The Relational Universe draws on the power of metaphor to illustrate what we mean by relationship-centred practice. It conceptualises relationships in the broadest sense, recognising that when it comes to relationships, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. By providing a way of looking at all the relationships that surround a person or family, the Relational Universe widens the focus on both each individual relationship that has significance – for better or worse – and the entirety of the relational constellations in someone’s life.
Importantly, the Relational Universe emphasises that human beings are interdependent. We are all part of other people’s Relational Universes, just as others are part of ours. They might be close to us or be farther in the distance. Their presence might have a strong gravitational pull on us or less of an effect. They might be looming large or play a smaller role, perhaps like distant stars guiding us. Some of the relationships will have been there since our birth, others may have been recent additions to our Relational Universe. Each of these relationships has meaning, albeit in a multitude of different ways, with a wide variety of emotions and needs connected to every single relationship. Some might be toxic or laden with trauma, whilst others are characterised by love and a strong bond of trust – there’s a story to each and every relationship. All of these aspects mean that our Relational Universe is in a constant state of movement, with ever-changing dynamics that can make it hard to find a comfortable state of equilibrium. In this sense, the Relational Universe applies both to us as professionals – because we’re human beings too – and to the people we support in our practice.
Application to Practice
In social pedagogical practice, the metaphor enables us to engage in dialogue with the person we support and to learn more about the relationships that affect them. Once we better understand their Relational Universe – how they see and feel about both individual relationships and the overall constellation of relationships – we can explore how we might best support the person in developing and maintaining these relationships, or in forming new relationships. In this sense, the Relational Universe is a solution-focussed model, encouraging us to look together towards what can be different rather than what has happened in the past and can’t be changed.
In the below tabs we explain how the model can be applied to practice with looked-after children and in adult social work in order to illustrates the value of the Relational Universe. The model has equal significance when working social pedagogically with any other group of human beings throughout the life course, particularly people who experience loneliness.
The below excerpt is adapted from our contribution to the Therapeutic Care Journal:
The Relational Universe of a child in care can be quite curious. There is no shortage of people appearing like a multitude of distant stars in a universe and disappearing long before they’ve even become visible. But there are also others, those who are close enough to develop a gravitational pull, who become central to the child’s relational universe. This is true for every person, yet what is different for children in care is the ways in which their Relational Universe is often thrown out of equilibrium by decisions outside their control: placement moves resulting in loss of friends, school changes as well as new carers, limitations to family contact, changing social workers, gaining new friends. The frequency with which many children in care experience such upheaval and its potentially negative consequences makes it imperative to put greater emphasis on developing and sustaining relationships. We argue that a social pedagogical perspective with children’s Relational Universe at the heart of care and educational practice can provide a useful and visually stimulating framework that considers all past, current and future relationships that surround a child in care. (The model is of course not limited to children in care and can equally be applied to working with families, elderly people or any other individuals, groups and communities.)
The importance of positive relationships for children in care and leaving care is becoming clear; however, the ‘how, who and when’ is often driven by real and perceived barriers, resources and professional roles. Many children in care have fragmented relationships in communities and once they leave care will often attempt to return to them, even if this exploration is painful when relationships are not as ideal as expected. To identify these relationships early on is crucial to nurturing them and establishing a supportive emotional and social network during their time in care and also for their move to in(ter)dependence. Josh MacAlister’s (2022) Independent Review of Children’s Social Care in England noted that:
‘[This report] is rooted in the belief that society’s first task is to care for children. To do this our children’s social care system must get alongside and strengthen the families and communities that children grow up in, and that are often the source of love and belonging. This is a simple idea that has proved notoriously difficult to realise. Realising this idea now, will require a radical reset of our children’s social care system. This starts with a new approach to the help we offer families raising children in tough circumstances, offering families responsive, skilled and intensive support. It means a more decisive and focused child protection response, led by those with the greatest expertise because a minority of parents cannot change quickly enough or may seriously harm or fail to protect their children. It means unlocking the potential of wider family networks to care for children. When care is needed, it means providing loving relationships and homes that are healing. It means nurturing the foundations for a good life for the care experienced community: to be loved, excel in education, have a good home, have purposeful work and to be healthy.’
The Promise, Scotland’s Independent Care Review (2020), goes even further than that in making the case for relationships. It states that:
‘To ensure the experience of being loved is possible and much more probable, Scotland must create an environment and culture where finding and maintaining safe, loving, respectful relationships is the norm. That will involve fundamentally shifting the primary purpose of the whole of Scotland’s ‘care system’ from protecting against harm to protecting all safe, loving respectful relationships.’
‘The children that Scotland cares for must be actively supported to develop relationships with people in the workforce and wider community, who in turn must be supported to listen and be compassionate in their decision-making and care. Everyone involved in the lives of children and families must know that their primary purpose is to develop nurturing, patient, kind, compassionate, trusting and respectful relationships that keep children and families safe.
The workforce must be supported to bring their whole selves to work so that their interaction with children is natural and relational.
Friendships and relationships with people in the workforce and wider community are important. These relationships may be where children find the love and care they need.
Children in care must be actively supported to develop connections and relationships. Relationships must not be prevented by an assumption that children may come to harm and / or face unnecessary risk. All children, whether cared for at home or removed from their family, must be supported to participate in wider family
and community networks. Children must have opportunities to build a range of relationships that are similar to ‘grandads’ or ‘aunties’.’
