Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Trouble with Marriage Therapy

The first thing I did after reading Jill Lepore's article on the trouble with marriage therapy was to search out her bio. Who was Jill Lepore and why was she saying these things? Link here.

When I began reading her article I found myself nodding sympathetically. Her initial observations are credible: "Up to eighty percent of therapists practice couples therapy. Today, something like forty percent of husbands and wives receive premarital counseling, often pastoral, and millions of married couples seek therapy. Doubtless, many receive a great deal of help, expert and caring. Nevertheless, a 1995 Consumer Reports survey ranked marriage counselors last, among providers of mental health services, in achieving results."

While there is surely some truth here, it is also true that there are many different kinds of couples counselors-- pastoral counseling is not the same as conflict resolution, therapy is not the same as coaching, and sex therapy has no connection to Salvador Mnuchin's family therapy-- and that it is too facile to dismiss it all.

In much therapy the quality of results depends very much on the quality of the relationship established between patient and therapist, or client and coach. Human connections are helpful, even if the therapist's ability to establish them has little or nothing to do with science.

For some of my own past views of couples counseling, see this post.

Lepore, however, considers marriage therapy as a single thing, because she sees it as the outgrowth of the theory and practice of one man. And she is going to blame its failings uniformly on the residual influence of the man who seems to have begun it. That man is Paul Popenoe.

Lepore does not spend very much time considering the theory and practice of Popenoe; he is not another Freud or Jung. She prefers to argue his influence from his prominence and celebrity. Which is dubious in and of itself.

You may not have heard of Paul Popenoe. Before reading Lepore's article I had only been vaguely familiar with the name. According to Lepore, Popenoe originated marriage therapy. He wrote the famed Ladies Home Journal column, "Can This Marriage Be Saved?", founded the now defunct American Institute of Family Relations, authored marriage manuals, books and a syndicated newspaper column, had his own radio and television shows, and so on. In his day Paul Popenoe was "Mr. Marriage."

Born in 1888 Popenoe was also a stone cold racist and eugenicist. He wanted to save the marriages of those who were biologically superior because he wanted to purify the race. He favored sterilizing the infirm and the feeble-minded. He thought that lighter-skinned blond people were genetically superior to their darker-skinned brethren, and he sympathized with Hitler.

There is little doubt that Popenoe was a racist. But is his racism the reason that so much couples counseling is less than effective? Is his racism the reason that so many people seek out couples counselors in order to achieve what Lepore calls personal fulfillment through self-expression?

I have certainly expressed my own considerable doubts about the therapy culture's promotion of personal fulfillment through self-expression. To see its origin in racism is an absurdity. To say that because racists want to improve the purity of the race, anyone who seeks out self-improvement or marital improvement, is, by extension, a racist is, dare I say, idiotic. It simply shows that the author does not understand syllogisms.

Lepore's notion that Popenoe's racism is the root concept in marriage therapy is a slanderous oversimplification. Do you believe that all those who currently practice couples counseling are, unbeknownst to themselves, part and parcel of a eugenics program whose purpose is to cleanse the race? Since Lepore makes no distinctions between the different kinds of marriage and couples counseling, her article lends itself to such a conclusion.

Unfortunately, Lepore also neglects to explain the basic tenets of Popenoe's theories or practice. Once she can establish, correctly, that he is a racist, she concludes, incorrectly, that all of his work must promote racism.

You may believe that I am exaggerating. Unfortunately I am not. In the course of her essay Lepore takes a look at Lori Gottlieb's recent, and much discussed, book where she encouraged women to settle for a man who was good enough. The book elicited much commentary and debate.

In her book Gottlieb recounted her work with someone named Evan Marc Katz, a man who was "a personal trainer for love." Gottlieb wanted Katz to help her find true love and a husband. The training did not work. As Lepore describes it: "At the end of the book, still single, [Gottlieb] takes the list [of all she wants in a man], stuffs it into a helium balloon and lets go. I think it was Popenoe who fucked up her love life."

Say what? Whatever does Popenoe's racism have to do with making lists of the qualities she is looking for in a husband?

If you are looking for a master of the art of the non-sequitor, of the ad hominen argument, and of syllogistic error, you have come to the right place. Jill Lepore has not learned the lessons that college undergraduates are supposed to have absorbed in Philosophy 101.

Now you can see why I was curious to know who Jill Lepore was. Who would dare to paint an entire profession with the stain of racism because one of its earliest practitioners was a racist? And how does such nonsense make its way into the New Yorker. Maybe the famed New Yorker fact checkers do not extend their considerable expertise to the world of rational thought.

What did I find out about Jill Lepore? I discovered that she is an award-winning writer, and that she possesses a chair in American History at Harvard University. Well, gag me with a spoon. Link here.

If this is the kind of thinking you can find at the summit of the American academic establishment, and if this is being taught to the best and brightest college students as the ultimate in human wisdom, then, surely, we, as a nation, have a problem.

Of course, we do not want tot fall into the same trap that claimed the mind of Jill Lepore. They are not all intellectual deficient. There are many brilliant and accomplished professors at Harvard. And yet, if Harvard has conferred the laurel of academic distinction on a Jill Lepore, then, clearly there is something seriously wrong on the banks of the Charles.


Evan Marc Katz said...

Thanks for the post, Stuart.

Actually, the training with Lori DID work. The result of her growth is seen her book, "Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough".

It's flawed logic to say that if Lori Gottlieb doesn't have a husband, she is a failure - just as it's flawed logic to suggest that someone who drops 200 lbs on the Biggest Loser to get to 250lbs is a failure.

Growth is a process. Results can be measured in terms of happiness, self-awareness and progress. It overly simplifies things to suggest that success is all or nothing. I know it's not the gist of your post, but I felt that I had to speak up. Thanks for bursting the bubble.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, Evan, for your comments. I was able to realize that the reasoning of the article was faulty, but I was not aware of the fact that Lori Gottlieb's training was successful. I appreciate your input.

I agree with you that success, in treatment or training, should never be measured in all-or-nothing terms. Nor should a woman's treatment be measured in terms of whether or not she has gotten married.

I didn't mention the tone of snide mockery in the article when it describes the experience with the lists and balloons.

List-making is surely a valid training technique. It comes from cognitive treatment and also from the world of business and efficiency experts. Surely it has nothing whatever to do with Paul Popenoe's racism!

It's astonishing that a Harvard professor would not understand such distinctions.

Ralph said...

The best marriage therapy my husband and I went through was when he hit the back of a tractor while driving drunk. It did not kill him, but a week of intensive care combined with 8 months of a fixator in his leg ended the drinking problem that was the root of our major fights. He still has a numb chin and bottom lip, a constant reminder.

That was 12 years ago. He and I have both commented that sometimes people have to hit their tractor in order to deal with their problems. He found he had more money and time for family, from which drinking was taking away those attentions.

While we still have our disagreements, they are no where near marriage destroying.

While I don't recommend throwing people into terrible car accidents as therapy, sometimes an even like this will make if not break a marriage. (Kind of what they say about the death of a child).

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, Becky. When it comes to therapy it is always helpful to have a sense of what really works for people.

Other studies also suggest that when people are forced to stop drinking or to stop other addictive behavior-- because they are might lose their jobs-- they manage to kick their habits.

From that Dr. Sally Satel said that we need to be a bit more circumspect when we say that addictions are merely biochemical and that addicts have no control over their behavior.

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