Absent But Implicit in Narrative Couple and Family Therapy
In narrative therapy, “Absent But Implicit” refers both to an understanding regarding how people ascribe meaning to experiences (values, hopes, beliefs, purposes) and to a practice of seeking entry points toward developing preferred stories.
Every expression can be considered to be founded upon its contrast, which I refer to as the ‘Absent But implicit.’ (White 2005)
Inspired by Derrida (1978), White (2000) suggested that people ascribe meanings to experiences in relation to other experiences, by contrasting them with other experiences, by what they are and by what they are not.
He described how it can be useful in therapeutic conversations to listen for values, hopes, and purposes that, while absent from the problem story, may be implied by it, as the backdrop on which the explicit problems are given meaning.
Using what White calls “double listening,” in addition to listening for explicit “unique outcomes,” the therapist also listens for unmentioned values, beliefs, and intentions that contrast with the problem-saturated story and may imply what is precious to this person, couple, or family. “These implied experiences are a rich source of alternative stories” (Freedman and Combs 2008). Furthermore, based on the narrative premise that no one is a passive recipient of hardship, the therapist looks for acts of resistance that have been performed and the skills that have been used in performing them, which may augment sense of personal agency.
The Expression – of problems and their influence
What the Complaint or Expression is in Relation to – externalization
Naming the Response or Actions – discovering acts of resistance
Skills or Know-How that are Expressed in the Action
Intentions and Purposes – of actions and plans for life
What is Given Value To – the “Absent But Implicit”
Social and Relational History of What Is Absent But Implicit – connections with people who share the values
Connecting Actions Over Time and Into the Future – around the Absent But Implicit
Anna’s father asked me to meet with her. “She’s become so withdrawn.” However, he explained, “she doesn’t go anywhere alone anymore,” so they would bring her and accompany her in the therapy sessions (one of the fortunate times I didn’t need to persuade the family to participate in therapy).
In the first session, Anna (aged 16) sat quietly while her parents told me that she had begun high school 3 months ago “and everything changed.” After school, they said, she stays in her room all day, mostly in bed. She rarely comes to the table for dinner; they bring a tray to her bed. She’s cut herself off from her friends, and when she has to go to the mall, she asks her parents to go with her.
After understanding that no recent trauma was involved, I asked Anna about the expressions of the problems in her life and their influences on her relationships and on her “private story” (the story she tells herself about herself). Anna responded in “internalized language” (as most people do), seeing herself and the problem as one: “I’m so needy; I need my parents all the time, I’m afraid to go out alone with my friends, I feel so sad.”
Following the narrative map of separating between people and their problems, I began an externalizing conversation with Anna, hoping that in the space created between her and the problem, we would find preferred directions. I asked what name would she give to her problem? And could she imagine how it looks? She said “Blue Dependency; it looks like a big blue monster who looks at me with sad eyes and tells me I won’t succeed alone. It makes me feel blue all the time.” We discussed the ways in which Blue Dependency had recruited her to this lifestyle. As she spoke, tears began rolling down her cheeks. I asked her what the tears meant to her. Anna said that Blue Dependency had such a bad influence on her life. I asked whether Blue Dependency opposed something she treasured – perhaps joyfulness? maybe self-reliance? or something else? She looked at me and said “Yes, Self-Reliance.” She told how she used to be able to do almost anything on her own, how proud she had been of that, how much self-reliance had always meant to her, and how she missed it in her life now.
I inquired about her acts of resistance against Blue Dependency and her intent in those acts. We discussed how those tears might be a protest against Blue Dependency. We (Anna, her parents, and I) then explored when had Anna begun to value self-reliance. We spoke about stories of self-reliance in her past and how meaningful they were to her. We connected them to her intentions, actions, and dreams in the present and started to think about what her next steps will be if she continues to hold the value of self-reliance close to her heart.
I asked about stories of self-reliance in the family and in their social and cultural history. We prepared a genogram with all family members. Her parents told stories of their own self-reliance and of Anna’s independence as a child. We heard that her grandparents were Holocaust survivors who had built a new life out of utter destitution and how the family felt blessed by that.
The focus of our conversations moved from the story of Blue Dependency to the preferred story of Sassy Self-Reliance. We developed a family project of telling, retelling, and witnessing – and joint planning and doing.
The practice of Absent But Implicit opened new possibilities for Anna and her family to work together to find and thicken preferred stories in their lives.
- Derrida, J. (1978). Writing and difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
- Freedman, J., & Combs, G. (2008). In A. S. Gurman (Ed.), Clinical handbook of couple therapy. New York: The Guilford Press. Chap. 8.Google Scholar
- White, M. (2000). Re-engaging with history: The absent but implicit (chapter 3). In M. White (Ed.), Reflections on narrative practice: Essays & interviews (pp. 35–58). Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.Google Scholar
- White, M. (2005). The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 3&4, 15.Google Scholar