Constructing The Third Reality

How to move from conflict to coexistence

Constructing The Third Reality

This article first appeared in the July/August 2003 issue.

Eleven years ago, I began the Family Dialogue Project–a mediation program to help families torn apart by child abuse allegations work out some sort of rapprochement. My very first case almost jolted me out of ever taking another. Mr. Woods, six feet four inches tall, walked into my office, extended his giant hand, and grinned wolfishly. “Mary Jo Barrett,” he boomed. “So you’re the Queen of Incest. My, my, what a pleasure to be in your royal company!” As I gestured him and his wife into the room and we sat down, I was concentrating on breathing deeply, so I had no clever comeback ready. “You look so demure,” Mr. Woods continued. “I expected the biggest profitmonger of the psychotherapy world to be somehow more imposing.”

I’d invited the Woods in for an initial session after their adult daughter had contacted me a few weeks earlier. Susan Woods had cut off all contact with her parents and two of her three siblings, four years before. She’d accused her father of sexually abusing her when she was a child, which he and most of the family denied. Now, Susan’s niece was quite ill and she wanted to visit the hospital and be a support to her sister, the girl’s mother. This required running the risk of seeing her family. She’d called me hoping that the Family Dialogue Project, which she heard about through a therapist friend, could help her.

Susan’s initial phone call to me was as hostile as her father’s greeting. “I know you think all families need to work things out by talking,” she almost snarled. “My therapist thinks you have some type of narcissistic savior complex. I’m not coming to you to save my family. We’re beyond that. I just need you to lay down the rules for my father so I can see my niece. I have no time for people who doubt my truth.”

“Oh, boy,” I thought. “What harebrained scheme have I gotten myself into this time?”

Since then, I’ve worked with about 85 families in the Family Dialogue Project. Even though many of these families have seemed just as unpromising as the Woods were, the project has in many ways been the most rewarding, if challenging, work of my career. It’s also been a very different kind of work than I’ve always done as a therapist. Conducting family dialogue sessions isn’t about inventing a wonderful, healing narrative that the whole family can embrace, leaving smiles on their lips and grateful tears in their eyes.

This work has the far more basic and limited goal of helping families come to specific agreements about future conduct–how they’ll behave, in very particular detail, with each other from now on. That was something the Woods family and almost every other one in the project has been able to accomplish ultimately.

The Family Dialogue Project grew out of my attempt to help therapists, abuse survivors, and their families caught in the meshes of terrible conflicts from which there seemed to be no relief or exit. During the mid-’80s, the increasing awareness of child sexual abuse in society, buttressed by research indicating that as much as 20 percent of adults had experienced, as children, sexual contact by an adult, produced a groundswell oftherapy clients talking for the first time about being molested during childhood. For almost 10 years, conferences about treating abuse survivors proliferated as psychotherapists, survivors, and self-help guides spread the word about this formerly unrecognized scourge in American society. Thousands of adults confronted their parents and relatives with allegations of childhood abuse. Many of them felt the need to cut off all ties with family members as a way of protecting themselves from further harm.

In 1992, parents whose adult children had made allegations of sexual abuse against them–along with concerned professionals in psychiatry, law, and the social sciences–formed the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF). The FMSF argued that too many therapists who treated abuse survivors had exceeded the bounds of ethical practice and actually implanted memories of abuse into their clients’ minds. Within a few years, the parents of FMSF had succeeded in gaining the kind of sympathy and popular acceptance that it had taken adult survivors decades to win. Within a stunningly brief span of time, the field of child sexual abuse went from an almost sacrosanct social movement to a demoralized group under siege. Clinicians working in the abuse field felt hounded, defensive, and largely directionless, even about the best way to treat their clients. They doubted themselves, questioned and criticized one another’s therapy, argued with each other in contentious workshops. Many simply left the field of battle and refused to treat sex abuse victims or discouraged clients from bringing the subject up.

I designed the Family Dialogue Project to fill a void in the psychotherapy community–to offer something that would bypass the poisonous polemic on each side and give therapists an alternative to running away from the issue of child abuse. I wanted to bring together families torn apart by incompatible and warring realities about the past, in order to create a third, more liveable and peaceful, reality for the future. There’d be no arguing about what “really” happened, no finding out “whodunit,” no uncovering or airing old memories, no attempts to determine whether a memory was true or false. Instead, there’d be conversations about future relationships and negotiations about the boundaries, limits, and structures of the interactions between parties with different realities. This would be a program to help families get out of the quagmire of painful accusations and counteraccusations, blame and defense, contradictory memories and differing experiences that never would, nor ever could, be reconciled.

