Interacting Stories: Narratives, Family Beliefs and Therapy

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A critical reflection on the ideas that have shaped systemic and family therapy over the last years, focusing particularly on the role of narratives within families. The author illustrates his work with extracts from reseach interviews and clinical case material.

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CHAPTER ONE. Cybernetics and family therapy

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“We presume that the universe is really existing and that man is gradually coming to understand it. By taking this position we attempt to make clear from the outset that it is a real world we shall be talking about, not a world composed solely of the flittering shadows of people’s thoughts … people’s thoughts also really exist, though the correspondence between what people really think exists and what does really exist is a continually changing one.”

George Kelly, 1963, p. 6

Theories, like children in families, sometimes turn out to be clearly visible continuations of their parents and at other times to appear radically different or even contrary. Systems theory is no exception. At its inception, psychoanalytic thinking was the dominant force in psychotherapy, and subsequent systems theorists both connected to these ideas and also adopted positions that became increasingly more opposed to it. My intention in this chapter is to consider both what appear to me to have emerged as some of the dominant concepts within a systems theory framework and also what aspects seem to have been relatively ignored or subjugated. This also captures the fundamental approach of this book, which is the idea that there are, inevitably, different versions or stories available of events in families, as there are of theoretical frameworks. So, systems theory does not exist in any definitive sense but lives as different versions in our personal interpretations—the varied ways that each of us connects with these ideas. Whilst supporting this personal view, it may also be fair to suggest that, over time, some versions of a theory become more accepted, more dominant, than others and coalesce together to form a version that starts to take on the status of being the “real” or “correct” version.

 

CHAPTER TWO. The roots of constructivist systemic therapy: nothing convinces like success

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“All purposive human behaviour depends greatly on the views or premises people hold, which govern their interpretation of situations, events, and relationships. For … psychotherapy, this means the ideas or premises a person [therapist] holds concerning the nature of problems and treatment will strongly influence the kind of data he will focus attention on, whom he will see in treatment, what he will say and do—and equally, not say and do—with the patient and others involved, and, not least, how he will evaluate the results of such actions.”

Weakland, 1982, p. 5

Reference to family members’ beliefs, explanations, and premises appears to have been apparent in the thinking of many family therapists from the inception of the family therapy movement. This has been evident not only in the writings of the Mental Research Institute (MRI) team in Palo Alto, but also in those of the structural, Milan, and other schools. Minuchin, for example, starts his book Families and Family Therapy with the following example:

 

CHAPTER THREE. Beliefs, accounts, and narratives

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“The dialectical approach, while admitting the influence of nature on man, asserts that man, in turn, affects nature and creates through his changes in nature natural conditions for his existence”

Vygotsky, 1978b, p. 60

This chapter outlines three perspectives: narrative approaches, personal construct theory, and theories of attributions and accounts which help to extend systemic theory and practice. The contributions of these three are seen as complementary: personal construct theory offers a comprehensive account of how people actively develop systems of understandings based upon juxtapositions of alternative views of events. Attribution and accounts perspectives emphasize how understandings are embedded in attempts to formulate causal explanations and consequently to assign blame and offer justifications for actions. Narrative approaches offer a broader picture of how our understandings and beliefs are embodied in a story form that connects events over time. Most significantly, a narrative perspective emphasizes how stories connect individuals and families to a wider social context. Societally shared narratives, like the air that we breathe, are inevitably absorbed and, though transformed in personal ways, nevertheless shape personal and interpersonal experiences.

 

CHAPTER FOUR. Choosing narratives and interacting

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In the previous chapters, it has been suggested that strategic and structural therapies contain many ideas that are consistent with the recent movement towards a narrative approach to therapy (Anderson et al., 1986; Hoffman, 1993). For example, strategic approaches may look more different to these newer forms of therapy than they really are and, in fact, may share many of the same constructivist premises. However, strategic approaches—with their emphasis on finding pragmatic ways of disrupting the vicious cycles of failing attempted solutions to problems—have been criticized for being manipulative, and even dishonest. One of the key techniques—re-framing, which attempts to suggest a new way of viewing the relationship which does not involve the problem—has likewise been criticized on the grounds of playing “fast and loose” with reality. It is argued that some refraining will suggest anything that appears to work, no matter whether the therapist in any way genuinely believes the reframe. In contrast, Efran, Lukens, and Lukens (1988) point out that “There is a subtle but critical difference between taking liberties with established definitions and proposing fresh problem-solving frameworks” (p. 34). Trainee family therapists often appear to have difficulty learning to employ reframing because it sometimes feels false or disingenuous, e.g. when a reframe is one that they are not totally convinced about themselves. This leads to feeling unsure about whether the family will accept a reframe, or to fears that they might offend the family.

