2008). When the relationship remembers the particulars of the multiple stories that make up the relationship’s ethical past, the story of the relationship expands beyond the confines/restraints of the conflict’s immobilized landscape.

The RI first session began with a reconstruction of Carol and Phillip’s relationship before any act of deconstruction of the problem was considered. The couple’s re-collections provided a substitute ethical and value driven dialogue – beyond the dominant discourse of individualized suffering, blame and personal failure. The conversation afforded the relationship «emotional relief» from the year of bifurcated dialogic hostility alongside mediation, family law and psychological testing discourses.

At the end of the first session, I asked what they might possibly take away from our conversation? Carol laughed and stated, «it was nice to recall our past and remember it wasn’t all bad». Phillip said, «I’ve never considered our relationship as something we both have to take care of!» They turned to look at one another and began tearing up. Carol passed Phillip the tissue box.

To support the ethical counter-narratives survival between now and the next session I asked «Do you think your remembering of the relationship’s ethics and values might be the first steps to help you step towards a more peaceful future – or will our conversation today somehow dismember the relationship further?» I also asked «was the relationship appreciative of their tears or did the relationship believe the tears would fuel the conflict further?» We scheduled another two-hour session for the following week.

Session Two

The preferred relationship Carol and Phillip had once desired was outlined through the couple’s recollected stories in the first session. The first session’s critical reflexivity afforded space for the couple to emotionally prepare – ‘just enough’ – to experience an intimate dialogue about loss and grief. Fully exploring the relationship’s experience of what had been lost through a recounting of what was once preferred is crucial to re-imagining a newly separated future. Relational Interviewing conversations hope to shape opportunities for the relationship to eventually become other than what it is imagined to be in the conflicted present.

Loss and Grief

I began the second session by slowly reading back the notes11 I’d taken to Carol and Phillip from our first session. The performance of ‘re-telling’ their words back to them took about 15 minutes. I then asked if my notes needed any revisions or additions.

Carol and Phillip’s response to the retelling of the prior session’s conversation was to begin addressing their story of the relationship’s loss. With the experience of their relationship’s counter-stories’ ethical past recalled through the many re-collected tales they told, the weight of what they had collaboratively lost was experienced as «quite profound». There were stretches of time throughout this conversation that fell respectfully silent as Phillip and Carol wept.

Many couples experience the relationship loss as a loss in their lives that they have never before encountered. The majority of conflicted couples I see explain that the session’s discussion of relational loss (and thereby witnessing the grief of the other in the session), allows them to reconcile the nagging question of: did the intimate relationship mean anything to the other person? For the relationship to experience this loss, in the presence of the other, often creates the turning point away from relational conflict, anger and individualized blame. The grief Carol and Phillip believed was an individual experience was now being mutually recognized and relationally experienced. The relationship’s experience of the ethics and values lost and the relational harm the conflict had created, allowed Carol and Phillip to realize they might have an alternative counter-conflict blueprint to take them forward.12 Rising up through the restraints of the conflict were conditions to shape opportunities for the separated relationship to become other than what it currently was.

By experiencing the grief and loss in the presence of their relationship together, Phillip and Carol began to contemplate the merits of living/creating a future separated relationship through the ethics and values they had come to re-remember.

I asked Carol and Phillip the following questions:

– What is it that stands out about the ethics of this relationship the conflict has helped you turn away from?

– How do you imagine your relationship felt when its cherished values of respect and kindness were replaced by blame, silence and court appearances?

– Does the relationship in any way feel a sense of relief now that it knows you are both grieving what it once was – together?

– Are there any values that were hijacked by conflict that may need to be re-found if your relational and ethical orientation of the relationship was to make a comeback?

– Are there any ways your future separated relationship might benefit if you were to imagine taking these ethics and values forward?

– How might your relationship’s relationship with your daughter Jade change if these cherished values were to be re-instated?

– What is it that you would most want your daughter Jade to notice if your relational values and ethics re-found themselves at the centre of your relationship?

Individualized Personal Failure

Of critical importance to the RI sessions was to research the relational contexts Carol and Phillip’s relationship was having with other relationships (the relationship’s relationship with work, children, school, finances, siblings, parents, friends, fitness, health etc.). The idea is to broaden the view of the individualized relationship to include all the many contextual and culturally inspired relationships their relationship is (necessarily) involved with.

