For two years before she was married, one of my closest friends had weekly couples’ therapy sessions with her then-fiancée. At the time, I was skeptical. If they needed so much help before the wedding, wasn’t that a sign that perhaps they should re-think the marriage?
Well, six years later I can say with certainty that my friend’s marriage is stronger than any other I know. Like most couples, she and her husband have their pesky, reoccurring issues – he’s always tapping away on his Blackberry, she overspends on Etsy – but they weather these blips beautifully. Which isn’t to say they don’t fight – they do – but they fight really well. When there’s stress or strife in their marriage they pull out the tools they learned in therapy.
I’m envious of their skills. You should be, too. As Tara Parker-Pope points out in her Well column in today’s New York Times, even if we don’t think we need marriage counseling, we probably do. Pope reports that only 19 percent of currently married couples have had couples therapy and two-thirds of divorcing couples never sought it before they split up.
Why are we so resistant?
“People think going into couples counseling is like admitting you failed,” says Laurie Abraham, who spent two years observing a couples’ therapy group for her new book The Husbands and Wives Club. (Disclosure: Abraham and I are friends and sometime colleagues). “It’s shameful, somehow, even though there is this counter-narrative that people should “work” on their marriages, try hard, blah, blah, blah.”
There’s shame, sure, and, of course, a lack of time and/or money. But I also think there’s just some part of us that doesn’t want to look too closely at our marriages for fear of what we’ll find. What made most of the couples in Abraham’s book successful, she reports, is the fact that they were “all in it together.” “Rather than feel like losers, the group restored their dignity,” says Abraham. “It gave them the sense that it’s worthwhile to make your days with the person you pledged to spend your life with as good as they can be.”
While couples’ therapy groups are rare, Parker-Pope looks at some inexpensive online self-help programs that are more accessible, and, perhaps more appealing to the therapy wary. Two UCLA psychologists are recruiting couples at www.ourrelationship.com and teaching them “acceptance therapy,” a technique that encourages couples to better understand their partners’ flaws. For $20-$40 a 35 you can have your marriage accessed through Brigham Young University’s Relate program; You fill out a detailed questionnaire about your marriage and they come back with charts and graphs analyzing your communication and conflict skills.
But even practitioners of online therapy say that it can never take the place of face-to-face sessions with a third party mediator. But preliminary evidence suggests that some of these preventative programs may help. One federally financed study that is tracking 217 couples who go for yearly “check-ups” with a marriage counselor who teaches them communication strategies before “corrosive” behaviors infect their relationship.Early results look promising.
Of course, not all marriages can – or should — be saved by counseling. Couples like Jenny and Mark Sanford or Jesse James and Sandra Bullock probably need more than the talking cure to patch up their devastated unions. Still, it’s something for the rest of us to think about.