 

CHAPTER FIVE. Dominant narratives— social constructionist perspectives

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Constructivist approaches to family therapy have made a significant contribution in revealing how the patterns of family actions can be seen in terms of the interweaving of family members’ actions and beliefs. Yet this still locates the source of the patterns and the associated problems predominantly within the sphere of the family itself. However, it is possible that the patterning is produced not just by the idiosyncratic dynamics of each family but is necessitated by the demands of the wider society within which a family is located. Frequently observed patterns, such as that of the “over-involved” mother and “disengaged” father, need to be understood more broadly as being determined by the wider societal structures and ideologies that shape family life, especially the relations between men and women:

The pattern of family behaviour so frequently encountered by family therapists, that of the “over-involved” wife/mother and disengaged and absent husband/father, suddenly appears in a new light: as a necessary form. That necessity derives from its ability to reproduce the personality characteristics, relationship patterns and behavioural orientations that are functional for continual operation of the contemporary social formation. [James & Mclntyre, 1983, p. 126]

 

CHAPTER SIX. Narratives, distortions, and myths

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There may be many moments in therapy when therapists feel that the narratives that are being articulated by a family, couple, or individual are very different to how they see what is going on. This may be based on an apparent contradiction between how a family or couple appears to be in the session and what they say things are like at home and elsewhere. Two parents, for example may say that they are in agreement about how to handle the problems that their child is demonstrating and are united in their approach at home but, in the session, show non-verbally quite different reactions to the child’s actions, fail to be able to agree on any consistent plan of action with the child, or tell quite different stories about how the current state of events arose. More dramatically, when there have been incidents such as physical or sexual abuse in a family but this has been denied by some members, then it is very compelling to view members of such a family as engaging in distortions, denials, and fabrications. An apparently straightforward explanation is that the perpetrator does not wish to admit to the acts, since these are not only morally deviant, but have criminal sanctions against them. Other members may be seen to collude partly out of fear and perhaps out of “shame” at admitting to being part of “such a family”.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN. Evolving and dissolving problems: a co-constructionist approach

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“I sometimes think that 99 percent of the suffering that comes in the door has to do with how devalued people feel by the labels that have been applied to them or the derogatory opinions they hold about themselves.”

Hoffman, 1988, p. 79

This chapter will attempt to draw together and illustrate an approach combining ideas from social constructionism and systemic therapies. Such an approach, instead of starting from an assumption that there is a problem to be treated, asks questions about how various sorts of problems are constructed in any given culture. How is the concept of depression or schizophrenia employed, not just in professional settings but in everyday conversations in families? It indicates, perhaps above all else, that the understandings that families hold are shaped by the dominant beliefs in a given culture. These beliefs, in turn, colour the nature of experiences in families—how people’s actions and feelings are ascribed meanings and shape others’ reactions. One important implication of this for therapy is that problems can be seen as not confined to some individuals and their families, but as common experiences —a part of all our lives. This touches on concepts from the brief therapy models and the idea that problems arise from attempted solutions to ordinary difficulties that are common experiences. Another way of putting this is that problems can be seen as part of a continuum. The severity of problems may vary at different points in each person’s life, and consequently one person’s problems may be more severe than another’s at a given time. However, we are united by a language and shared images of distress that allow us to know something about what the experiences of various painful conditions may be like. Even though we may not taste them as fully as do others, they frame our lives, perhaps in our intentions to try to avoid such experiences, e.g. attempts to avoid depression, anxiety, stress, and conflicts. Where would the tourist industry be, for example, if many people were not so concerned (and encouraged to be by the media, etc.) to protect themselves from stress and depression?

 

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