In a social world currently dominated by a neo-liberal politic, the message is clear: it is the individual who is fully responsible for whatever happens in their own individual life (John Winslade, 2016, therapeuticconversations.tv). As a result, the couple relationships I see in therapy experience the failure of the relationship as purely a failure of the individual self and/or the other individual involved. This sense of individualized personal failure (obviously) denies any contextual or cultural influence.

For example, many couples complain about «not having enough time for one another». The couple often attributes this lack of relational time together as a sign they «do not care for one another». When I inquire about the effect other relationships have on their intimate relationship, most relationships come to realize that in becoming proper parents, workers, friends, neighbours, sons, daughters and citizens etc., all of which our culture demands – their intimate relationship often ends up as a low priority.

After asking a few questions about other relationships their relationship was involved with I asked:

– By you both fulfilling our society’s definition of what represents what a good worker, parent, son/daughter, and overall citizen is, did these cultural achievements in any way negatively affect your intimate relationship?

– When the other relationships exhausted you, how did you explain this exhaustion to your intimate relationship?

– Were there ever times when you placed your intimate relationship above the demands of the other relationships? Or was your intimate relationship instructed to wait until all the others had been served?

– With so many relationships taking you away from your intimate relationship, why were you prone to blame your separation only on yourselves and view this as a personal failure?

– Do you think it is fair the way our culture helps intimate relationships to feel rejected – and then blames it on the couple relationship?

– Did anyone ever inform you that the other relationships don’t necessarily care about the health and wellbeing of your intimate relationship?

Session Three

After the second session, I wrote a therapeutic letter addressed to Carol and Phillip’s relationship.13 I asked that the relationship write the couple back – to be written from the perspective of the relationship by each person – to the couple. I wrote this letter to their relationship to evoke a new position for the relationship to stand in (a meta-position) to draw upon the relationship’s ethical ‘wisdom’.

Writing therapeutic letters to the couple´s relationship, see Bjoroy, Madigan & Nylund (2016).

Dear Carol and Phillip’s relationship;

As you know I met with Carol and Phillip for their second two-hour therapy session today. You also recognize the sessions are the first time they had spoken together in the same room without a mediator, psychological tester, judge, or legal counsel of any kind in over a year. Were you at all relieved by this development?

Carol and Phillip talked about you – their relationship – quite a bit. In fact, they took me through the history of building you up, their dreams of the kind of relationship they desired to build, and the values and ethics they wished to build the foundations of you, the relationship, on. They also showed me what a profound sense of loss and grief they both feel having moved you away from their best intentions and unfortunately – filled you up with conflict. However, you may be happy to know that they now seem concerned for your wellbeing in the future.

As Carol and Phillip’s relationship therapist, I am writing to ask if you would write them a letter from your point of view. Would you consider writing them and offering your version of what you as their relationship needs to grow forward? Claim back? Perhaps you might consider saying a bit about what you value, share any experienced wisdom you have collected over the past 13 years, and perhaps offer a ‘tree top’ view of what you would like to see the future separated relationship evolving into.

I know this may seem like a large assignment so – please keep the letter to a maximum of 150 words or so.

Many thanks

Stephen Madigan (Carol and Phillip’s relationship therapist)

Carol and Phillip were asked not to show the other the letter written by the relationship to the couple before arriving at the third session. The structure of this session when relational letters are involved is as follows: I ask who would like to read first (Phillip volunteered). After the letter was read, I interviewed Phillip about the experience of writing the letter from the relationship’s perspective. I then turned to Carol and interviewed her about her experience of receiving and listening to Phillip’s letter to them from the relationship. Carol then read aloud her relationship letter and we repeated the process of: reading, experiencing, retelling and responding.

Carol and Phillip’s letters written from the relationship’s point of view followed along a similar path to most couples involved in the practice of RI. In both letters the relationship thanked them for making attempts to end the conflict by coming to therapy. Each letter outlined the relational ethics that were once important to their relationship, and what the relationship felt it needed to create a more harmonious separated relationship future. Each letter suggested the importance of restoring the relational ethics to improve their daughter’s relational and emotional life with their relationship.

At the end of the session I asked if Carol and Phillip would be willing to bring two members of their community of concern (Madigan & Epston, 1995) to the next session. The intent was to increase the circulation and support of the relationship’s newly emerging ethical story. They agreed and – I sent off another letter addressed to their relationship to report how the session had gone. After they left my office, I made a copy of the video of their letter reading/writing performance we had filmed for each of them.

