Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be in a couples therapy group? Can you picture working on issues with your partner in a room with other couples? Do you wonder whether a couples group could really help?
Author Laurie Abraham wondered the same things and received permission to spend a year as an observer in one of the couples groups led by Dr. Judith Coche, psychologist and couple group expert. Laurie Abraham shares her experience in her book, The Husband and Wives Club: A Year in the Life of a Couples Therapy Group .
I had the opportunity to interview Laurie Abraham about her experience in the “The Husband and Wives Club.” You will be informed and surprised by what she shares. I began….
From your experience as an observer who happens to be married, what makes a couple seek help?
Sometimes it is a crisis. In one case, the trigger was coping with an addicted son. I would say that more often it is that the alienation wears on you. There is a sense of loneliness. Partners become ragged by the same arguments over and over again. It is as if the neurobiology can’t take it anymore and with that comes the recognition – “We can’t live like this.”
From what you observed do you feel there is really a value to being in a group with other couples?
Although from the start I had my doubts, I came to see that is was useful to sit in a room with five other couples united in the desire to make time to make their relationships as good as they could be. In a very real way, couples saw how pain looks when it gets played out in front of them. They had to wonder about themselves as they saw how other people got stuck. I think in the case of one young couple it motivated them to change – “If that is where we are heading, we don’t want to go there!”
How did the group leader handle the group?
Dr. Coche was a very experienced and active leader. I think the couples respected her. She would set the stage by asking something like “What do you want to take away today?” In the course of the group, she would often work with a certain couple and ask for input from other members. In addition, over the course of the year, the couples jumped in on their own to point out each others patterns. Someone might begin crying while observing the painful reactions of another couple and then share a similar crisis or loss that they had experienced.
Do you think the couples took risks in the group?
Well at first I thought they were too polite, but not everyone is as constitutionally as volatile as I am. I came to value their style. The fact that they were polite didn’t mean they were dead – they were respectful of each other.
Were there differences in the way men and women responded in the group?
In terms of goals, I think that women have higher expectations for improvement and I think most men want to end the criticism. In terms of the process, some of what I observed really dispelled the myths we have about men and women. For example, I think it is a myth that women are “the empathizers” and men are “the fixers.” Men are just as likely to be empathic with a gesture or a word and women are just as eager to fix. Everyone wants to fix their partner. Sometimes the wish to fix can be a kind of empathy – not the intrusive pressure to fix – but a kind wish to fix that is more benign. It’s in the timing and the tone.
A lot of people fear that couples therapy is the road to divorce – Do you think it can actually make things worse?
I think if you have spent a long period of time not voicing discontent and that comes out in therapy, a lot of people would say that for a while things get worse. BUT it can’t get better until it gets worse. Dr. Coche and the group as a whole can help a couple realize that the way they are living is not acceptable – but divorce is not necessarily the answer. I saw Dr. Coche pushing couples to get air around their ugly dynamics while at the same time fostering hope.
Did you see any changes in the couples in the group over the course of their year together?
I thought they got better at using fewer words and offering more direct heartfelt expressions in touching and connecting with words. Their emotional demeanor changed. I think they observed this in other couples as well as with each other. People know the difference. I saw this kind of change in three of the five couples.
How did the leader, Dr. Judith Coche foster hope?
Judith never failed to point out the small hiccups of progress, the ones people miss. She invited them to consider the big picture of their lives – “What else did they want together?”
She complimented them as people and as a group. Often she confronted them but respected the time they might need to hold on to their old selves. Sometimes she was surprised at a solution that a couple had come up with but if it made them happy – she supported it. One member who was particularly resistant through much of the group made dramatic changes. When I asked that member how the change had happened she said,
“Judith always said that changing actually doesn’t take a lot of time. It’s getting to the point where you’re ready to change that takes time.”
So after spending a year with the “Husband and Wives Club” – Are you left with any lasting impressions about being in a couples group that you would pass on?
I did not go in believing that this could work. I was more impressed than I expected to be. I would say that all the marriages improved – some in unexpected ways. Too often people don’t go public with their pain until it is too late. They hide the ordinary misery, the seeming impossibility of making good on their intentions to feel love and return it.
The people in this couple therapy group were people in relationships like all of us, who were brave enough to get help – to let their marriages matter.