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Couples Group Therapy

Laurie Abraham’s portrait of couples group therapy for the New York Times Magazine is riveting. In part, that’s because it’s a rather conventional narrative that develops its protagonists through their own transformative self-discovery while god, otherwise known as therapist Judith Coché, pulls strings to bring about that transformation. As much as that, it’s a snapshot of how marriage is developing among us:

When Coché lists the virtues of the group over other forms of therapy, she cites the “Greek chorus” effect, a term that captures how members begin to harass one another, if politely, about the habits corroding their marriages. “In a group, there’s an experience of being held accountable for one’s own behavior,” Coché told me, adding that it’s more powerful to be called out—or cared for—by a civilian than by a professional. “I’m a paid consultant. I’m a nonperson.” Other benefits she cites are the often-silent products of group dynamics. No matter how ultimately prosaic their woes, members are startled to see reflections of themselves in the other marriages—My God, I do that, too—and if one person musters the strength or resolve to make a change, somebody else may consciously or unconsciously follow. The principle of isomorphism also comes into play, she said, meaning that as people forge intimate connections within the group, the enriching encounter in that system may spread to the other system: the marriage.

Finally, Coché extols the “community” in which the group envelops couples. As panoramically documented by historians like Stephanie Coontz, marriage used to exist in a web of extended-family obligations. For the upper classes, its purpose was to magnify wealth and power; for the lower, to choose a spouse who could contribute sweat or material goods to the small business that was each household. Gradually, with industrialization and the movement of jobs outside the home, love replaced communal economic imperatives as the glue between husbands and wives, striking two blows to the institution. First, romantic love isn’t known for its long-lasting adhesive properties; and second, no one is as deeply invested in a marriage as the two people in it….

Romantic love has its limits, in other words, a fact that shouldn’t be any great surprise, but is a real deficit in our culture’s definitions of love. Indeed, after describing a series of brutal group sessions through which the protagonists begin to see their own impishness, the point of the group is revealed to be an attempt to understand the inevitable disappointment that comes when romance’s edges are found.

In “Intimate Terrorism,” Michael Vincent Miller theorizes that marriage, like childhood, has developmental stages, the most dangerous of which, following the heady romantic period, can be summed up as: This person, or this union, isn’t at all what I imagined. What can easily happen at this point, he writes, is that because modern marriage is “under so much pressure to provide so many levels of fulfillment,” because “love and sex are so thoroughly… bound up with one’s sense of identity as a man, as a woman,” people become consumed with feelings of failure, feelings that are so unbearable that spouses lash out at their partners rather than apprehend their own panic or contribution to the decline.

The core problem, he goes on, is that our culture doesn’t teach us “to fail gracefully or fruitfully.” Instead, “our notion of the comeback is an attempt to recapture original glory.” The husbands and wives who can move beyond terrorizing each other, or avoid doing so in the first place, he speculates, are those who can first acutely experience their profound disappointment in their inevitably changed circumstances: “Unlike jealousy, cruelty, or boredom, disappointment contains secret hints of mutuality…. It is not such a long stretch from disappointment to empathy.”

Obviously, I left out the therapy narrative—it’s worth reading, of course, to see how this theory is put into practice—and I left it out because I wanted to emphasize the ideas in play. I take disappointment here to be a more complex emotion than, say, being disappointed that your son threw two interceptions and lost the game for his team; rather, disappointment is akin to angst, a sense of the limits of things, of discovery that flaws in personӕ often endure, that a character’s commendable traits aren’t without limits. It’s also a confronting of the discrepancy between one’s own expectations about an other’s, no matter how significant, behavior, a realization that those expectations might never have been realizable. Disappointment in this sense is necessary—it’s how we recognize each other’s autonomy, which is to say, with Miller, it’s how we discover empathy. That is a necessity in all relationships, not the least long-term ones.

 

Comments

That’s a great realization… When first reading it, it seemed disappointment was too strong a word (or as you point out, too weak).

Relatedly, and I think you get towards this with your discrepancy bit, it’s about realizing that their is failure and weakness in you and not just in your partner.

So, how does one go about teaching this, learning this acceptance of failure, disappointment, and the waning of romantic love?

Is this one of those things that some people just get, and we don’t know why, and some people don’t?

(Yeah, I realized about twenty minutes after posting that I needed to elaborate my own point further.)

It’s a great question how to teach it, but I wonder if disappointment’s primarily a realization that must be revealed in experience, in the sense that one must discover and feel that eros is only a tiny portion of love. I mean, it’s really wisdom we’re talking about, isn’t it? The promise of couples group therapy in this case is to develop points of comparison and contrast across history and across persons—in the article, the most profound exclamations by group members are cries of “I do the same thing, and it’s just like my own parents!” That’s really a process of expanding repertoires of love. Similarly, the psychologist in the story asserts toward the end that many people have made many different kinds of marriages work, and it’s worth acknowledging that fact as a way of building understanding.

So I don’t know if it’s really a case that some people get it and others don’t so much as it is a case that some people are open to it more than others, and discovering why that’s the case may be the only real means by which persons change.

I wondered for a moment whether churched people are more apt to recognize this because they like to emphasize the differences between agape and eros, but—at least IME—that’s generally presented as an academic distinction without significant exploration of its meaning. For that reason, churched people are only slightly better prepared, if at all, for this kind of angst.

FYI, By “academic distinction” I mean primarily that agape is generally identified as something that primarily Jesus and/or God does, with too little real exploration of its expression in compassion, for example, or charity, or goodness. My experience is probably not the same as yours, obvs.

Given divorce rates among churched, though there are myriad reasons why people go their own way… i don’t know that they do.

Spanish has the word desengaño: disillusion… that means to realize the error of your ways, to open your eyes to reality, to no longer believe the lie…

the strange thing to me about this… is how it seems that many people don´t get this concept…

but, it´s more than a concept, in the end. after all, romantic love is quite euphoric. and, someone who might very well get the concept may choose to go with the drug rather than the drudge…

Or they could do it the French way and go for both drug and drudge.

well, we´ll try not let B see that you are gonna go all Jacques Chirac on her…

Oh, I’d never dream of it. The French way only works because it is societal, and thus many women don’t have tremendous difficulty accepting affairs. They may even, I’m told, respect their husband less if he doesn’t have an affair.

Hmmm…is there something positive to that, though…? A built-in admission that eros and romance are not the substance of marriage, as is so often thought?

and, a tacit-societal acknowledgment that we come from promiscuous apes and that polygamy is encoded in our genes

Gross! Now you’ve taken it too far!

As I’ve never been married (and only rarely observed a successful marriage—or any kind of marriage, really), I can’t add much to the discussion. It does seem to me, though, as though the disappointment or disillusionment that you have to get through are somewhat akin to the realization that you are not the cleverest or most original person out there—the great Twain line about thinking his father was the stupidest man he’d ever met when he was 18, and then thinking, at 23, how remarkable it was how much the old man had learned in five years.

It seems to me too that the resistance to admitting and working through this disappointment is related to the quest for certainty and attainment of perfection: a stasis which ought not to ever change. If this is the goal then marriage disappointment is a deal breaker…but if you come to understand that it isn’t, you may work your way into empathy.