Session Four – Creating a Community of Concern

Carol and Phillip both brought a friend and a sister to our session. The members of the community of concern, who Carol and Phillip had once described as ‘very close’ prior to the separation, had been isolated off from one another due to the ongoing relational conflict. I began our fourth session by reading aloud the notes taken in the first session on their critically reflexive relational remembering. Then I asked Carol and Phillip to read aloud their letters written to them from the relationship from our third session. After each reading I paused to ask the community members to respond. The therapy room filled up with conversations of respect, compassion, relief and tears.

The dialogue between the seven of us proceeded to wonder: within the envisioned relational ethics of the relationship, as well as what the relationship stated it needed to go forward – how might we somehow transport the ethics from the past and present time – into a newly creative experience of the future?14

We speculated if this relational rite of passage was at all possible and what the emerging story of the relationship’s relational ethics might mean to all aspects of the relationship’s future. We wondered about:

– What practices supporting the ethics of the relationship could be resurrected,

– What the community of concern might name this newly formed relationship,

– What the first steps might be if the community of concern and support was to help step the relationship towards this transitional journey,

– In what ways could the community of concern help best support these efforts.

After this fourth session, I wrote a letter to the relationship about the session and sent a copy out to everyone who had attended the session.

Rites of Passage

The majority of couples I see in relationship therapy have forgotten to remember the numerous rites of passage (White and Epston, 1990) the relationship has successfully traversed through the course of their relational life (deciding to live together, dealing with loss and grief of important people, new living locations etc.). These rites of passage bring forth a redescription, knowledge and ethic of relationally collaborative decision-making. When the relationship is realized to have developed through several life changing rites of passage, it highlights the relationship’s abilities and trust to change and grow forward into something new.

Many conflicted couple relationships have no definition of what the separated relationship’s rite of passage map might be. Often there is a ‘not knowing’ experience of how they might shift from an intimate relationship to a separated relationship. In speaking with separating couple relationships, it seems clear that our culture’s discursive practices regarding this crucial rite of passage are also quite limited in answering how we might more fully support and create harmonious and collaborative versions of separated relationships.15 Without a creative alternative map for separation, the separated relationship is often left with no definition or character (except as a conflicted relationship). Within these limitations, the relationship may ‘freeze’ within its conflicted identity.16

Ethical Documents

Relational Interviewing is designed to help the relationship construct ethical documents (written by the couple during the RI therapy sessions). The content of the ethical documents originates from the relationship’s letters to the relationship. The relational documents can be viewed as counter-documents (Epston, 1988) that offer alternatives to legal and psychological mediation/separation/divorce documents (used in litigating and negotiating a separation agreement on property rights and child access).

Couples explain that becoming involved with the mandatory services of mediation, litigation, court rulings, psychological assessments, without first being emotionally prepared for these services, can act to increase the conflict. Therefore, it is of primary importance to the RI process that the production of ethical documents is drawn up to outline specific relational ethics that will then help guide and discursively construct the relationship’s future mediation/legal process. Mediation, separation agreements etc., can then be organized through the relationship’s ethical narrative and the therapeutic process itself.

The more we are experimenting in the writing of ethical documents with the couples, mediators, judges and family lawyers we work with, the more we are realizing the central role they play in bridging therapeutic and legal narratives together. When the couple’s stated ethics and values become the heart and structure of legal narratives, the endurance of a conflict-free separation agreement has the possibility to survive over time.

Session Five

Conversing through the relationship’s ethical documents and using their document as a guide, the fifth session involved the couple, their daughter Jade and discussions on how to move towards their possible future relationship as a separated, but newly reunited, family. I then booked a follow-up session with the couple relationship, daughter, and community of concern in four weeks’ time. The couple stated that it was «in the best interests of the relationship not to contact the lawyers until after our next session». I asked Carol and Phillip:

– What would happen if their lawyers made attempts to recruit them back into adversarial relational practices,

– Were there ways that re-remembering the ethics of the relationship might resist the temptations of entering back towards adversarial legal practices presented through the therapeutic courtroom.

Conversational Responses to Relational Interviewing

#1 Elin Bjøru: Psychologist and mediator:

As a psychologist at one of the largest Family Counselling Offices in Norway, I have met a lot of families struggling after separation and divorce. The parents cannot find a new way to relate that will facilitate cooperation around the care of the children.