For children in care, their universe includes many professionals who have involvement at different times, often entering the close universe and latterly moving to a more distant position as their role changes. This doesn’t mean that this relationship which has been established disappears; it may be that the gravitational pull of this professional decreases, but they will still remain within the universe and perhaps move closer again as the needs of the child change. For example, a foster carer may move into the further reaches of the universe, but when the young person experiences a crisis after leaving care they may re-establish this relationship by having their former carer in their near universe for a period of time for support they can offer. Even if not in close proximity, the knowledge that this support is there may in itself be sufficient. It is therefore crucial that we professionally support such ‘planetary movement’ in children’s and care-experienced young people’s Relational Universe.
The Relational Universe also acts as a reminder that we mustn’t exclude those individuals we may not see as ‘ideal’ from a professional assessment, such as a grandparent who has used alcohol in the past. Once a young person has left care, these are often the people they turn to and, if engaged early on, they could play a vital long-term supportive role in the young person’s life. Recognising that they are part of the Relational Universe – whether or not we like this as professionals – can help us put a clear emphasis on the assets rather than the deficits of these people, which is key to this process.
Children in care are often cautious of relationships with adults or resentful as their previous experiences may have been very negative, so a primary task is for professionals to offer a safe environment where they can model positive, trusting relationships for the child and allow them to build trust in others. Over time, this can then extend to other relationships in the child’s universe, including those outside the looked-after environment. A social pedagogical approach is a key factor in the ‘why and how’. Nurturing children’s sense of empowerment plays a crucial part in this and can be achieved in a number of ways, including non-judgemental acceptance of children’s views and choices of who to develop relationships with, while offering safeguards, supporting children in differentiating which relationships are positive for their well-being and which ones aren’t and how they themselves can cultivate their Relational Universe.
With the metaphor of the Relational Universe we aim to highlight that human beings are intricately connected and interdependent. This is often undervalued in social care practice, where it is independence that remains the stated end goal in preparing looked after children for leaving care. Rather than suggesting that human beings are constantly dependent on others, interdependence conveys mutual support, reciprocity and a strong, reliable social network with a multitude of different connections. Within the Relational Universe, some of the connections may be temporary, some may have a strong and lasting impact, some might be considered positive and others problematic or even toxic. Irrespective of any attributes or judgments we as professionals might use to describe certain relationships, there can’t be any doubt that they are part of the child’s universe. Each of these people will bring some positive aspects to the life world of the child, which are potentially neglected by professionals and needed by the child in their universe to sustain their further interdependence.
The below example of using the Relational Universe is provided by Nicole Ashworth, a Social Worker, ASYE and Student Lead at Middlesbrough Council:
I recently completed a course called “Developing Relationship-Centred Practice”. During this course, we were introduced to different social pedagogical concepts. I would like to focus further on one of those concepts, as this one really resonated with me.
The concept of the Relational Universe is based on using the universe as a metaphor of someone’s relationships and support systems. It is linked to systems theory. Maclean and Harrison (2015) suggest that systems theory incorporates the forming of a web, or system. The person is connected to other people who can be family, friends and wider organisations. This system should sustain and enrich people. However, it is also recognised that someone’s support system can be placed under strain due to ever changing circumstances.
We were asked to draw the Relational Universe of someone we are working with. I chose to draw the universe of someone I have recently supported. For the purpose of the activity, I called her Marie, which is not her real name. Marie has experienced abusive relationships which have led to longstanding problems with drinking alcohol to excess.
In Marie’s universe, I placed her at the centre as the glowing force in this. She can be fiery at times, but also she is naturally the central focal point. Marie lives on her own. Her husband passed away years ago, and their children were removed when they were young. I depicted them as stars in the distance. Whilst they are no longer physically there, they continue to shine for Marie in her memories. Marie’s most important factor in her life is her dog, which I drew close to her. A little further along in the constellation is her friend, who I imagined as a small red planet. The reason why I chose red, an alarming colour, is because her friend has her own issues, and she and Marie can negatively influence each other. They appear to have a symbiotic relationship (although it is not for me to judge this). Marie would have probably not chosen red to describe her friend! Further down in the universe, there are two black holes which represent the alcohol. They have a strong pull on Marie and influence her a lot. In the left hand corner we have a beautiful, sparkling and rare shooting star. The shooting star in Marie’s universe stands for previous professionals who were involved in her life, and there were lots of them! Initially they were keen to support her, but Marie finds it difficult to build and maintain relationships. She easily withdraws her engagement. So, these shooting stars appear in her life or “knock on her door” and, as quickly as they appear, they disappear again; if you blink you miss them. Shooting stars are seen as something amazing and rare, something you’re lucky to have seen. People make a wish and wait for it to come true. How many times did Marie wish for someone to come along and understand her? And I don’t mean: “Yeah, I totally get you. Let’s get you sorted!” No, what I mean is for professionals to use their empathy to fully explore Marie’s feelings and thoughts and her reasons for non-engagement with professionals. The new social worker is depicted as a small blue planet, almost blending into the background and sitting on the periphery for now, until Marie invites them to move closer into her universe’s constellation.
I found the concept of the Relational Universe extremely valuable in order to explore relationships. It really made think about how I perceive the relationships someone has, and how the person, in this case Marie, would view them. I have no doubt that she would have had a very different constellation of planets and forces if she would have drawn her own universe. As professionals, we sometimes want to feel as if we are the most important person in someone’s life, as we want to be the agents of change. However, looking at our own universe, do we perceive our GP or dentist to be a big influencing factor in our lives? Of course not, they are metaphorically on a different planet! This concept really helped me to analyse relationships more deeply, and it acts as a stark reminder of how privileged we are to be part of someone’s universe.