ABSTRACT: This ethnographic investigation was concerned with the way mental health nurses’ construct their practice in an acute inpatient psychiatric unit in light of the current challenges, demands and influences brought about by service reforms of the 1990s. The setting for this study was a 22-bed acute inpatient mental health facility. Over a 5-month period, data were collected through fieldwork observations, focused interviews and discussion groups. In this article, common cultural practices in relation to the imperatives of relationships, power, restrictions and safety are discussed. The findings demonstrate how the client stabilization role of the unit locates these imperatives as central to the delivery of nursing care. The discussion reveals nurses negotiating relationships that are contradictory and challenging in ordinary and everyday ways within the exigencies of daily practice.