Books: The Husbands and Wives Club

Before we started reading The Husbands and Wives Club: A Year in the Life of a Couples Therapy Group by Laurie Abraham (based on this NYT mag cover story), we had a number of preconceived notions. (1) Okay, so other people’s therapy might be interesting when Gabriel Byrne plays the therapist on HBO, but real-life couples and real-therapy therapy? It’s a miserable thing to say about other people’s marital troubles, but they can be so boring. (2) Group couples therapy? Isn’t that a little ’70s? (3) Wouldn’t you want to throw yourself off a bridge after a year of being embedded in five couples’ marital misery? Would you ever be able to have happy thoughts about the institution of marriage again?

Turns out we were wrong on all three fronts. First of all, this book reads like a novel. (Though we do recommend making a bookmark for yourself and writing down each couple’s names and major attributes to help you keep track [or just print this out]; at times it feels like a Russian novel with so many protagonists and side plots.) At one point Abraham notes that another book — portraits of couples in the Victoria era — broadens the repertoire of “plots” for couples, adding to the number of models for long-lasting relationships. Abraham’s experience of couples therapy — and, by extension, her book about it — offers the same solace. And “plot” is an apt word — you’ll find yourself racing through the final chapters to find out how each couple turned out. No plot spoilers here (who knew that a book on marital therapy could even be subject to those?); we will just say that there’s more than one way to a happy ending.

Second, consider us new almost-converts to the world of group couples therapy. It was inspiring to watch the couples become a family and help each other think through problems. Members of the group are able to take heart that they are helping other marriages, even during sessions when their own union seems beyond saving. The group sometimes rallies behind a member who needs support, or turns on a member who needs confronting, and in both instances the experience is powerful in a way that support or confrontation from a therapist can’t be.

Finally, Abraham finds herself actually buoyed by the experience, not deadened by it. Here are five couples who take their own marriages seriously enough to submit to years of group therapy to save them. Here are five couples who spend gorgeous summer weekends locked up in a room, hashing out the problems of people who began as strangers to them. Here are five couples who got past the reputation of couples therapy as some dorky ’70s fad. And here are five couples who reject — albeit under the firm hand of a skilled therapist — the notion that there are only two acceptable narratives when it comes to talking about your own marriage: the long-walks-on-the-beach love story, or what Abraham calls the “resigned farce” — husbands and wives alike joking about their domestically useless/sexually burdensome/nagging spouse.

Which is not to say that the couples in the book are unreservedly inspiring. It’s heart-wrenching at times to watch them cling to relationships that don’t seem to warrant such a strong attachment. You might even find yourself wanting to yell at them, “It’s okay to just get a divorce, you know?” And it is. But it’s also okay to beat your dead-horse marriage until you’re 100% sure it’s really dead. Because sometimes, to quote Billy Crystal in The Princess Bride, it’s only mostly dead: “There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.”