A Three-Stage Model

As in therapy, usually the person in the most pain makes the first call to the Family
Dialogue Project–sometimes it’s the family from whom a member has cut off; sometimes it’s the one who feels victimized. For example, Nancy, a 35-year-old teacher, married with two children, called me because she hadn’t spoken to her parents or family members in three years. But her sister, Renee, was getting married, and she wanted to go to the wedding, so she was considering the possibility of reconciliation.

Nancy told me that her own therapist thought that reconciliation was a terrible idea–her father had shown no signs of remorse or even recognition that he’d harmed her, and he might be able to hurt her again. Furthermore, Nancy would have to be extra careful about me because I worked with sex offenders and was known to have a “soft spot” for them.

This kind of attitude about me, conveyed by a therapist to a client who’s thinking of working with the project, isn’t unusual.

Stage One

One of my first jobs at this initial stage is often to dispel misconceptions about my role and the purpose of what we’ll be doing. Therapists often assume that my role is to keep the person alleging abuse safe, but, as I always explain, this is not my job. In order to begin the Family Dialogue Project, everyone taking part in the process must feel capable of taking care of themselves. Most people don’t call me unless they’re already feeling secure enough, strong enough, and clear enough about what they want that they don’t need me for anything other than to facilitate an agreement in a very emotional environment. I’ve found that the process is empowering, but that’s not the reason to enter the dialogue. I suggested Nancy talk further with her therapist and to call me if she wanted to continue. I invited the therapist to attend the meeting with Nancy if she decided to pursue to process.

At this early point, my primary objective is making clear to potential participants what the Family Dialogue Project is and what it isn’t. It isn’t therapy per se, or a courtroom to determine guilt or innocence, or a place for granting absolution. Instead, the project provides a context for discussing the family’s future and creating a structure that allows warring parties to live in greater peace with each other, having negotiated clearer boundaries, rules, and roles.

Once we’ve established what the meetings are about, the focus shifts to concrete goals.
Nancy’s goals were easy to elicit: to go to her sister’s wedding; to start having phone conversations with her mother; to visit her ill grandmother; and to be assured that her father wouldn’t touch her in any of their face-to-face contacts. If I think clients’ goals are too ambitious (e.g. insisting that another family member go into therapy) or doomed to meet with failure (wanting a guarantee that no alcohol will be served at any family gatherings), I work with them until their goals become more realistic. I also explain that nothing said by any participant will be kept confidential from any other participant, and that I must have permission to discuss whatever I deem necessary with any family member.

We then decide how to contact the other party–in this case Nancy’s father and mother. I always look for a safe intermediary–a friend, neighbor, relative or therapist–who can approach the estranged person while respecting the boundaries they’ve built. Once we determine the path for the contact, I help write a letter to the other party inviting him or her to contact me and hear about the program. Then we wait. If the other party responds and agrees to participate, I set up a meeting with them to discuss their goals. After Nancy’s parents, Len and Joan, agreed to meet with me, they decided on several goals: to have their daughter back in their lives; to see and participate in their grandchildren’s lives; to have her know that her father is a safe person, who won’t hurt her; and to have other contact with Nancy through phone, e-mail, or letters.

There are as many different goals as there are families. Most of the goals revolve around life-cycle events or changes in a developmental stage–weddings, christenings, graduations, anniversaries. I hear the goals of all involved parties, determine if they’re compatible, and, if they are, we proceed; if the goals aren’t compatible, we work to refine or redefine them.

Once I’ve met separately with the different parties and each side has clearly formulated their goals, I ask for a formal commitment from each person involved. This commitment takes the form of a written contract, signed by each participant, indicating that he or she knows this isn’t therapy and isn’t designed to resolve misunderstandings regarding past behaviors. Rather, it’s intended to facilitate an agreement about how to negotiate their relationship in the future.