This conflicted situation becomes complicated for everyone. The children and youngsters are torn between their parents. They despair and demonstrate in many ways how destructive these loyalty conflicts are for their adaptation to the separation and development. The parents experience that they are not helped towards a solution. Instead their lives and living situations are getting worse and more complicated when the Family Counselling Office, possibly child protection and the court are getting involved in the process.

The feeling of being exhausted and helpless will often characterize these parents, as well as the therapists and the surroundings. Relational Interviewing represents a different approach and offers hope and optimism. Instead of getting caught in a conflict trap, RI opens new ways to go forward. Instead of opposing each other, the parents receive a possibility to stand ‘side by side’ and cooperatively move forward. Imagine the difference that makes for the therapist, the parents and the children!

The need for opportunities in solving these couple and family conflicts is growing. Partly because there are more parents whose communication is broken down coming to the offices and partly because the family services has started cooperating with the court to help the parents out of these destructive conflicts. Stephen Madigan has systematically developed a relationally centered interview that focuses on ethics and not the conflict that gives hope for preventing and solving these conflicts.

#2 Jean-Luc Forest17 Family Lawyer and mediator:

The conceptual and therapeutic work of RI is a crucial departure in a couple’s situating of conflict at a time of their separation and divorce and entry into a legal realm and framework.

In the realm of family law and as someone who has worked extensively within various dispute resolution (DR) processes, I have observed that RI provides a relational bridge for a conflicted couple. As mediator or lawyer working with conflicted couples, the RI ethical document becomes a touchstone and backbone that further supports a basis of understanding by emotionally supporting the conflicted couple in re-animating the couple’s poetics of space as they work towards agreement. This occurs through decentering the relational views and identity(ies). In my work in family law, RI only further supports the delicate footwork in my work as mediator and a DR lawyer.

Overall, RI allows for the presence of contradiction that further animates critical movements for legal reform. Accordingly, RI and its emerging influence in family law can only provide a welcome challenge in having the liberal foundations of law give way to changes that reflect social equality and the importance of collective life.

#3 Ian Law18 Mediator, family therapist and researcher:

What we know from research (A Randomized Trail of Family Mediation with Motivational Interviewing, Morris et al. 2015, under review) is that when we can get both separated parents together we can be very successful at helping them to achieve an agreement on where and with whom their children should live and spend time with. However, in doing so, we make no difference at all to the level of acrimony and conflict that is both felt and expressed between them. What we also know is that what the children of separating parents want most is for the fighting to stop! As a result, our professional interventions in family law disputes are failing to meet the needs of children. We also know that the majority of parents who approach family law services do not manage to engage the other parent in a dispute resolution process. So, how do we address and reduce the acrimony and how do we create a context that prepares and engages both parties in coming to a lasting agreement?

More and more research suggests it makes more sense to look at what contributes to making relationships work rather than what brings them apart. So, if you combine all of that then it makes perfect sense to have the approach to the emotional preparation of conflicted couples that Stephen Madigan’s Relational Interviewing approach is outlining here. He has shown that it can work. The next challenge is how to demonstrate this through appropriate research methodology. I look forward to possibly contributing to this research here in Australia.

#4 Anne Marie Selvaag19 Judge:

When parents disagree about parental responsibility, permanent residence for their children or parental plan (separation agreement), they can bring their case to court. Almost all parental trials in the county of Sør-Trøndelag are now treated as mediating litigation, where the parents, their lawyers, a psychologist and the judge cooperate to find a solution. A voluntary solution is found in about 80% of the cases. The last 20% is decided after a trial.

The court in Sør-Trøndelag has cooperated with the Family Counselling Office in Sør-Trøndelag for many years. In this work with conflicts between the parents, both judges and family therapists need teaching in conflict understanding and mediation methods. It is crucial to the result to know professional ways to cope with parental conflicts. The court and the family office arranged In October 2014 a workshop and a seminar with Stephen Madigan as part of this competence development, where he contributed ideas about a way to deal with the mediation process.

