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Celebration Planning Can Be Effective Therapy

An Interview with the Imago Relationship Think Tank

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Can planning a wedding be an effective and long-lasting couples therapy intervention?

Yes it can. But so, too, can planning milestone birthday parties be an effective bit of therapy for those who are single. I explained how while doing a guest radio spot on The Imago Relationships International Think Tank. Dr. Tammy Nelson interviewed me about my book Modern Brides & Modern Grooms (Skyhorse, 2014) and my work as a therapist.
Here is a short video preview of the interview. (A video of the full interview is at the end of this post.)

During the interview we discussed how the paradigm of marriage is shifting for all of us---whether we’re gay, straight, or something in between (which I’ve written about here, here, here, and here, and the New York Times has also joined the party, here). Dr. Nelson asked me how therapists can educate ourselves to better serve the growing number of same-sex couples who are seeking therapy as marriage equality becomes a reality across the United States (29:45 in the video below). My answer was that we (as in all of us, not just therapists) benefit from being curious, empathic, and prepared to be unprepared as we learn about every individual or couple we meet. As far as educating ourselves, we all gain from increasing our awareness and understanding of how misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and racism affect every one of us (some of us obviously more than others). Yes, even straight, white, gender-conforming folks are compromised by these forms of bias, ignorance, discrimination and hate, because they inhibit the ways each one of us expresses who we are and who we love. So rather than asking “How do I help gay couples?” perhaps we do more good by considering how each one of us demands recognition of who we are and who we love; how each one of us wants to stay connected to our people at the same time; and how each one of us can use help to navigate this dilemma---no matter who we are.

Wedding planning provides a rich opportunity to face the inevitable relationship conflicts that come with doing things our own way while also trying to take our people with us.

As in couples’ therapy, wedding planning puts us in two places at once: we have to advocate for our own emotional needs, while considering the needs of the other person at the same time. By the "other person” I mean not only one’s partner, but also one’s family, friends, and communities. As we decide how to celebrate our identities and loves, we must find ways to engage the people with whom we wish to connect without shutting them down. This includes the bride from a conservative Jewish family who wants to marry the non-practicing Catholic, the bride who wants to give herself away, the straight groom who wants to wear a crown and be given away, the bride who has decided he’d rather be a groom on the nuptial day, and the gay groom who wants to dance with his father at his reception. Those of us who resolve these conflicts successfully are better equipped to survive future relationship ruptures as they occur throughout our marriages and our lives. Just as in a successful round of couples’ therapy, a successful wedding is one in which an effective process has been established---a process of reflection, curiosity, negotiation, and creative collaboration---as opposed to a specific product.

As therapists we can also help ourselves by being creative in the approaches that inform our thinking and our interventions. In the interview (34:20), I explained to Dr. Nelson that as our social practices evolve we must have an open mind in our therapeutic techniques. We can get stuck being categorical about our approaches (e.g., this is appropriate for couples’ therapy, this is not); moreover, just as we can’t know our clients until we know them, we can’t know what will work until it does. For example, I explained how even psychoanalytic approaches help me work with couples (not the first school of thought many of us would think of for couples work), particularly in the opportunity those approaches provide for giving each client space to free associate in a holding environment while reflecting on what each needs. Through processes of self-reflection, individuals are not only able to uncover their underlying emotional needs, but are even more equipped to empathize with their partner’s underlying emotional needs (as well as those of the other people in their lives).

Whoever we are, we do well to consider that we all want the same thing: to be recognized, to be loved, and to be attached to our people. If we are mindful and reflective as we plan weddings and other milestone celebrations, we can develop skills for forging and maintaining relationships that will last a lifetime.

Copyright Mark O'Connell, LCSW