Stage Two

Next I begin to focus on my negotiation strategy, anticipating any possible roadblocks to progress. I assess the strengths and vulnerabilities of the different parties involved in the negotiation. I ask them questions about themselves, such as Do you have to win? Are you controlling? Are you creative? Are you rigid or flexible? What kind of communicator are you? How will I know if you’re upset during the process? How do you take care of yourself? What was communication like in the past? I also ask each participant to give me his or her take on the other members of the family. I spend about 60 to 90 minutes planning the negotiations with the various participants.

Nancy told me that her mom was passive and would play the peacekeeper. Joan and Len told me that Nancy had always been very emotional. Len said that he knew he was controlling, but now he was no longer interested in winning–his goal was just to do what he needed to do so that his family would no longer be afraid of him. This is the kind of shift in attitude that I’ve observed in all 80 of the families I’ve worked with so far. (Five decided the program wasn’t for them.) At the time of the cutoff, being right was what mattered most to everyone. As they matured and entered new developmental stages, however, being right lost its luster and ceased to have the same meaning for them.

Connection, even if it’s imperfect, qualified, and not entirely relaxed, becomes much more important than lonely righteousness.

After working for 25 years in the field of abuse, I can predict likely scenarios in the face-to-face negotiations and try to prepare for them. I know, for example, that many people, of either gender, who are accused of abuse are rigid and controlling in nature.

If the alleged victim or I take too much control during the dialogue, more often than not, the anger will escalate, which usually means, among other things, that the alleged abuser will get mad because he/she isn’t in control. So I discussed with Len–who had a lower boiling point than the others–how he’d take “breaks” from the proceedings when he needed to, in order to calm down. I suggested that perhaps he could write out notes so that he could stick to a script and not get derailed in what he wanted to say, and take deep breaths to lower his emotional threshold so he could keep in mind his overall goal of creating connections.

When I determine that we can all work together, I organize the meeting in which we’ll create the “Third Reality” together. During these meetings, conducted face to face with participants singly, in groups, or through shuttle diplomacy, I communicate the options from party to party. Many times, participants bring in their own therapists, which can be very helpful because they can take care of their clients, review the work during breaks, and help them refocus, allowing me to stay focused on the overall outcome. Working without adjunct therapists requires that I be supportive to every participant and maintain my objectivity–an exhausting routine.

When we all meet together, I thank everyone for coming and remind them of the basic rules and format: anyone can call a break whenever he or she feels it necessary (or we’ll break 90 minutes into the dialogue); we’ll stick to the goals each person has already decided on; if anyone at anytime begins to feel unsafe for any reason, he or she will identify the safety concern and I’ll decide, with his or her input, how to handle the situation.

In this case, the safety issue arose immediately and in an extremely dramatic form. Nancy had told me that her father often carried a gun, which he’d keep in a briefcase. When I saw him enter my office with his briefcase, I knew that I had to intervene. With Nancy looking down like a little girl and Joan shaking her head and silently weeping, I asked him if he had a gun in his briefcase. Before any other negotiation could begin, we agreed that he had to put the briefcase away in the trunk of his rental car.

Len was the first to give the opening statement that each participant makes. He started off expressing his love for his daughter and his wish to reconcile, but somewhere in the middle he slipped into his hope that Nancy had learned that she’d gained nothing from cutting them off and that he was pleased that she now realized her error. Nancy and Joan said nothing. Here was an old pattern that required my intervention. “Len, I think you just said something that, in fact, won’t help you meet your number-one goal,” I said. “Do you know what it was? And, Nancy and Joan, your silence looked to me like behavior you both told me you didn’t want to demonstrate during this dialogue. So I’m going to stop the action and ask you all to stop, replay the last few sentences, and try to do it differently in a way that will promote dialogue and negotiation.” They did: Len omitted his self-righteous comments and spoke more warmly about his hopes for connection, and the process continued.

The concrete work of the negotiation begins with a statement by each person of his or her specific goals, along with ideas about how to meet these goals. Then, one by one, each person tries to clearly define what’s needed and expected for these goals to be met. It’s at this point–during the nitty-gritty talk about who’ll do what, when, where, and how–that participants often become frustrated and irritable. No matter how I prepare them, they usually expect that somehow the “whole mess” will magically disappear and everything will evolve into some idealized state of harmony and wholeness–as if there never had been any problem to begin with. It’s never so simple.

