Can Group Therapy Help Marriage

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Here, Laurie Abraham who is an author of book The Husbands and Wives Club: A Year in the Life of a Couples Therapy Group answers questions about how therapy helped the couples and how her view of marriage changed.

Q: Did therapy help these couples?

A: It did help them. I followed the group for two years (one year in therapy, one year follow-up), and they all improved remarkably. The couple who was worst off – Marie and Clem, who everyone thought should get a divorce – has had their marriage transformed and they are having more sex now than they ever did. I couldn’t believe it. The other couples improved, as well. Most couples stay in the group around two to three years, but one couple in the group were in their tenth year. The therapist had never had anyone stay that long. They were both in their late 50s and had a serious sexual problem but they really wanted to stay married; the only way they could stay married was to continue working on this problem through group therapy. They actually went from him having anxiety-induced impotence to being able to have sex. A lot of people wouldn’t be willing to go to therapy for that long, but they considered it a success.

Q: What was it about the therapeutic process that helped these couples?

A: It took real time, but I think they were able to figure out what was making them angry and how they contributed to the knot of unhappiness as time went on. For Marie and Clem, they would revert back to old habits but they kept practicing. Marie worked on other parts of her life, like becoming more satisfied in her professional life, which made a huge difference. It was a slow process of trying to get down to whether there was enough they appreciated and enjoyed about each other to keep this marriage going. And they found that – but it wasn’t easy.

Q: Why do you think group therapy was more beneficial for these couples than one-on-one therapy?

A: Well, I think one-on-one therapy can be equally valuable, but what I think is particularly good about [group therapy] is that it gives some people a sense of dignity about the process of trying to save their marriage. Hey, we’re not the only ones; look at these other people who really care about making their marriages better places to live. At a more practical level, people see themselves in the other marriages, and get ideas about what they do and don’t want to do, how they might think about their relationship differently. There is also a prod to change – if they can do it, maybe we can too!

Q: Did researching the book change the way you view long-term marriage?

A: Yeah, it actually inspired me. It made it seem possible to have really serious crap between each other and come out of it with respect for each other and the history you have. When you’re married a long time, there are a lot of compelling reasons not to get divorced. But, for me, if you can’t have some day-to-day pleasure, it’s hard. It made me think that if things get bad you can actually turn it around.

Q: What did you learn about what it takes for a marriage to survive?

A: These couples were most successful when they were able to use fewer words to describe what they wanted from each other. But first they had to figure out what they wanted from this person – which isn’t easy at all. Sometimes you have to be willing to say, “I don’t know what I want, but I don’t like either of my options. What can we do about that?” But if you can state things clearly and not get hung up on proving your point, you can often get somewhere.

Also, some of the most powerful moments in the group were simple declarations of caring about someone. If you’ve been married, you understand this. If you do appreciate something about your spouse – even if it’s just, “nice shirt, dude” – you should say it because it’s so easy to stop that altogether because of the way domestic life works. I find it myself. You get shy. In a long-term relationship, there’s so much that comes up between you – the kids, your families, your jobs and whatever bitterness or estrangement there is – that you get shy about saying things you would have easily said in your earlier days. You have to be a little bit brave and willing to make the first move to say or do something kind. It’s amazing what one small gesture can do to chip away and make your spouse more generous – even if they’re not reciprocated right in that moment.

Another key is the ability to make up well. You really have to be a grown-up in a lot of unappealing ways. It’s very tempting to just gird for battle. You’re offended and you just want to go for it.

Q: Is there anything else readers can take away and apply to their relationships?

A: One thing the book shows is that there are often things that disgust us about our spouse. And instead of being disgusted, it’s interesting to think about what part of you wants that part of them. What disowned dream or fantasy is disgusted by that part of them? You see how people really do tend to take polarized roles in relationships, and they’re attracted to people who are going to fulfill the opposite role – but at the same time, they’re repelled by them.

You also create the person you marry, to a certain extent. It’s not just that you fall in love with a total opposite. They might have a predilection, but we tend to stoke those qualities in the other person – unconsciously, but still. If what you know about love is that one person is powerful and the other person allows themselves to be walked over, then if you become the powerful one you will help that other person feel weak. And it works in reverse. But you can change the framework of how you think, and ask what those things say about you.

I also think that people tend to look at their friends and pick out a few marriages that seem really good and wish they were just like them. But one thing I learned from this book is that you really don’t know what’s going on in someone’s marriage unless you’re inside their heads. To me, two of the couples didn’t even seem like they needed therapy at first. It’s silly to start wasting energy thinking that you or your marriage is not enough because you don’t think you measure up to what you think those other people have.

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