Laurie Abraham's 'Husbands and Wives Club' explores couples therapy

Abraham saw many problems.
Abraham saw many problems. (Photo By Lorin Klaris - Photo By Lorin Klaris)
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By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010

In the past, Laurie Abraham occasionally nudged her husband and said something like, "Do you see how that good marriage is? Why can't we be like that?"

His response: "Yeah, yeah, you don't know what really goes on."

Intellectually, Abraham knew that to be true. She just didn't know how true until she spent a year observing a couples therapy group, where some of the people who seemed most happy turned out to be deeply troubled.

One weekend a month, five couples would gather for intense, two-day sessions to work on their issues and each other's. They agreed to let Abraham be a fly on the wall and publish their stories -- without full names -- first as a New York Times magazine story in 2007 and now as a book, "The Husbands and Wives Club," released this month by a division of Simon and Schuster.

"If couples don't have a reason to be here, they can find much better things to do on the weekends," the therapist, Judith Coché, told Abraham when she wondered early on if some of the couples really need this kind of help.

And before the year was out Abraham, 46, would watch the group's couples grapple with miscarriages, sexlessness, the threat of divorce and the revelation of bisexual tendencies.

Even more compelling than the big issues presented in the book are Abraham's illustrations of subtle power struggles that unfold as the spouses relate to each other. "I feel like you can't interview people about marriage because you just don't get any richness," she says. "You sort of have to see it play out before your eyes."

What Abraham witnessed was the way couples withdraw from and move toward each other, how they undercut their spouses one moment and offer profound kindness the next. She saw, as the therapist drew it out of them, how their pasts have shaped their current relationships.

"What I learned from my parents is that to have control in a relationship, you need to devalue the other person," Michael, a 30-something man who's asked his wife not to cry in front of him, says in the book. "If that doesn't work, use sarcasm and emotional detachment to distance yourself from what you can't control." (His need for things to be pleasant all the time, he would learn, made his wife that much more miserable.)

None of the couples dealt with what are often considered the most crippling marital problems -- abuse and adultery -- but that only reinforces how profoundly complicated all relationship are, even in the absence of those issues.

Abraham admits early on in the book that she and her husband have worked with a marriage therapist for short stints in the past. But while individual therapy has become the norm, she thinks couples therapy still carries a strong stigma.

"It's icky -- like you're spilling the family secrets," she explains. "You can talk about what your therapist says at a dinner party in New York, but you wouldn't be talking about what your couples therapist says."

As she unravels the stories of the couples, Abraham explores the (relatively brief) history of couples therapy -- it began in earnest in the 1960s -- and the various psychological theories that have shaped the practice.

Studies have shown mixed results regarding the effectiveness of couples therapy, but Abraham, a senior editor at Elle magazine, was ultimately impressed with the strides made by the pairs she tracked. A major problem with the field is its lack of standardization -- many individual therapists offer couples counseling without extensive training in the practice.

But one of Abraham's biggest takeaways from the experience is that couples often wait too long to seek help from a qualified professional. "The research shows how hard it is to get out of bad marital ruts," she says, "but because couples therapy is so scary to people -- because it's an admission of failure -- people do wait until later."

This book, though often startling in its depiction of the knotty complexity of relationships, might, she hopes, demystify the process some couples undergo in attempt to improve them.

"I saw that [the group] had a powerful impact on making people feel like, 'You know what? We're not such big losers because we're trying to save our marriages,' " she says. "It makes it seem noble to care enough to save your marriage."

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