Chapter 4: Marriage Growth Groups — Developing Intimacy

Growth Groups
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Chapter 4: Marriage Growth Groups — Developing Intimacy

The New Marriage offers an ongoing adventure of self-discovery, personal growth, unfoldment, and fulfillment.... Growth and the actualizing of personal potential is . . . a joyous and deeply satisfying process which can bring to marriage a new quality of zest for living, of joie de vivre, and of excitement.

Herbert A. Otto "The New Marriage"1

On February 9, 1971, the Los Angeles area where we live was hit by a medium-sized earthquake. In one section there was disastrous loss of life and property. The telephone company reported that 1,700,000 more phone calls were made that day into and out of the Los Angeles basin than on a normal Tuesday. This figure represents people reaching out to people. (It doesn't count the tens of thousands who tried to call but couldn't because of jammed lines. ) When disaster strikes, we suddenly interrupt our hectic busyness and our preoccupation with less important things and turn to what really matters most -- the people we love and who love us. It is with these close relationships that the next five chapters are concerned.

For the vast majority of us, the most promising human contacts for satisfying basic heart hungers are one's marriage partner, children, other family members, and close friends. Marriage can and should be an oasis where growth is nurtured so that we can live responsively and responsibly in society. Developing the skills of creative intimacy is the way to make this a reality. If you're married, ask yourself two questions: Are both you and your spouse satisfied with the general quality of your marriage? Do you like the effects of your relationship on the development of your personal talents and strengths? If the answer is "No" from either of you to either question, then you should take some positive action to improve your marriage. Marriage-growth or marriage-enrichment groups have helped many couples who wanted more in and from their marriages.

If your marriage is painfully fragmented, a growth approach probably won't help. Instead, marriage counseling or therapy is indicated. But if your marriage is a "tired friendship," not breaking apart but monotonous and dull, or if it is pained and a little empty at times but O.K. and even downright happy at others, a growth group may be precisely what you need to liven things up, improve communication, and increase your times of closeness and joy. Even if there's much you like about your relationship, you're probably using only a fraction of your positive marriage potential. The good news is that any two people with a reasonably firm relationship to build on and a willingness to make the necessary self-investment, can develop a more lively, satisfying marriage. A growth group can be an invaluable resource in this renewal.

That contemporary marriage and the isolated nuclear family are in trouble cannot be denied. (Consider, for a start, the newspaper items on divorce, swingers, communes, women's liberation, and the sex-ethics revolution. ) But, in spite of the problems and abundant predictions to the contrary, marriages and families seem to have a future. Gallup pollsters asked 7,948 students at 48 colleges to pick two areas, out of half a dozen, which they thought would be most important to them ten years hence. Eighty-seven percent picked family life as one of the areas.2 If we can make marriage more fulfilling and zesty, rather than the "dull, deadening drag" which it is for many people, some youth who now prefer alternatives may opt for marriage. One function of growth groups is to help couples cope with marital "future shock" by enabling them to achieve more of the "adventure of self-discovery, personal growth, unfoldment, and fulfillment" in their marriages.

Four Crucial Growth Stages

At each marital stage, marriage groups should be readily available to every couple wishing to accelerate their mutual development. Every community should create a network of low-cost groups for at least four types of couples: pre-marrieds (see Chapter 6) early, middle, and older marrieds. Churches, schools, and agencies share the strategic opportunity/responsibility for creating such a growth network. Each stage of marriage has its particular frustrations and satisfactions, its romance, challenges, and needs. One never has it "made" in a marriage. Just when you think things are all set, something changes -- a baby is born, a youth leaves the nest, a husband retires -- and a whole new set of problems sits like a mountain on what was your smooth marital road. We're different people, to some degree, at each stage; therefore our marriages must change to meet new needs. That's the challenge of marriage. Growth groups, for "normal" marriages, can help us make the most of each new chapter.

