A Format of Questions for An Alternative Version of a Problem's Relationship to a Couple's Relationship

A Format of Questions for An Alternative Version of a Problem’s Relationship to A Couple’s Relationship

David Epston²


Originally published in Gecko 1997: Vol.1

Practice Notes: the everyday practice and application of ideas in therapy and counselling can generate new thinking and develop more helpful ways of working. However, writing about work in progress or the formulation of new ideas doesn’t always lend itself to the format of a traditional article. So, this section of Gecko is dedicated to shorter descriptions and discussion of developing ideas and work in progress. In short, they are practice notes.

A Format of Questions for an Alternative Version of a Problem’s Relationship to a Couple’s Relationship’

Often when people seek my counsel on behalf of their relationship, it is in a very poor state of affairs. In fact, I doubt if there would be any other ‘object’ of roughly the same importance to people that would be neglected to the same extent before some remedy was sought. At such times the measure of hope that each party brings to counselling is often limited, and their participation is desultory or cautious. It is almost as if they were watching their relationship passing into a state of disuse right before their eyes.

In those relationships that have not been compromised by violence, betrayal, or other injuries, I have been introducing an historical alternative to what I refer to as ‘the Problem’s version of your partner in this relationship of yours’. In exploring this historical alternative, which I refer to as ‘Love’s version’ , I take pains to situate this respective version in the context of the couple’s relationship. This allows for quite disparate descriptions of each partner in other contexts and relationships, e.g., work, friends, family of origin, recreational and gender-specific pursuits, etc. Such descriptions are often at odds with the Problem’s version of each partner and call it into question, e.g., ‘How is it, Jack, that you are such a “good mate” to your mates while the Problem has convinced Judy that you are a “poor mate” to her?’

The possibility of exploring ‘Love~ s version of the partner and the relationship depends, of course, on whether there was such a version of the other and the hoped-for relationship in the first place. Clearly, some partners are now only too willing to acknowledge that they doubted the wisdom of the relationship from the outset, that they believe themselves to be mismatched, or that they were imprudent at the time of their ‘marriage’. Examples of such accounts include: ‘I knew I wanted to end the engagement, but my parents had sent out the invitations and I felt I couldn’t let them down’. Or, ‘I was so lonely at the time, having just moved to a new city knowing no-one’. Even if there are historical ‘traces’ of ‘Love’s version’~ but the couple are too embittered to ‘rewind’ to those times in the past, I would abandon such an interviewing tack.

With those couples who are able and willing to enter into exploring ‘Love’s version’ of each other and the relationship, I have been finding that by interviewing them about this version, the ‘Problem’s version’ becomes less convincing or compelling for a while. I emphasise ‘for a while’ because such recollections, however heart-warming, probably won’t endure if some readily visible actions are not taken by either one or both parties to revive their ‘Love’s version . A couple can experience shock as they reconstruct the history of the erosion of ‘Love’s version’ of each other and their relationship. And if some positive initiatives are not taken to renew their hopes, even greater dismay or sorrow may follow.

In order to illustrate the practice I have been describing here, I have ‘mocked up’ a format of the sort of questions that assist couples in the recall of ‘Love’s version’ of each other and the relationship. Further questions can then be asked to contrast the Problem’s version to Love’s version of their relationship.

Often regret dominates these conversations However, although the ‘old Love’ may never be rehabilitated, there now may be at least a conceptual prospect of a new kind of Love’ and an inkling of the light it might cast on each partner and their relationship.

Suggested Questions tor Exploring ‘Love’s Version’ of a Relationship

1. Were you brought together into this relationship by Love, or was it something else? Perhaps you wanted someone to wash your dirty laundry and prepare meals for you? Or was it something else, like you wanted children and you thought he would provide solid genetic material?

2.What was Love’s version of him/her in the first place? Or, were you blinded by Love in the first place?

  • In spite of those matters that are besetting your relationship, how much of Love ‘s version of him/her still lives on or you in everyday love, in your heart ‘s longings, in your dreams for the future of your relationship?

3.  Has s/he ever been able to put you in touch with Love’s version of who you are in this relationship of yours? Or did Love’s version of him/her subside once you were married? Or after the honeymoon?

  • Did s/he put you in touch with Love’s version of who you are by word or deed?
  • Which of these two communications do you find more convincing? Or do you prefer them mixed up in ‘acts of love/partnership’ or whatever you want to call them?

4.  What has the Problem tried to ‘talk you into’ (is trying to talk you into) about him/her?

  • How is that version of him/her different from Love ‘s version of him/her? Do you prefer to relate to him/her according to ‘Love ‘s version’ of him/her, or according to the ‘Problem ‘s version’?

5.  Has s/he ever been able to contest the Problem(s) version of him/her?

  • Did this support Love’s version of her/him at the same time?
  • Did this renew Love ‘s version of him/her at the same time?
  • Did s/he do this in ways that are different from the ways you had in the honeymoon of your relationship?

6.  Now that this relationship of yours has become troubled/problematic/in peril, etc, how could you describe your relationship to it? Are you becoming more determined to reclaim Love ‘s version of it? Or is your determination waxing and waning? Or what?

  • What has become of Love’s version of each other in these circumstances? At this time?
  • Has Love’s version of him/her become past history and fond memories? Or has Love ‘s version been injured by ‘x’ but is now on the mend? Or is IT terminal and now more a matter for hospice care rather than aggressive treatment?
  • Are you more hopeful/determined than ever to breathe new life into Love ‘s version of him/her? Or are you settled on the Problem ‘s version of him/her and want to leave it at that?

7.  When you were maddened by Love, would you have believed it possible (conceivable) that such a Problem(s) could have done so much damage to Love ‘s version of him/her? Or that the Problem’s version could have substituted itself for Love’s version? Do you marvel at this? Or is this a cause for despair?

8.  Do you now consider yourself betrayed/deluded/deceived by Love’s version of him/her?

  • Is making a relationship that endures more than a matter of Love? What else would you now include in your formula for a relationship in- which Love will not only endure but be augmented?

The approach that I am describing here is still at a very preliminary stage, and at best could be described as ‘one-eighth baked’. Instead of elaborating on it solely in my own practice, I invite readers who might have been developing similar practices, and others who find them interesting, to try them out and extend them. It is my hope that you will join in the formation of a network of practitioners pursuing similar ideas. I can be contacted at The Family Therapy Centre, 1 Garnet Road, Westmere, Auckland, New Zealand


  1. This writing has as one of its sources Michael White’s ‘Couple therapy and deconstruction’. Workshop Handout, AAMFT Conference, 1992, Washington, D.C. In particular, I was taken by what he described as ‘Influence of the Problem Question’, such as: ‘How do you see this problem reflecting on your relationship?’ ‘What sort of opinions have you formed about your relationship since it has been under the influence of this problem?’ ‘In what ways do you think this problem has influenced your interaction with each other?’ ‘In response to this problem, what strategies are you witnessing each other engaging in?’ ‘How do you think these conclusions have affected what you do in this relationship?’ Another source were many conversations with Wally McKenzie, Hamilton Therapy Centre, New Zealand about his practice of invoking an alternative ‘courtship’ or ‘honeymoon’. I would also like to acknowledge Sallyann Roth, Family Institute of Cambridge, Boston, for her careful reading and discerning comments.
  2. David can be contacted at The Family Therapy Centre, 1 Garnet Road, Westmere, Auckland, New Zealand.
  3. I have employed ‘Respect’s Version’ or ‘Friendship’s Version’ when couples have selected those descriptions as the most favourable.
A Format of Questions for An Alternative Version of a Problem's Relationship to a Couple's Relationship