Tuesday, May 23, 2006

And Another Thing...

It's the latest counseling craze from America: you sit in a large room, with lots of other couples, and tell your husband or boyfriend about all his irritating habits. What could possibly go wrong? Clare Dwyer Hogg – plus her reluctant fiancé – investigates

It's nine o'clock on a grey Sunday morning and I'm curled into a fetal position on the floor of a stark white room in a converted townhouse in Bloomsbury, grimacing and simultaneously yanking down my dress to protect my dignity. 'Now place your head on your partner's chest,' orders Sophie Slade, a psychologist and relationship therapist.

I shuffle my posterior closer to Dan, my husband-to-be, who is sitting against a wall, one leg bent as instructed. After a series of ungraceful maneuvers I get my ear resting against an area of his chest that approximates to his heart.

It is day two of 'Getting the Love You Want' - a grueling workshop weekend for couples - and, according to Slade, this is a 'holding exercise' which will allow Dan and me to 'deepen our empathy and connection with each other'.

Dan is far from enthused. 'This is like getting a vegetarian to eat meat,' he whispers. 'Shut up,' I say, mouth squashed against his front. 'You're supposed to make me feel safe.' Dan responds by pinching me - hard. I assume he's registering his discontent, but - in light of everything we've learnt so far - it could be a technique to remind me of my childhood pain.

Coming to terms with childhood pain, it turns out, is central to 'Getting the Love You Want'. Based on an American self-help book of the same title by Harville Hendrix , the workshop promises to teach you the secrets of a happy, successful relationship by delving deep into your psyche.

Oprah Winfrey has described Harville's teachings as her 'big light-bulb moment on relationships', and the angsty singer Alanis Morissette is a practitioner, too. More than half a million Americans have bought the book (at the time of writing, it was number five in the Amazon bestseller list) and there are now 1,900 therapists in the States who practice Hendrix's theories, known as Imago therapy. In brief, Imago (the word rhymes with Chicago) asserts that we see relationships through the lens of childhood. Unconsciously, we want our partner to fulfill unmet childhood needs - the need for attention, perhaps, or particular types of emotional support. When what we need doesn't materialize, relationships often end.

It all sounds very American, but with sky-high divorce rates in this country (in 2004, 167,000 couples in Britain terminated their marriages - the highest figure since 1996), more and more people are turning to therapy and self-help manuals to save their relationships. There has also been a proliferation of relationship workshops. Of these, Imago, which has been running courses in Britain since 1996, claims to have one of the highest success rates.

When I arrive on the first day, 13 couples - ranging from twentysomethings to seventysomethings - are perched on chairs, set out in two semi-circles. At the front is Slade.

A small, immaculately dressed woman, she radiates assurance from every pore.

'This weekend may be therapeutic, but it's not therapy,' she begins. Flicking through my workbook, I'm not so sure. 'Re-imagining Your Partner', 'Guided Visualization', 'Parent-child Role-plays' - it sounds like psychoanalysis to me.

'Now,' continues Slade. 'How do you feel about making your relationship juicy? Huh?' Various people smile nervously. I smile, too, but suddenly feel prudish. I don't know what 'juicy' means, but it sounds like something private.

Nevertheless, this word breaks the ice a little, and Slade asks us if we'd like to share why we're here. One handsome couple in the corner, tall and blond, tell the group they are here to get the best out of their relationship; they did some research on the internet and thought they'd give Imago a go.

A couple in their early fifties, Monica and Jacques (not their real names), have come because, after eight years, their relationship is at breaking point. 'My wife and I were going through real hell in our marriage and were on the brink of splitting,' Jacques says. Having seen Harville Hendrix on Oprah, they decided to try the workshop. Slade looks around for more, but the rest of us are a little more retiring, so she takes the reins again.

'For years as a therapist before I knew Imago, I thought I was fine and everyone else had the problems,' she tells us. 'I did a lot of shaming of my husband.' (She later tells me that this involved constant criticism and 'sanctimonious preaching'.)

'It is a very humbling journey, realizing how you behave,' she tells us. She then announces that we will embark on 'guided meditation' to rediscover childhood wounds. The lights dim, we are told to shut our eyes, and elevator music plays in the background. Slade's voice is soothing.

'Imagine yourself outside your childhood home,' she intones. 'You enter the house and sit at a table facing your parents. Now ask them a question and listen to their reply.' In my mind, I sit down at the kitchen table in my childhood home, legs not reaching the ground. The question I ask will remain between me and my conjured-up parents. 'Now get down from the table and leave by the door you entered,' says Slade. I do exactly that. I then half-open one eye to see if everyone else is taking part. Slade is walking around the room handing out tissues, as people wipe away tears.

It's not all so distressing, however. 'Dialoguing', in which participants try to pinpoint what annoys them about each other, is unintentionally hilarious. On Slade's instructions, Dan is told to bring a frustrating behavior of mine 'to the table'. This makes him the 'Sender'. I am to be the 'Receiver'.

'I would like an appointment for a Behavior Change Request Dialogue about a frustration I am feeling. Are you available?' Dan reads from the book, looking at me through narrowed lids. 'I am available now,' I read back, sniggering at the less-than-natural wording.

Dan must now 'express frustration in one sentence'. 'I get frustrated when you say you'll come to something and then don't turn up,' he tells me with feeling. Now I must 'mirror' his words.

'What I hear you say is that you get frustrated when I say I'll come to something and don't arrive on time,' I tell him. The Sender elaborates, then I mirror his words again: 'I'm hearing you say that when I don't turn up, you feel disappointed and annoyed. When this happens, the story you tell yourself is that I never intended to come and have prioritized things above my promise.' The Receiver then asks the Sender what they can do to remove the frustrations.

Then Sender and Receiver swap over. Ideally, this creates a 'safe place' where there are no recriminations, just explanations of feelings. By the end Dan and I feel like we've made a genuine breakthrough. Although funny at first, the 'dialoguing' makes me realize my culpability, that my laissez-faire attitude to time has wider consequences.

Other participants say they had a similar experience.

'I found the jargon a bit cumbersome,' says Monica. 'But I can see how you can develop your own style. It can help us communicate about difficult issues without arguing.'

Of course, the dialoguing is all about learning to listen - which everyone knows is important - but it works because it gives people very clear instructions which are easy to follow. If you put them into practice every day, Slade says, listening to your partner and understanding him or her will become second nature.

As the clock ticks towards 6pm on Sunday, she sums up what we have learnt and wishes us good luck. The real test starts the next day, back in our normal lives. The group, psyches poked and emotionally exhausted, are sitting in the same chairs on which they perched warily the day before. But there is a different feeling in the room. This has been a chance for some people to save their relationships. And just to prove how serious I am about Recognizing Dan's Needs, I have invited him to buy me a watch for my birthday. Let's hope he mirrors that request.