Narrative therapy is a non-judgmental, non-pathologizing, and collaborative therapeutic approach that aims to help individuals connect with valued aspects of their lives while separating from the problem-stories that negatively affect them. A Narrative approach to therapy is respectful of all human experience. Narrative therapists view people as the experts of their lived experiences and their preferred directions in life.
People come to therapy eager to find a resolution for a problem in their lives. As a narrative therapist, I begin the therapeutic process by facilitating the telling of lived experiences and stories. In therapy, clients are encouraged to share their experiences of the problem affecting their lives, and are empowered to identify and establish preferred realities for their present and/or future. Different from traditional forms of psychotherapy, narrative therapists don’t simply focus therapeutic conversations around the problem-infused stories people experience; narrative therapists seek to collaborate with clients in order to identify gaps in these stories from which alternative and preferred narratives can be developed.
Therapist and Client Therapeutic Relationship
My therapeutic relationship with clients can be described as “de-centered, yet influential.” I view my clients as the experts on the stories of their lives, and I respect and honor this unique knowledge. But at the same time, I guide the therapeutic process by crafting questions that facilitate the deconstruction of stories and therefore, help clients create alternative meanings and realities that are consistent with their hopes and their intentions in life. I take on the role of co-creator or co-author of new, alternative, and preferred self-narratives.
Human sexuality is a complex and important subject to explore in therapy. For this reason, the therapist must approach therapeutic conversations openly and curiously. Sexuality includes sexual identity, past experiences, health, pleasure, body image, gender identity, sexual orientation, attraction, sexual response cycle, sexualization, personal and cultural values, and much more. Sex therapists can engage their clients in exploring these aspects of sexuality, focusing on the meanings attributed to sexual experiences and the potentially harmful effects of these experiences on current sexual functioning, sexual intimacy, relationships, pleasure, and desire.
In addition to exploring the above topics, sex therapy typically involves a component of sexual education to create awareness around aspects of sexuality about which a person may have received misinformation. Sex education is often used in conjunction with a variety of practices such as deconstruction of lived experiences and stories that relate to people’s sexualization process. This is important because the lens through which people interpret their and others’ sexuality is typically shaped by their personal and sexual histories. Moreover, a “narrative sex therapist” may invite their client to participate in a deconstructive exploration of social and cultural discourses that may have contributed to the shaping of values and attitudes around sex.
The process of deconstruction might involve the telling and re-telling of stories, especially those that relate to particular sexual experiences. In sex therapy conversations, clients will explore and unpack lived experiences such as their first sexual encounter, how they first learned about sex and sexuality, past and current relational patterns, and if ready and willing, also potential traumatic sexual experiences. Unpacking these stories can help people to understand different aspects of their sexual life, and as a result, develop more accurate interpretations of these stories and obtain clarity regarding their preferences for their sexual lives.
In my experience providing sex therapy services, it is often in the telling and retelling of stories that the magic happens. When alternative interpretations become visible to people, they are then able to re-author their present and future relationship with their sexuality.
I have a lot of experience working with couples in community mental health, through in-home services, and most recently in private practice. My training in Human Sexuality and Relationships prepared me to understand dynamics and patterns of couples, which oftentimes contribute to conflict and even dissolution of the relationship. Couples typically wait until the last minute to seek out professional help. Although it is never late to seek counseling, the best work can be done in the early stages of challenges. I use a medical metaphor to explain this: When a disease has invaded most of the body, it is more difficult to operate, but not necessarily impossible. It is essentially the same with couples counseling. The work may be a little bit more challenging, but still very doable. The most important aspect is the couples hopes and their desire to save their relationship.
Most therapeutic approaches to couples therapy introduce a set of skills to help couples communicate more effectively, increase trust, or improve intimacy. Nonetheless, there is a lot more that’s needed to improve day to day interactions between partners and many therapeutic modalities may neglect important pieces of the puzzle when all couples and their problems are addressed exactly the same.
In couples therapy, I use narrative practices to help the couple address the immediate problems affecting the relationship, and through a process of unpacking stories, I am able to help the couple access their own skills and preferred directions for the future of their relationship. In couples work, both partners are able to assess the ways in which they might be individually contributing to the problem that threaten the relationship. Having this knowledge and a more clear understanding of their hopes and intentions for the relationship, the couple is able to start working together and performing their preferred realities. As a narrative therapist, I will approach a couples relationship as a unique experience, and this allows me to address the specific dynamics and patterns that prevent partners from being the partners they prefer to be.
