Narrative Couples Therapy: The Power of Externalization

by Lucy Cotter, MFT
Posted on: November 2nd, 2011

The practices of Narrative Therapy often challenge simple explanations of objective truth. Our lives are seen as multi-storied, rich with details and diverse experiences. In narrative therapy, we seek the neglected aspects of our stories that have been given less power and visibility. In my work with couples, externalization allows for the excavation of affirmative stories that are hidden beneath problems such as blame, conflict and disconnection.

On arriving in therapy, couples often see problems as part of their relational identities. These problems have frequently been internalized, embedded in the accounts that couples tell about themselves. When problems disguise themselves as ‘truth’ they totalize alternatives, exceptions and possibilities. The problem’s ‘existence’ is perceived as a given, as if it were determined and immutable.

Externalizing Problems
Narrative therapy views problems as separate from the couple. Through externalizing conversations, the problem is set free to stand independently. It begins to be unmasked of the many contexts and discourses that have reinforced its definitive stature. Externalizing questions subvert the problem’s power by undermining conclusions that have gone unquestioned, and by creating space that allows for the collaborative investigation of the problem and its effects. The couple can experience the relationship without the problem’s complete dominance.

Externalization is achieved by a discursive shift where problems become referred to as nouns, and thus as separate objectified entities. The couple chooses a name for the problem through collaborative conversations with the therapist.
For example, in a situation where partners describe feeling annoyed at one another, an externalizing question might ask how “annoyance” is interfering with the couple’s desire to connect. A couple may choose a different name for ‘annoyance’ that has shared personal resonance such as “The Mosquito” or “Aggravation.”

How can a couple protest the contributions that support a problem’s ability to flourish? How is the problem causing harm? Does the problem conflict with the values and hopes that the couple might share from the past, present and future? Externalization generates new territory that provides room for alternatives to be explored.

Examples of externalizing questions for problems:

What does ‘anxiety’ have you believing about your sense of trust?

In what ways does ‘constant criticism’ injure the relationship?

How can you better protect your shared dreams from the risks of ‘blame?’

What actions might you take as a couple that might shrink the effects of ‘not listening?’

Externalizing Strengths and Preferences
An additional use of externalizing language is with solutions and resources. Externalization can invite a couple’s sense of agency. It can bring forth a reinvigorated engagement with the couple’s skills, abilities and knowledges.

Examples of externalizing questions for preferences:

On an occasion when ‘anger’ approaches, what practices can you imagine that might allow it to retreat long enough for these other abilities you mentioned, such as ‘compassion’ and ‘friendship’ to win out?

You both described ‘hope for reconnection.’ Can ‘hope for reconnection’ assist you in coming up with ideas for how to enjoy new times together?

What might be possible if ‘compassion’ returned?

Relational Externalizing
Johnella Bird (2004), whose work is strongly identified with narrative therapy, describes the importance of what she terms “relational language.” Bird puts forth the use of language that resists the creation of a binary structure. Externalizing can be viewed as producing a binary between the client and the externalized problem. Through a postmodern or social constructionist lens, a binary configuration is often seen as one of closure, where meanings become fixed and taken out of context.
When using relational language, meanings are being constantly renegotiated. The therapist and couple are in ongoing conversations that grapple with meaning, frames of reference, and the clients’ lived experiences. Relational language invites an active participation and presence.

Examples of relational externalizing questions:

You have spoken of the ‘experience of distance.’ What responses might be preferred during times when the ‘experience of distance’ is present?

Is your ‘desire for intimacy’ a part of what you imagine to be possible if things were different than they are?

What are you seeking in the relationship that supports the sense of justice that you described as being personally meaningful?

Conclusion
The use of externalization with couples often frees ‘imagination’ and ‘hope’ from the confinement and weight of relational problems. Externalization assists in generating opportunities for the collaborative construction of a couple’s preferred stories of relationship. As a narrative therapist with a passion for couple therapy, I find that externalization provides a powerful means for inviting new possibilities.

References

Bird, J. (2004). Talk That Sings: Therapy in a new linguistic key. Aukland: Publishing Press ltd.

© Copyright 2011 by Lucy Cotter, MFT. All rights reserved.