When I planned to write this series of articles, I didn’t plan to make it so complicated and so long! This section has always been my plan. I want to share with you about my experiences to take these adult children’s narrative into individual and couple therapy.
Why? Let me first share with you an inside joke that only “international” students know. When I was a doctoral student, one of an important “training” is to go to conference. These research conferences were a good way to network with people in the same field and to be familiar the most recent research studies.
Being an “international student,” the other function for “us” is to meet up with the other students from the same country. The funny thing is, no matter which conference I attended, when I was able to meet up with some Taiwanese students or faculty, we always ended up talking about “those Americans” and “can you believe those Americans…..?” We all burst into laughs. Even though we might not see each other anymore after the conference, these moments provided a sense of comfort.
What I am trying to say is, as we stood there and shared jokes about “these Americans,” we exchanged certain understanding of some “shared meaning” only people from our country can understand. Even though it was a short moment, it created some bonding.
Dr. John Gottman’s “Sound Relationship House” put “shared meaning” as the roof of a couple’s relationship house. Dr. John Gottman suggested the couples to use different rituals, goals, roles, and symbols to create shared meaning in their couple relationship.
Culture is also a shared meaning created by people from different historical and geographic background represented through different roles, rituals, and symbols.
As a therapist, when I worked with an individual client, I strive to create a shared meaning with my clients through their narratives. When I work with the couples, I help them to understand their narratives to create a shared meaning in their family.
Remember that high school valedictorian’s speech? If you haven’t had the chance to watch it, here it is.
This following transcript from this young lady’s speech showed us the definition of “shared meaning””
“Although we do not all share with the same struggles, and we haven’t gone through the same hurdles throughout life, we do share some of the same sentiments. I know what’s like to be put down, to have your accomplishment and acknowledge to feel powerless. So, at this time, I would like to commend every single one of you here for persevering through your own challenges, for being the resilient human you have proven to be, and for not letting any obstacle stop you from getting here today. We all have struggles, struggles we want to face on our own behind the closed doors because we know if people were to discover that, we will be at our most vulnerable state and never looked at the same way.”
This young lady stated what it meant to have “shared meaning” of battling through struggles and challenges but not giving up. She pointed out this to all of her classmates that “I don’t know the content of your story. However, I understand your struggle, and I commend you for getting here today. I understand your efforts.”
I do not know what’s like to have been the translators for my parents. A very distinctive story I often heard from my Hispanic clients were: “I was xxx years old, and I was sick. My parents took me to the ER. I lost my voice, but I had to translate for my parents because they didn’t know what the doctors said.” My heart ached when I thought about that little girl/boy who tried to support his/her parents when she was in need of care. I have never lived through that experience. However, I knew what’s like to have to “be strong” because I had no one to rely on but myself at my most vulnerable status.
Usually, at this point, I asked my client, “what’s the worst part of the experience for you?” and “ what did you learn from that experience?” Through these two questions, I learned how the clients’ narrative developed in their interaction with the mainstream culture and their home culture. Taking this story as an example, if the child experienced another adult came to rescue to help his/her parents, his/her narrative would be very different from the one who experienced no one helped him/her and his/her parents.
In the couple therapy session, the process gets a little bit more complicated. As a couple’s therapist, my clients are both partners and their relationship. I see myself to help both partners to share their personal narratives to understand the similarities of their narratives. The next step is to decide how the narratives help or hinder their relationship currently. Then, I can assist their process to discuss what are the new narrative they want to establish through what kind of ritual.
Usually, when I identified a specific conflict, such as “control,” I asked the client, “is there a story behind this that made you feel the need to be in control?” As the client shared his/her story, I tried to guide him/her to share the worst part of the experience and what he/she walked away from that experience, specifically, how did that shape his/her narrative to approach life.
Then, I asked the other partners whether he/she can identify the same feelings and the narratives. If he/she came up with the childhood story, I helped them to share the same sentiments with each other.
Then, I asked them to see their similar narratives and to discuss how they want to move forward with this narrative that might currently hinder their relationships.
Once they were able to fully assess these narratives, we move forward to discuss a new ritual or role that can play out in their relationship.
I have found this approach much more effective than the Cognitive Behavioral approach when working with the couples, especially when the partners are from different cultural background. Similar to that “inside joke” I mentioned in the beginning, it is easy to stereotype a person’s behaviors and to make fun of those behaviors based on my expectations, which come from my cultural expectations.
Therefore, the Cognitive Behavioral approach, if not careful, can become a debate between the partners as to what’s “normal” or “acceptable.” I have found that “understanding” how a person makes sense of the world and the story behind the narratives often helps the partners soften from their preferred world view.
So, what do you think about my approach? Do you agree, disagree, or have something to add? Being an immigrant myself, I have found there are many nuances in working with immigrants. I need to find a way to relate to the adult children who try to balance between two cultures and immigrants who try to adapt to the new cultures. I am doing my very best and hope my very best is enough.
Next time, I am going to shift the focus to the Asian population.
Resources: National Research Center on Hispanic Children and Families. The research center provides research findings and tools to help shape the programs to provide for the Hispanic children and families. Still, I have to remind you this: Hispanic is a very broad term. Check your own assumptions and client’s country background to incorporate into your program design.