Leading Marriage Groups

The principles and methods of leading marriage groups are mainly the same as those described in Chapters 1 to 3. The only basic difference is that a couples group (Some leaders of marriage therapy groups prefer to have husbands and wives in separate groups. In growth groups where the purpose is to provide opportunity for couples to strengthen their interaction it is logical and much more efficient to see the whole relationship. To directly observe a couple relating allows the leader and group to be more helpful to them in their efforts to communicate and relate effectively. Having couples together gives them an opportunity actually to practice the new skills in the group. Occasional sessions without both spouses can produce understanding of how their ways of relating may be blocking each others growth at points.) is a group composed of several ( pre-established) two-person groups. In contrast to groups of initially unrelated individuals, one is dealing with three to six natural units (couples). There are advantages to this which the leader should utilize in his approach: First, couples bring well-practiced "games" (interaction patterns) to the group. As they automatically demonstrate these patterns in relating in the group, the leader and group members can help them identify patterns which block intimacy and those which hold promise and merit strengthening. Second, the couples can continue their joint growth work between sessions, a major advantage, which home assignments can facilitate. In all growth groups, but particularly in marital groups, significant progress often comes between sessions. Third, couples often continue, after a group's termination, to work toward the growth goals they selected during the group sessions. The goal of a marriage group is to help each marriage become an ongoing two-person growth group. Because of these factors, we find marriage groups especially satisfying to lead. Furthermore, the knowledge that couples are the "architects of the family" ( Satir), gives marriage groups a special importance for the future.

In our experience, four to six couples is the optimal size and six to eight weeks the minimal length. An initial all-day or Friday night-Saturday session is a major asset.

Growth-work within marriage groups has three foci: developing each individual's talents; nurturing of each couple's relationship; being growth-agents, couple-to-couple. An experienced growth facilitator reports that in the "Marriage Effectiveness" weekends which he and his wife co-lead, they have found it important to balance the emphasis on nurture and handling conflict constructively.3 Focusing only on love-support-nurture makes marital groups one-sided and increasingly irrelevant to real relationships which inevitably blend love and conflict.

Dealing frankly with the longing of couples for more mutual pleasuring in their sex life is a vital function of marriage groups. In most marriages, if the general relationship is dull, frozen, or hostile, sex will be too. As couples learn how to lower the walls between them by better communication and the use of conflict-resolution skills, they will enjoy reconnecting in many ways -- from sensual to spiritual -- often in the same experiences. In a growing marriage, sex is a delicious source of renewal and self-esteem, allowing couples to experience the amazing unifying of themselves and their love in sex play and joining. As a group member who had rediscovered this said (quoting a best seller on sex): "It's 'one of the few really beautiful and satisfying experiences in this world that isn't taxed!'"4

Male/female co-leaders, giving both perspectives on issues, are particularly suited to marriage groups. The importance of this type of leadership has become clearer with the rise of the new consciousness among women. Having a leader of each sex stimulates growth work. An added advantage is husband/wife co-leadership, provided their relationship is open and growing.

A Group for Young Marrieds

For four months, six young couples, married less than five years, met two hours weekly with two mini-marathons (extended sessions of six hours each). My wife and I were eo-facilitators. These couples were in the "establishment stage" of the family life cycle, a strategic time when lifelong patterns of marital relating (or not relating ) are learned.

Group interaction centered at various times on each of the three demanding skills which many married young adults struggle to acquire: husbanding/wifing skills; vocational skills; and parenting skills. Marriage issues were central to the discussions, but the other two themes were frequently interwoven. The claims of jobs (and graduate school) versus their hunger for more time alone together, were often considered by the group. Couples with children focused on resolving conflicts about discipline and parental roles. In the pre-Christmas session, there was vigorous discussion of forthcoming visits to parents' homes and the marriage conflicts likely to be triggered by these meetings. This raised a crucial issue facing most young adults -- the risk of "letting go" of the dependence on parents as emotional need-satisfiers, so that, as couples, they may commit themselves to meeting their own major needs in marriage.

One man, having trouble breaking a parental tie, knew his anger sprang from feelings of deprivation of love as a child. He was invited to "talk with his father" whom he was to fantasize as sitting in the empty chair in front of him. (A Gestalt therapy method. ) A torrent of painful, conflicted feelings flowed; as these were experienced and talked through, there seemed to be a release of tension in his struggle for inner liberation.

The teaching function of a growth group usually evolved as members and leaders reflected on their experiences together. In an early session, for example, one husband repeatedly blocked communication by "coming on like big daddy" ( as his wife put it heatedly ). After they had worked awhile on their interaction, my wife described Berne's Parent-Adult-Child system as a technique for couples to use in halting their Parent-Child games and mobilizing their Adult sides. We reviewed the TA system briefly ( Chapter 3), giving an illustration from our own marriage. Then I asked: "Can you see any Parent-Child games in your marriages?," Several couples gave examples from their relationships. A discussion followed concerning their use of TA to help themselves. In subsequent sessions, TA was often mentioned by couples as they experimented with it in their families.