In this case, for example, I had to remind Nancy to be realistic. She might want to remain distant from her parents during the entire wedding and reception, but with a couple of hundred people milling around, it might be impossible to guarantee that she’d never be face to face with one or both of them. Other people unwittingly might throw them together. And when Len became angry because he felt Nancy had determined he was guilty and, in her thoughts, had consigned him to prison for life, I reminded him that Nancy did still think he was guilty. If he wanted any type of connection with her, he must negotiate around these boundaries.

I write down the give-and-take of both parties and distill from the notes the final agreement on each goal discussed. By the end of three hours, we’d discussed two of Nancy’s goals and two of her parents’ goals. Typically, we ended the day feeling discouraged and wondering how we’d continue the next day. But I’ve learned from experience that, if we’ve followed the structured process and I’ve prepared the groundwork thoroughly enough, everyone comes back the next day with new energy and creative ideas for negotiating.

Each negotiation is different. Sometimes I take a very active role in helping to create solutions and compromises when both parties are stuck. I share my opinions, my experience from past dialogues, and words of encouragement and praise. I remind them of their strengths and positive intentions if they begin to resort to hurtful behavior. I might even call a break and meet with the different parties individually to get them back on track. I sometimes just remind them to breathe. And then there are other families who need very little from me except to keep track of the time. By this stage, there’s a flow of negotiations, back and forth, defining and redefining solutions until we reach a workable conclusion.

The next day brought a shift. Within an hour and a half of starting the session, Nancy, Len, and Joan had decided that she and her mother would talk once a week, and that her mother would visit for the birthdays of Nancy’s children during the next year. Depending on how the wedding went, they’d have a three-way phone conversation and decide on one holiday to celebrate as an extended family during the year. Nancy would e-mail her father once a month and be the gatekeeper determining what information about her life she wished to share. Len would honor whatever boundaries she decided to set. If there were violations of the contract, they’d first try to handle their responses to these violations themselves. If anyone deemed it necessary, they’d contact me. They also agreed to meet in a year to review the agreement and possibly make changes or additions.

Stage Three

The final stage of the process begins when I type up the agreement–what each party agreed to do under which circumstances and the consequences agreed on if either party fails to live up to their own promises. I also include the process they’ve agreed to use if they decide to make any changes in the agreement, as well as provisions for a meeting to update it, which may be with or without a facilitator. Then, all parties sign the entire package with me as a witness. We finish the stage by reviewing our time together. We discuss what we all did well and what we learned from the process. Almost always I feel energized at this point and honored to be part of a family’s effort to learn from the past and make the future better for themselves and the younger generation.


Nancy and her family finished their first dialogue six years ago. Two years after the first
Family Dialogue meeting, her entire family-of-origin sat down with her father and told him that none of them would visit him or invite him into their homes unless he disposed of all his guns. Deciding that what was important to him was to have his kids in his life–not maintain the biggest gun collection in the state–Len begrudgingly agreed.

I’ve seen the family twice since then. They spend many holidays together. Nancy even accepted her parents’ invitation to go on their family’s cruise to celebrate their 50th anniversary. I asked her if she ever worried about her safety or that of anybody else.

“No,” she said. “I know I’m strong enough to protect myself. I’ve gotten what I want. I see my family, but I also know my truth, and I’m free to make my choices.”

The Family Dialogue Project is a negotiation process, not therapy. And yet, like all good therapy, it’s grounded in reality and the possibility that people can grow, change, and begin to make more mature decisions about what truly matters to them. Unlike therapy, however, it assumes participants have already achieved enough emotional stability and insight to abandon their old, cherished illusions–that those “on the other side” will at last see the error of their ways and all misunderstandings will magically vanish in an epiphany of togetherness. Participants have usually learned through painful experience that a reasonably satisfying connection is more valuable than holding on to their righteousness or to old myths of the perfect family; ending the war has become more important than winning it. Time, participants now know, is short, and love and connection are precious and fragile. So even though I know and repeatedly tell people that Family Dialogue isn’t therapy, the resolution of these cases does seem therapeutic–people leave feeling happier, more optimistic, better prepared for the future, and maybe even wiser than when they came in.


Mary Jo Barrett

Mary Jo Barrett, MSW, is the founder and director of Contextual Change and coauthor of Treating Complex Trauma: A Relational Blueprint for Collaboration and Change and The Systemic Treatment of Incest.