Moving beyond the Blame Game: Toward a Discursive Approach to Negotiating Conflict within Couple Realtionships

Article excerpt

The concept of discourse is an important tool in negotiating conflict and facilitating conversations within therapy. This article offers a useful framework for negotiating conflict in a couple relationship by highlighting the manner in which individual's expectations are mutually emergent from particular discursive positions. Specific discursive practices and approaches that make more visible the cultural production of conflicts are presented via a case illustration. These practices provide more freedom to couples in relationships to explore conflicts with less totalizing descriptions of the other as blameworthy. In addition, a discursive analysis of conflict invites therapists to be more intentional, reflexive, and socially responsible in their work.

Social constructionism has emerged as an influential paradigm resulting in a rethinking of philosophical, social, and political concerns. This transformation encompasses several key concepts, namely a challenge of objective knowledge, a stable reality, and the notion of absolute truth. Rather, social constructionist theory emphasizes how meanings are constructed through language and it privileges the cultural practices that give shape to human interaction (Burr, 1995; Gergen, 1985,1999; Monk & Gehart, 2003; Paré & Larner, 2004; Shotter, 1989). Within this theory, it is proposed that the ways in which we commonly understand the world, including the categories, concepts, and language we use, are historically and culturally specific (Bayer & Shotter, 1998). This means that all knowledge is time- and culture-bound and cannot be taken as once-and-for-all "truth" or understanding (Burr, 1995; Gergen, 1985). This assumption has profound implications for research and practice. Namely, our task as researchers and therapists is not to discover the truth, but rather to explore how cultural understandings function in certain conversations and contexts.

Although social constructionism has endured as a radical critique to philosophical, social, and political ideas for quite some time, its influence in the field of family therapy has begun to gain momentum more recently. In particular, within the last two decades, social constructionist ideas have had a significant impact on epistemological developments within family therapy. For example, family therapists are continuing to focus their attentions away from structural dynamics within the family and, instead, concentrate on the socially constructed conversations and stories that clients present (Monk & Gehart, 2003; Paré, 1996; Paré & Larner, 2004; Rober, 2002). The increased popularity of narrative and collaborative approaches reflect the movement toward social constructionist interventions.

Despite the increased interest in exploring the cultural aspects of interactions, within the clinical literature, conflict between couples generally continues to be conceived as distinct and separate from the social, cultural, and political contexts in which couples live. Indeed, even family therapy, which in most forms strives to shift the focus from the individual to the functioning of the family as a system, has failed to fully appreciate its cultural dimensions (Downing, 2000), and typically "does not take its analysis into the realm of history and culture" (Cushman, 1992, p. 56). For example, the vast majority of the literature in this area is focused on couples' behavioral, insight, emotional, or attachment deficits (Beckerman & Sarracco, 2002; Brown & Brown, 2002; Bush & Folger, 1994; Dawes, 2001; Hecker & Trepper, 2000; Wheeler & Christensen, 2002; Winslade, 2003a). This article, however, serves to illustrate an approach to thinking about conflict in cultural terms. Toward that end, we begin with a brief description of a couple in the midst of a serious conflict, who, a few years earlier, had been enamored with each other. This couple was seen in the practice of the first author, and consent was obtained to have sessions tape-recorded and used for research purposes. …