Something Worth Fighting For

Can This Marriage Be Saved? by Laurie Abraham is the New York Times Magazine’s feature story August 12, 2007, online here, A year in the life of a couples-therapy group. Some quotes:

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.

Can This Marriage Be Saved? by Laurie Abraham is the New York Times Magazine’s feature story August 12, 2007, online here, A year in the life of a couples-therapy group. Some quotes:

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.

The group is something of an answer to the latter problem, Coché says — the modern equivalent perhaps of the village that Michael Vincent Miller, a psychologist, depicts when lamenting the isolation of modern couples in his 1995 book, “Intimate Terrorism.” What would it be like, he writes, “if as in the Puritan villages of old, representatives from the larger community were to step in, calm the two down, stress the larger social importance of their well-being and offer support and help by redirecting the couple’s energies away from mutilating each other toward something more cooperative.”

Do these groups work?

What every married person who has considered couples therapy wants to know is whether it works. But while there is a fair amount of research on the question, it isn’t particularly illuminating. Two years after ending therapy, studies suggest, about 70 percent of couples report being more satisfied with their marriages, citing lowered levels of conflict, for example, and better communication skills. Less encouraging, however, is the finding that the reforms don’t often catapult couples into the realm of the happily married, according to Jay Lebow, a psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University who specializes in interpreting studies in the field.

What studies — pioneered by John Gottman, a psychologist and emeritus professor at the University of Washington — have rather convincingly shown are the marital patterns likely to result in divorce. In his famous “love lab,” the Family Research Laboratory, Gottman observed more than 3,000 couples during three decades of research, analyzing their discourse, including arguments, and recording their physiological responses. What he concluded is that it wasn’t whether people fought — 69 percent of his subjects never resolved their conflicts — but how they fought. The relatively happy couples did not escalate disagreements; they broke tension with jokes and distraction and made “repairs” after arguments. When wives raised issues gently, for example, neither partner’s heart rate exceeded 95 beats per minute and the ratio of positive to negative comments during a fight was an amazing five to one.

But how do couples become what Gottman calls “masters of marriage,” the most contentedly married couples? He and his colleagues are collecting data on a type of marriage counseling they designed based on the insights from the love lab, but the consensus of the research to date is that no single therapeutic model — for individuals or couples — outshines any other. Investigators have repeatedly tried to single out specific “therapeutic factors” that can distinguish good therapy from bad, and the only unequivocal winner is what’s termed a “positive therapeutic alliance,” meaning the client feels that the therapist exhibits qualities like empathy and support.

Jay Efran, a psychologist and emeritus professor at Temple University who surveyed the last 25 years’ worth of trends in therapy in an ambitious recent article in Psychotherapy Networker, has another idea about what makes for an estimable therapist. He suggests that therapy boils down to a facility for conversation and therefore is a creative and contingent act that does not lend itself to formulas. “The profession has gotten itself into a bind,” he told me recently, “because it wants to be seen as a science and it wants to collect money, and it has made this category mistake of thinking it provides treatments for diseases and not just conversation or community or human contact or offering new slants on life.”

Efran’s notion is an appealing way to conceive of Coché’s talent. Because while she has read and trained extensively in several schools of therapy, she was at her least inspiring when expounding for the group on big-picture theories of “coupling.” She thrived in the moment — interceding in or interpreting the to and fro between a husband and wife, or pulling out unexpected common threads in the stories the couples were telling, giving the assemblage a whiff of fresh perspective.

Why is marriage so difficult?

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.”

Disappointment — a sort of rueful recognition of the limits of her marriage and compassion toward the people she and Clem once were — was what Marie, almost incredibly, brought to the last two groups (the first by herself, since Clem could not reschedule an out-of-town work trip). Instantly, it was apparent something was different. She was wearing light makeup and was holding peoples’ gazes long enough that you could see she had sparkling hazel eyes.

If the marriage can’t be made perfect, is divorce the only answer? I loved this ending,

After all those years of sawing and scrimping, there was this sturdy house with shelves built by Clem, a vase of daisies on the kitchen table and white wicker furniture on the porch. There were the beautiful, smart girls, one of whom darted through the kitchen in shorts and headphones, headed out for a run. There was the garden that Clem showed me — “Marie’s pride and joy” — and the shiny used Mercedes that Marie said Clem had “always wanted” and recently managed to buy. There was the one thing that had always been good in their marriage, they said, as we sat there drinking Coors from frosty mugs, as the seagulls squawked and the dusk turned to darkness: No matter what, they could count on each other for advice and support when either was battered by the outside world.

Would anything truly and irrevocably change for the better between Marie and Clem? Maybe. They both still said that they wanted it, and Coché would later tell me she was thrilled with the strides that they were continuing to make in the new group. But if nothing much changed, they’d still have this house, those girls, the way they cracked up at the same old family stories, her memory of how handsome he looked when she first laid eyes on him in a crowded lecture hall, his of the lingering kiss they shared on her 19th birthday, of the single rose he’d given her. They’d have this house, those girls and the memory of how they’d once been each other’s best or only answer.

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