“I have a pretty good marriage,” author Elizabeth Weil wrote late last year in the New York Times. “It could be better.”
It was the first line in an article about how she and her husband tried to improve their marriage – which they were already pretty happy with – through therapy. It didn’t work out.
“My marriage was good,” she writes, “utterly central to my existence …” until therapy. As therapy went on, things changed.
“Over the months Dan and I applied ourselves to our marriage, we struggled, we bridled, we jockeyed for position. Dan grew enraged at me; I pulled away from him,” she writes. “I learned things about myself and my relationship with Dan I had worked hard not to know.”
In the end, they decided to abandon therapy, and the idea of marriage improvement, and settle for a “good enough marriage.” Weil is now working on a memoir about marriage improvement.
Since the article was published, it’s been the subject of ongoing conversation. What happened? What does her experience say about therapy … and about marriage?
Actually very little, says Ann Bernhardt, who directs the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Saybrook’s Graduate College of Psychology and Humanistic Studies. Reading Weil’s article, she wasn’t reminded of any therapy sessions she’s seen … but she was reminded of an article she read that came out on the same day.
It was about the White House dinner crashers.
“In the ‘Dinner Crashers’ article, we see how a couple, masquerading as invited guests, crashed a Presidential State dinner perhaps for a reality show photo op,” Bernhardt says. “Maybe the couple were naïve or perhaps only self-absorbed. Maybe the couple thought they had legitimate access to what is generally considered an earned position in life experience.
“In her New York Times article Weil’s masquerade is similar to that of the Dinner Crashers,” Bernhardt continues. “Here is a couple naively seeking entry into a world about which they are curious. The couple explores the experience of counseling to further their publication efforts and perhaps gain some insights on the side–a photo op.”
Are we surprised that people looking for a photo op didn’t find what they were looking for in therapy?
What you eventually get out of a masquerade, Bernhardt suggests, is much different from what you get out of therapy. Therapy requires an honest connection with the therapist – something Weil wasn’t really providing. The result might be educational, but “it wasn’t a therapeutic situation.”
“Ultimately, their counseling experiences do impact their relationship regardless of their initial motivation,” Bernhardt says. “Weil describes many sides of therapy: What Weil does not describe is a committed therapeutic alliance where the depth of the work can be sheltered and brought to fruition.”
Whatever a “good marriage” is, Bernhardt says, it “begins with a self-aware individual,” and goes from there. The motives with which one goes into therapy – or any project – matter. The pain that comes up in therapy, almost inevitably, is part of an increasing process of self-awareness.
“Dialogue with the pain is productive as the informed dialogue allows the disowned content to be heard,” says Bernhardt, “if you want it to be heard.”
And that’s the critical point: Weil and her husband didn’t really want therapy, they wanted a tune-up. There were things, by her own admission, that she’d rather not know about her marriage: this couple didn’t really want to deal with issues in their marriage, they just wanted to feel better about the marriage they already had. There are lots of ways to do that, but therapy probably isn’t the tool for that job.