At the workshop, Madigan led two live mediation sessions, while some five judges and six family therapists watched the sessions from behind a one-way mirror. Afterwards the judges and therapists shared their responses with each other, the parents and Madigan. The session was ended by a reply from and conversation with the parent led by Madigan. It was of great use to observe Madigan’s Relational Interviewing methods to establish good contact with the parents and to listen to the parents’ reactions afterwards. The next day these interviews were used as examples when Madigan presented his thoughts about mediation at a seminar for 80 judges, lawyers, mediators, psychologists and family therapists. The responses to this workshop and seminar were excellent.

Narrative therapy-informed Relational Interviewing methods are not used regularly in mediation in the court in Norway. Madigan presents strategies that are good to know by all those meeting these parents, and will hopefully contribute to better ways to solve these conflicts in the future.


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1Relational Interviewing is cautious of couple therapy instructing the couple towards set standards of normativity, and the hegemonic public demand for the performance of this suffering through discursive avenues like therapy, talk shows, legal courtrooms, intimate relationships etc. (Illous, 2007).
2It must be noted that certain practices carried out by family lawyers in North America with a paid mandate to argue on behalf of their respective clients involved in settling the separation agreement can act to further fuel the relational conflict.
3It should be noted that Vancouver, Canada has the most bi-racial marriages per capita than any other city in the world.
4The ‘therapeutic courtroom’ is a term used by Relational Interviewing and the Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy to describe the blurring of borders between relational therapeutic narratives and legal narratives. The therapeutic courtroom is set up when the couple therapist/psychologist/mediator (or lawyer/mediator/Judge) finds themselves caught between the therapeutic attempts to reduce escalating relational conflict, while at the same time offering rulings/advice/assessments/education on the terms of the legally sanctioned separation agreement.
5All names are pseudonyms.
6Relational Interviewing sessions are usually two hours in length.
7From the outset, you will notice that I interview the relationship ‘itself’. Questions directed at the relationship further the idea that relationships are relational, and allow the couple to speculate on the relationship from the relationship’s perspective. You will witness this practice further when you read the therapeutic letter I wrote to Carol and Phillip’s relationship.
8Developing questions such as: Why was this value important to the relationship? Why do you think the relationship feels this way about this value? How come the relationship took this stand stand/position on this value? Would you tell me a story that would help me to understand why the relationship would take this position on this value? and so on?
9VSNT uses the word ‘hover’ in a narrative therapy conversation and it means to luxuriously explore the intimate particularities of a particular counter-story before moving on to another topic. In Carol and Phillip’s case, hovering helped support and more thoroughly remember the relationship’s forgotten counter-stories of «trust, love, loyalty, respect, kindness» and the practices that helped these values endure through time.
10A couple’s experience of relational relief often arrives through their paying tribute to the maintenance of the relationship’s values and ethics through time.
11For a live demonstration of reading and retelling the session before, by way of reading back the session notes, please watch this on therapeuticconversations.tv.
12Although it is never the intention of RI to bring separated couple relationships back together, there are occasions when the recollection of grief and loss have some couples considering the possibility to reunite.
13There are numerous examples of writing letters to the couple’s relationship and their reading of these letters in the couple sessions you can view on therapeuticconversations.tv
14The transport of ethics is not seen as discovery of the old but more of an act of newly born relational creativity (this idea was helped along in a personal conversation with philosopher Todd May, in Vancouver, April, 2016).
15The culture’s focus (supported through legal and psychological narratives) is for the separating couple to sign the separation agreement signed with very little or no emphasis on emotionally supporting how the newly separated couple/family identity will survive and create a new identity.
16Defining the newly separated relationship identity is especially important to the children of the separated relationship.
17Jean-Luc Forest LLB. is of Métis origin and a narrative trained family lawyer & mediator in Vancouver, Canada. Prior to law school, he studied international relations and political theory through a critical theory and cultural studies lens. Jean-Luc is presently working alongside VSNT in constructing a new practice of Relational Mediation.
18Ian Law has a PhD in Critical Psychology and is the CEO of Relationships Australia, Queensland: a significant provider of counseling and family mediation services. His recent book Self Research – The Intersection of Research and Therapy is a resource for practitioners and academics interested in articulating the politics of counseling and therapy.
19Anne Marie Selvaag is a law graduate from the University of Oslo in 1996. She has worked as a Judge in «Sør-Trøndelag Tingrett», the District Court since 2005, and in 2016 she became a Deputy. Anne Marie was one of the initial five judges in Trondheim, Norway to watch and reflect on Stephen Madigan’s RI work during live couple sessions.

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