Individuals accumulate an enormous amount of stories throughout their lives, and the meanings attributed to each one of these stories often shape our understanding of experiences in our present and future. Most importantly, the stories of our lives have a crucial role in our relationships, especially our intimate relationships. The ways in which we have come to make sense of the stories and experiences of our lives influence our decision making and our actions in our partnerships. This is how stories of pain or negative self-narratives may come to be replicated with our loved ones.
Couples bring in their individual understandings of relationships, intimacy, and the world around them in general. Inevitably, this is an aspect of coupling where there is supposed to be disconnect. Where couples fail is continuing to repeat the same patterns of behavior supported by potentially inaccurate and incomplete interpretations of past lived experienced. Instead, couples would benefit from performing roles in their relationships that fit their vision of their partnership. Couples must first separate from the problem-saturated narratives that may have been developed in their lives and from the harmful social discourses about what relationships “should” be like in order to position themselves in the path that might lead to preferred directions.
In couples therapy, individuals might start by separating themselves from the problems threatening their relationships. The stories of their lives prior to the relationship might need to be retold, unpacked, and revised in order to create space for the construction of new experiences, new meanings, and new narratives for the relationship in a way that is consistent with the couples intentions, hopes, and commitments for their future.
It is important to establish a respectful, collaborative, and non-judgmental environment, which is often a reconstructive process in itself, as many individuals and couples have become accustomed to conflict, blame, and lack of accountability.
The couple describes their understanding of the problem or problems that brings them to therapy. Each partner has a turn to richly describe their perception of the problem, its effects on the relationship, and the contributing factors that make navigating with the problem more difficult. Through these initial detailed conversations, the couple often negotiates an experience-near definition of the problems preventing them from experiencing their relationship in preferred ways.
One of the most important aspects of this work from a Narrative Therapy framework is for the couple to separate themselves and their relationship from the problem or problems. This is done through a process called “externalizing conversations” where the therapist engages the couple in a process of deconstructing and unpacking the problem, its effects, its supports, and its tactics. The couple might also learn to locate aspects of the problem or problems in social or cultural contexts, which also aims the couple to break from limiting conclusions about the nature of their relationship.
Each partner will have plenty of opportunities to discuss other areas of their life such as work, health, other relationships, etc. This helps the couples therapist gather enough information and stories and to comprehend all intertwined storylines that might be contributing factors to the problem or that support the couples intentions and hopes for the relationship.
Through a process of “double listening” or “deconstructive listening,” the therapist is able to identify gaps in the couples accounts of the problems, which might have the potential to become useful for problem resolution and meaningful change.
The therapist will help the couple explore and thicken preferred stories about the relationship. When couples seek therapy, it is typical for these alternative stories to have been subjugated by the problems, so it is important that the therapist assists the couple in making these alternative stories more visible and therefore, accessible for the couple to recreate. This process are usually referred to as “rich story development” or “re-authoring conversations.”
The therapist may invite the couple to create therapeutic documentation to strengthen the therapeutic process. Therapeutic documents might take form of letters, lists, notes, summaries, and whatever other creative ways the couple might identify as helpful. Because problems can often become such dominant entities in couples’ lives,therapeutic documents serve to highlight the new discoveries, exceptions to the problem stories, and can clear the path for preferred directions. Therapeutic documents can be seen as ways to immortalize the positive changes and affirm the couple’s skills and abilities, especially when it involves future problem resolution.
While they support the couple and their therapeutic journey, the therapist's intention is for the couple to be freed from the influences of the problems affecting their relationship. This style of couples therapy provides participants with an opportunity to make informed decisions about their relationship and to resolve problems without sacrificing their preferred experiences within their partnership. Couples must be willing to fully engage in the process for it to be fruitful.
There is so much more that goes into creating a unique, meaningful, and successful therapeutic experience for couples. My hope is that, at the least, couples walk away with more insight about the problem, how to deal with it, and how to continue to make changes that can lead them to preferred experiences and interactions in their relationship.