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Narrative Couples Therapy: The Power of Externalization

four-hands-heldThe 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 prevent 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, and uses the technique of externalization to distinguish this separation. 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.”

Through externalizing conversations, the many contexts and discourses that have reinforced a problem’s definitive stature are removed, allowing the problem to stand independently.  Externalizing questions subverts the problem’s power by undermining conclusions that have gone unquestioned. This also creates 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.

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

Externalizing language can also be used for discussing solutions and resources. Externalization can invite a couple’s sense of agency, bringing forth a reinvigorated engagement with the couple’s skills, abilities, and knowledge.

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

Externalizing can be viewed as producing a binary between the person and the externalized problem. Through a postmodern or social constructionist lens, binary configurations are seen as forms of closure, where meanings become fixed and decontextualized. Johnella Bird (2004), whose work is strongly identified with narrative therapy, describes the importance of what she terms “relational language.” Bird suggests using relational language as a way to resist creating binaries between person and problem.

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?


Couples’ use of externalization often frees “imagination” and “hope” from the confinement and weight of relational problems. Externalization generates opportunities for couples to collaboratively construct the preferred stories of their relationship. As a narrative therapist with a passion for couples 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. Auckland, New Zealand: Edge Press.

© Copyright 2009 by Lucy Cotter. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Rick

    December 2nd, 2009 at 2:08 PM

    I sure do wish that someone could have introduced this concept to me when me and my ex wife were going thbrough our divorce. Our problems in hindsight became what the marriage was all about. That came to define who we were and what we were to each other which is obviously not a healthy way to live in a relationship. We were never able to separate our problem from ourselves and so the marriage came to an end. I am not saying that this kind of exploration would have necessarily helped us but it hwould have at least been worth a shot. We spent all of our time at marriage counseling moaning about how bad the other person was and never really made any headway.

  • cody

    December 2nd, 2009 at 3:40 PM

    It is really surprising when I read about we humans paying little attention to some things while showering other aspects with a great amount of attention. But all of us do it all the time, and this needs to be thought about. We should try and stop paying attention to negative things instead of giving them too much attention!


    December 3rd, 2009 at 11:08 AM

    Whatever maybe the issue, it needs to be seen and dealt with with maturity from a couple and thinking of both the partners as one and the same. There should not be any me and you, but only we…

  • Lucy Cotter

    December 14th, 2009 at 11:01 AM

    It’s great to hear people’s thoughtful responses. I agree that where we focus our attention strongly influences how we perceive our relationships.

    Narrative therapy bring an awareness that there are many ways to tell our stories. As Rick commented, if we defer to the dominance of problem stories there is often a closure of new perspectives and possibilities.

    Thanks everyone for your comments!


  • Prosper Mushauri

    December 14th, 2013 at 3:39 PM

    Externalised language carries within it freedom to the clients to in life differentiate them selves from the problems they face. It also helps to free clients from problem saturated stories which form thin discriptions and then this externalised talk sets the tone for thick description stories as it helps clients realise or have some ‘aha’ experiences that they also have good patches in life via externalized talk.
    Thank you

  • Simbarashe M.

    October 29th, 2016 at 2:36 AM

    That was a very thoughtful presentation, I managed to grasp the Narative therapy very well, infact I really mastered it. Certainly clients need to distant theirselves from the causal of their problems regardless of their nature and focus more on the problem resolution together without blaming anyone as this will become fruitful in eradicating misunderstood conflicts.

    Thank you

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