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The Power of the Narrative

By 28 November 2019General
power of narrative

Some would suggest that the last person you expect to talk to you about the creative or the narrative is your lawyer.

The law, by its nature, is so black and white, so clothed in accurate definition and rigid interpretation. But the law does not operate within a vacuum; and certainly not in the context of the breakdown of significant relationships. The emotional narrative which you build around your experience of separation, and the negotiation or agreement in relation to parenting and property settlement matters, is often essential to how well you weather what is often the most stressful period of your life, and what you carry into the future by way of emotional baggage.

A narrative is effectively your story. Perhaps your story of why the relationship broke down, the role played by each of you in that regard, your understanding of why your partner may be engaging in a particular way, and the vision or the hope that you have for your wellbeing and that of your children moving forward.

Many of my clients, understandably, consider that a narrative has been thrust upon them, that their partner has made certain decisions which ultimately mean that they have been burdened with a particular, inevitable and true narrative. It is conceded that it is not as simple as drafting a new narrative and simply deciding to accept it either. It is a much more organic process in the sense that a narrative which is not genuinely held is not one which is likely to provide any level of endurance as time goes on.

An example might be this. Laura and Stephen’s relationship has broken down in circumstances of more immediate infidelity by Stephen but what both describe as a difficult couple of years in which communication, intimacy and happiness was low. Laura potentially might present in a myriad of different ways, but with two potential extremes.

The first will be deeply preoccupied with the rejection and hurt which accompanies the knowledge that her husband has been physical with another woman and at this juncture elected to pursue that relationship over their family life and a relationship with her. The contrasting view would be a narrative whereby Laura acknowledges that ultimately the relationship came to a conclusion because Stephen had moved on but in circumstances where neither of them were happy within the relationship and that that unhappiness was impacting significantly not only upon their own personal wellbeing but also the wellbeing of their children who had been robbed for a prolonged period of the opportunity to see their parents happy and engaging in a way which is consistent with positive role modelling.

The second Laura might describe the opportunity she sees in moving forward, both in the context that she can potentially pursue a lifestyle and/or future relationships which allow her to be happy but also allow her children the freedom to move between two households in which both parents are doing likewise, valuing Stephen’s role as a father and not defining his worth by his ultimate decision to commit an act of infidelity.

The first Laura might well manifest, in many cases, anger towards Stephen of such level that it is difficult, if not impossible, to hide from the children, exposing them to her views with regard to their father’s value or lack thereof, and perhaps creating a narrative in their mind that their father has effectively rejected not only her, but also them, in the context of his act of infidelity and that the appropriate response would be for them to feel likewise towards their father.

Because in the first instance the hurt and the anger is such a focus, the first Laura is unlikely to be able to focus beyond her feelings toward Stephen to the prospect of a future which is more positive or a potential relationship with someone that is transformative or different to that she experienced with Stephen. The first Laura, by nature of her engagement with the children and her inability to potentially appreciate the impact she is having on the freedom they should have to have an open and loving relationship with their father, is likely to end up in Court proceedings which is likely to exacerbate her feelings towards Stephen, cost her dearly financially and emotionally, and potentially create a level of disharmony which will plague the balance of the children’s infancy and adolescence, and preclude that golden ideal of parents being able to cooperate positively for the sake of their children.

Without doubt, a good lawyer needs to challenge a narrative which is less positive rather than simply accept the instructions and the emotion behind them. But a lawyer is not a psychologist or therapeutically trained at the end of the day and, ultimately, some people will require the assistance of a therapeutic process to work through the potential detriment of maintaining or clinging to a narrative when there are alternate stories available; ones that will bring with them greater freedom in the future and potential both for growth and happiness.

Logically there is sometimes a need to move through a narrative from a place where initial feelings of anger move to a gentler place of understanding that behaviour rarely takes place out of a context.

Sometimes, the behaviour of a party is such that the only possible coherent narrative is one which is consistent with the other party being at fault. However, in many respects that fault need not be determinative of your capacity to move beyond the hurt inflicted upon you by that behaviour in the past and your desire to seek out something different in the future, or your recognition that while someone might have been a poor spouse they can still be an appropriate parent. There is a presumption in all of this, namely that ultimately there is benefit in a child having an opportunity and space to know a parent in all their glory, or lack thereof, so that as the consistent and available parent you are not faced with a 16 year old who suggests that they have a viable alternative in going to live with the parent they have spent no time with in the preceding decade only to end up being bitterly disappointed by what they discover when the grass is not greener on the other side.

These are all big topics, big issues, big narratives, big stories. But the ideal is that we challenge ourselves to identify the story from which our behaviour or our instructions arise. Are we going to Court because it is genuinely the only alternative in the circumstances and we need to achieve an outcome which advances the wellbeing of our children, or are we going to Court from a place of anger, retaliation, hurt, or need for some level of vindication; and if the latter is the case, will that narrative, and being stuck in behaviour which perpetuates it, ultimately be the reason why our future is less brilliant than it might otherwise be, and our children more damaged than the situation necessitates.

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