From “Potch-Therapy” to Marital Therapy Success

The early years of marital therapy saw little success. How did the field change saving most marriages?

Ironically, like marriages themselves, the beginning years of couple’s therapy was primitive, uninformed, and unnecessarily convoluted.  Early on researchers saw only 15% of couples were satisfied with their marriages and this was cross-culturally consistent. Sadly, that was about it.  Poor research amounted to unproven theories and therapeutic interventions that were a no-man’s land of wildly paradoxical assumptions.  Everyone knew there was a problem but the solutions were hard coming. 

One shining example of marriage therapy’s Dark Ages is George Bach’s work.  Lulled into a false sense of security after a fairly boring intake, couples were ushered into the treatment room to discover two giant foam bats.  The instructions were simple: To “drain” the toxicity out of the marriage each person needs to take turns shouting their grievances at their partner and then give them a good whack.  Unsurprisingly, ailing couples kept coming in motivated by more than desperation.  They got to hit, with permission and guilt-free, the person who most emotionally betrayed them.  What a deal.  Even more unsurprisingly, this shockingly poor understanding of catharsis didn’t help anyone.  It bred resentment and eventually divorce.     

Was Bach a hack therapist? No.  Was this the weirdest example I could think up? No. What this example demonstrates is just how desperate clinicians used to be in making a dent in this problem – “Let’s try hitting each other and see what happens.”  Today, marital therapy is extremely effective at tackling the 15% satisfaction rate with excellent research and tested interventions.  80-90% of couples now walk away with a rich, satisfying, and loving relationship.  So, what changed? 

Empirically minded researchers like John Gottman stepped forward chucking out all the theories and simply asked, “What do couples actually do and are there any consistent patterns?”  A keen observer of human behavior, Gottman gleefully locked away couples in his Seattle apartment, dubbed the Love Lab, rigged with every imaginable type of recording device to capture how couples actually interact over days and weeks.  Compiling thousands of hours of recordings and tracking for decades thousands of couples, what emerged were clear and simple differences that separated the marriage masters from the disasters.  Next week, we’ll dive into the nuts and bolts of the basic problems in marriage that predict marital suffering and their equally potent antidotes. 

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Rabbi Yonasan Bender LCSW graduated from Hebrew University’s School of Social Work. He works with adults, couples, and children from his private therapy practice in Jerusalem.  He holds several semichos from Rav Yitzchok Berkovits, shlita.  To share your thoughts, experiences, questions, or a different perspective, you can reach Rabbi Yonasan Bender LCSW at 053-808-0435 and at jerusalemtherapy@gmail.com or check out his website at www.jerusalemtherapy.org.

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