Can Group Therapy Help With Relationship Problems?

Perhaps therapeutic love clears a path to romantic love.

Posted Dec 26, 2017

Rudamese CC0 Creative Commons, Free for Commercial Use
Source: Rudamese CC0 Creative Commons, Free for Commercial Use

By Naomi Snider, LLM

Sigmund Freud once wrote that psychoanalysis is  “in essence a cure by love.” Turns out that this cure by love is also a cure for the problems of love. At its best, psychoanalytic therapy can shift and ease the blocks that prevent us from loving or being loved. What a lot of folks don’t know is that psychoanalytic group therapy can provide additional benefits for people struggling to make or keep connections with others.

Go into any bookstore and you will find seemingly endless shelves of “self-help” books devoted to improving our love lives. While the advice contained is varied and often contradictory, one thing these books have in common is the assumption that readers desire better relationships and simply lack the tools to find them.

 However, as most of us figure out: it’s not that easy.

Early experience shapes our adult relationships

Psychoanalysis helps us to understand ourselves better, particularly with regard to the role that early relationships play in shaping adult relationships. It helps us understand why so many of us are drawn toward unsatisfactory relationships and away from those that might feel better to us.

The psychoanalyst, W.R. Fairbairn, demonstrated how children learn to engage and connect with other people­­––how to love––based on the ways in which they were cared for by their parents. In a good-enough family situation, we learn positive ways of relating. When raised in a family marked by trauma, we are often hurt and confused and have difficulty in adult love relationships.

The therapeutic relationship

Therapists can help us discover some of the origins of our romantic disappointments. Unfortunately, it is one thing to know why we are drawn to the “wrong” people, but it is quite another thing to change.

Research shows that it’s the quality of the relationship between therapist and patient , rather than the type of the intervention, that is the more powerful driver of change. A therapist helps explore our feelings and identify ways of being that can get in our own way. This is an intimate relationship in and of itself!  At its best, therapy is a powerful and transformative experience––in part, a cure by “love.”

In group therapy, one might say the “love” offered is exponential. Each participant has the benefit of developing healing relationships with multiple people simultaneously.

How does group therapy work?

Group psychotherapy represents a unique opportunity to explore relationship difficulties under the guidance of a therapist and alongside other people facing similar struggles. Openly discussing relationship issues can diminish feelings of isolation and self-hatred. Psychotherapy groups can often help us understand we are not alone, offer feedback about the way we present ourselves, and specifically address fears about connecting with others.

An example of a positive group therapy experience

George, a 36-year old man who cycled in and out of many six-month relationships, initially came to individual therapy to deal with a lifetime of loneliness. Sociable, witty and popular, George had no shortage of friends and yet all of his romantic relationships felt unfulfilling

In therapy we explored how, as a child, George’s parents had been somewhat neglectful and punished him for showing any signs of vulnerability. Slowly, he began to see how this had influenced his choice of partners and his tendency to take on the role of invulnerable caregiver. George became increasingly open in session, but struggled to carry this emotional honesty into his other relationships.

As George explained “I can tell you when I’m upset because you’re trained to listen, but none of my friends want to listen to me whine. What woman wants a wimp who wears his feelings on his sleeve?”

George decided to begin group psychotherapy. Observing other group members open up about their own challenges and pain proved to be a profoundly healing experience, helping undo the shame he felt when his vulnerability and need was exposed.

George was particularly moved by a group member who shared that he unwittingly criticized girlfriends when he began to develop deeper feelings for them.  This struck a chord with George; his tendency to do the same sank in. George reflected, “As much as I wanted to connect with my girlfriends, I was freaked out and kept them at bay by trash talking them. I did it in a clever, witty way, but the joke was on me. I ended up pushing away every woman I ever cared about.”

Other members started to notice that George was funny and helpful, but he never talked about himself in a real way. They talked to him about this. Receiving feedback in a safe—and, yes, loving, group—nudged George toward more openness and honesty.  The real shift occurred a few months later when George experienced a traumatic loss. Unable to open up to his friends or family for fear of overwhelming them, George turned to the group for support.

Consider group therapy!

People are often scared of joining a psychotherapy group—the thought of talking about our most personal concerns with “strangers” does not seem appealing. But the struggle to find and/or maintain love can be one of the most painful and lonely aspects of being human. Group therapy might be the experience that ultimately helps you to understand—and overcome—internal impediments to finding romantic love.

Naomi Snider, LLM, is a candidate in the William Alanson White Institute’s (WAWI) Certificate Program in Psychoanalysis, Co-leader of WAWI’s Interpersonal Relationship Group. She is also director of NYU’s Radical Listening Project .