Thursday, December 3, 2009

Does Your Marriage Need Therapy?

Strictly speaking, Elizabeth Weil and Daniel Duane had a good marriage. It was not in any danger; it was not ripe for therapy. It was normal.

To Weil, however, it was not good enough. One evening she had an epiphany that told her that she had been coasting, or drifting, in her marriage, that she was not putting enough work into it, and that she ought to try to make it better.

Being a creature of the therapy culture, and being far too willing to grant credence to various psycho-gurus, Weil and Duane decided to enlist the services of professional marriage counselors, therapists, and psychoanalysts. The culture accredits these people with superior knowledge into the nature of marriage and of how to make it better.

She chronicles her journey-- which feels a bit like Dante's descent into the Inferno-- in a long and fascinating article in the upcoming Sunday Times Magazine. Since the article is available online, I am linking it here.

If you do not dance to the tunes that the therapy culture is playing, you might find it somewhat strange that marital improvement should be the province of mental health professionals.

Before examining Weil's experience I should note that both she and her husband are professional writers. Dan Duane, for example, has written a memoir detailing his sexual history.

The couple in question manifests less than the average quota of modesty. Perhaps they are harbingers of a new age when the intimate details of everyone's marriage is on public display, but, for now, we should recognize that this couple understands what it means to live your life as though it were material for a piece of writing.

Yet, were it not for people like Weil and Duane we would have no way to evaluate the effectiveness of different kinds of therapy. At a time when people are increasingly doubting the value of psychotherapy, it is nearly impossible to know what really goes on in the sanctum sanctorum of the therapist's office.

As Weil notes, people who do therapy are in the business of curing what ails you. If you go to consult one you are induced, by the culture, to discover, even to create, problems that would be of interest to a therapist. You do not want to be rejected by a therapist; you do not want to think that you are wasting your time and money; you must find something that is wrong about your marriage.

Once you create difficulties where there were none, therapy will teach you that they were really always there, like precancerous lesions, and that if you did not expose them they would have come back to haunt you in the future.

Of course, there is no way of proving or disproving the statement in the last paragraph. It is a counterfactual, a possible outcome, and thus cannot be proved or disproved by referring to facts.

For their first exercise Weil and Duane try out one of the exercises proposed by "Oprah-sanctioned self-help guru" Harville Hendrix.

Hendrix recommends that you make a list of all the qualities: "you wish your partner would praise your for but never does and then [you would sit] in a chair as your partner walks circles around you, reading that list in an increasingly loud and emphatic voice."

This is called: "positive flooding." It feels more like dramatized abuse. Your partner walks around you; into your line of sight and out of it; he makes you feel besieged and trapped while he barks out the loving messages you wish he had been whispering in your ear.

This feels to me like a theatrical parody. Your husband reads from a script that you prepared and resents having to read words he did not write. The more he does it the more he becomes loud and emphatic, thus hostile toward you.

Words of affection are transformed into weapons. It is not surprising that Weil: "... began seeing Dan as my adversary." She had managed to negotiate her way to a harmonious family life. Now, however, she reports that: "...the competitive mindset came roaring back, as I reasoned, unconsciously anyway, that any changes we made would either be toward Dan's vision of the marriage and away from mine or the other way around."

Now, her marriage has been reduced to a competitive struggle in a zero-sum game. Like any abuse victim you will first start thinking that there is something wrong with you. Therapy can then induce you to start questioning your marriage: "What if my good marriage was teetering of a precipice and any change would mean a toppling, a crashing down?"

Among the issues they had negotiated was an equitable division of household labor. He cooked; she dealt with the finances.

But Weil was not entirely happy with the arrangement because she did not like it that her husband spent too much time and money cooking restaurant-quality meals.

Encouraged by a workshop to express all of her feelings, the better to allow her husband to respond with scripted empathy, Weil began confessing her discomfort with their cooking arrangement. From there she moved on to confessions of childhood and adult indiscretions.

She could do it because she knew that her husband was going to respond, as scripted, with proper empathy.

Of course, there might have been a real problem with the division of household labor. And empathy was surely not going to put anyone on the road to solving it.

What if Weil was unhappy about the fact that she, a mother, had nothing to say about feeding her children. That would have required us to refer to more traditional roles, and such thoughts seem never to have crossed anyone's mind.

And while we all admire Dan Duane for preparing three gourmet meals a day, might it not also be the case that he was simply a frustrated chef? Could he have missed his true calling? Should he consider working as a chef?

Again, that would have been too practical-minded. The emotional haze that had enveloped their marriage was making it impossible for them to look at any practical issues, no less to solve them.

For a time these open-air confessions worked. The couple was having better sex. But then Weil "recoiled" because she seemed to recognize that the empathy was forced; it was being spoken on cue, as though from a script. She starting thinking, as I would put it, that she and her husband were acting roles in someone else's play.

Next, Weil and Duane went to consult with a psychoanalytic couples counselor. Weil was aware of the pitfalls of this approach: "...the therapy carries not only the threat of learning things about yourself that you might prefer not to know but also the hazard of saying things to your spouse that are better left unsaid, as well as hearing things from your spouse that you might prefer not to hear."

She describes her experience of psychoanalytic counseling thus: "So, instead of speaking our harshest truths, for six weeks running Dan and I pursued the lesser offense of making the other sound crazy. Holly [the analyst] cooperated, too, offering feedback that we used to confirm our sense that the other was neurotic."

Now, armed with psychoanalytic insights Weil started to question everything her husband said to her. If she said she was beautiful, she would ask herself why he was saying it.

After a few weeks of this counseling, the couple had the worse fight of their marriage.

Psychoanalysis teaches that the human family is a cauldron of incestuous longings, homicidal impulses, and rank jealousy. If you are not feeling these things you are not normal; you are certainly not enlightened.

And since psychoanalysis sees the relationship with one's mother as central to all of human experience, it should not be too surprising that Weil and Duane got into a furious fight about her relationship with her mother.

I will not detail all of the drama that these and other therapists produced in this good marriage, but I believe you will be surprised, as I was, to read that at the end of this therapeutically-sanctioned descent into Hell, Weil felt: "more committed than ever." She had, by her lights, gained: "the courage and patience to grow."

Faint praise, indeed. As modest a result as could be expected. But one that is far more positive than the one I would draw. Perhaps the reason is that she was responsible for jeopardizing her marriage, unnecessarily, and now she can hardly say that it was all just a waste of time, a punishing exercise that we should all avoid.

Anyway, she seems to have gotten a book out of it.

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