The Child Law Help Center interviews Lucy Cotter, MFT about Narrative Couples Therapy:

Our New Year’s resolutions are commitments to a new action or attitude that will bring us closer to the preferences we hold for our lives. We ask: “Who do we want to be?” “What do we want to see more of?” Whether it’s extra patience with a child, further dedication to a project, healthier eating, or more kindness, each of our various hopes demonstrates resolve toward greater meaning, passion and purpose.

It is ironic, then, that New Year’s resolutions often use deficit language that describes what “not to do,” how “not to be,” or what should cease. Our intentions are diminished by singular, negative accounts of inadequacy, and discourses of failure and shame. We are surrounded by messages that tell us and sell us on conformity: to be more, to be different, better or other. If we were thinner, smarter, richer, younger… then we’d finally be accepted and valued.

Michael White, a founder of Narrative Therapy, explains that we always understand our lived experience in relationship to “what it is not” (2000). White’s phrase “the absent but implicit” indicates that each of our problem stories holds an inverse, deducible image of an alternative story waiting to develop. An example might be when a client describes unhappiness at feeling lonely. One can deduce an implied desire for connection.

If therapists engage in “double listening,” they can be present for client’s challenges, while looking for traces of these alternative stories. Collaboratively, therapists and clients can expand the significant meaning in what is implied or left unspoken.

If we apply this idea of the absent but implicit to our New Years resolutions, does it help us gain a richer understanding of the purposes and “knowledges” they hold? How can we gather “thicker” descriptions of the absent but implicit hopes that are contained within our desires for new beginnings?

Examples of some familiar New Year’s resolutions are dieting, reduced spending, drinking less, being on time. Therapeutic conversations can strengthen a client’s understanding of the greater significance of these undertakings. In addition, what might be the effects of these changes on the client’s relationships and other domains in his or her life? Would it be helpful to identify friends and family that might witness or assist the client’s new intentions?

Through the years as a Narrative Therapist, I have listened for the absent but implicit in my clients’ New Years resolutions. This has enhanced a collaborative investigation of larger meanings and preferences. Some examples:

• “Quitting Smoking” has been described as a desire for greater health, stamina, hikes with a friend, camping in the woods, celebration of life, honoring of the body as a vessel, and as an offering of love to a partner who wants to share longevity.

• The need for more “Patience” has been articulated as a wish for clarity, fairness, and presence, as well as a stand against the effects of “anger” and “short fuses.”

• The commitment to “stop worrying” has been explained to me as a deep yearning for faith, a need to embrace uncertainty, as well as a wish to delay what might otherwise be hasty and erroneous interpretations and judgments.

Last December, a client spoke to me about his New Years resolution to “stop procrastinating.” He described the problem story: how procrastination made him feel a “stuckness,” that immobilized his “energy” and interfered with his ability to “follow-through.” He neglected to mention what might be possible if “energy” and “follow through” were freed from procrastination’s rule. In our next session, we discussed Michael White’s idea of the absent but implicit. It helped us to develop a richer understanding of my client’s hopes and dreams. His wish to stand up to procrastination signified a less visible but deep desire to “show up fully” in the world. He was determined to reconnect to passion and vitality, and to express a creativity that procrastination had attempted to defeat. He went on to express this preferred story to a number of important people in his life, many of whom had been wondering about my client’s plans for the future. A New Years resolution to stop procrastinating evolved into a year of engaged effort that had the witness and support of a large community of concern.

Although this greater understanding of the resolution was key, this person also came to realize that a small part of procrastination’s voice was worth listening to. It spoke of balance and an inner knowing that life is not all “doing” but needed to include gaps for rest, musing and daydreams. It became possible to discern between procrastination’s “wastes of time” and occasionally needed moments to collect, recharge and renew.

Therapeutic questions can help situate New Years resolutions within a broader context of identity preferences and imagined futures. Michael White’s conception of the absent but implicit has been a great help in enriching these stories of intention.




White, M. (2000). Reflections on Narrative Practices: Interviews and essays. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.


©Copyright 2013 by Lucy Cotter, MFT.

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?

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.


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.