We encouraged everyone (individually and jointly as couples) to formulate personal and marital growth goals toward which they would work. In early sessions, couples talked mainly about conflicts and problems. Gradually they began to spend more of the sessions discussing positive goals including things they "had always wanted to do." In early sessions, couples talked mainly about themselves and their relationship. As the group trust level rose, they not only began to share much more frankly about their own marriages, they also began to confront each other about Parent-Child games and unused assets.

As part of the closing session, each person told what he had learned in the group and how he intended to use this in working on his marriage. My wife commented during the closing group evaluation that it made us feel pleased ( as well as slightly jealous ) to see them communicating at a level, after a few years together, that it had taken us much longer to reach in our marriage.

A Marriage Enrichment Workshop

This "Marriage Enrichment" workshop involved twenty-four couples -- a few early marrieds, the majority middle marrieds, and a substantial number of older marrieds. It met mornings, afternoons, and evenings, for four and a half days using college facilities. These ingredients went into each day's program:,

Input Session: (9:00 to 10:20 A.M.) Dialogue between the co-leaders and with the couples. General theme -- "The Care and Feeding of a Growing Marriage." Specific topics chosen on the basis of participants' interests.

Lab Session: (10:45 to 12:00 A.M.) Used for demonstrating and practicing communication skills, awareness exercises, conflict-resolution, role-playing, etc. For example, after an input session on communication, the co-leaders listened and responded to each other's feelings. Then, in groups of two couples, everyone practiced empathic listening and "checking out" ("Let's see if I'm hearing what you're feeling . . .").

Self-Other Awareness: (1:15 to 2:10 P.M.) A launching session for the whole group using awareness exercises with couples to awaken feelings which could be worked through in small groups. Exercises which proved to be fruitful included: Trust jogging, making a joint collage, non-verbal communication, Indian wrestling, sharing pain, and finishing the sentences addressed to each other "I want from you . . ." and '`I appreciate in you . . ."

Marriage Growth Groups: (2:15 to 4:15 P.M., with a mini-marathon the third day, 2:15 to 9:15 P.M.) Each group had six couples and a leader. In the final evaluation, many participants rated these groups as the most valuable part of the workshop.

After the first evening, couples were asked to discuss and write out a list of "The Strengths and Assets in Our Marriage," to be shared in their growth groups, if they chose. For some couples, working together on this statement involved more reflection on their positive potentials than they had ever done before.

Because many of the couples were middle-aged, the concerns of that life-stage were discussed frequently, both in input sessions and growth groups. These included -- how to deepen a marriage relationship neglected during frantic child-rearing, getting-ahead years; maintaining self-esteem in the midst of increasing evidence of aging; coping with stresses of "adolescing children"; dependency and death of parents; menopause; the emptying nest; wives' need to develop new satisfactions as children leave. Considerable consensus emerged on ways of making the most of the mid-years (and beyond) of marriage: finding time to continue courtship, working through conflicts, deepening communication; learning to "own" oneself, that is, taking responsibility for developing one's own potentialities; turning off the inner Parent (caught between two dependent generations) so that the Child sides can play regularly; finding a faith that makes adult sense and is functional for facing the second half of life; finding a cause that matters outside the marriage.

The older couples in the workshop dealt with some of their stresses and concerns in the growth groups. One couple facing the husband's imminent retirement struggled with the feelings and practical decisions this would bring. One couple told of developing some rich new relationships in a sharing group at their church; this led to a discussion of how older persons can cope with the loneliness and grief of repeated loss. Several couples described the satisfactions they were receiving from volunteer service programs ("volunteer grandparents" in children's institutions, for instance) which allowed them to keep involved and to use skills acquired over the years.

In the closing evaluation session, people were invited to tell what they planned to do as a result of the workshop. One of the significant outcomes was the decision, on the part of several couples, to find or set up ongoing growth-support groups in their own areas. Experiencing the juicy taste of depth relationships had made them want more of what one person called a "clan-in-the-spirit" for mutual fellowship and growth.

A Leaderless Growth Group

A church-sponsored young couples group, which had been meeting monthly for over a year for informal fellowship, decided to meet as a leaderless growth group, one and a half hours on each of six consecutive Friday evenings. The seven couples in the group included three individuals who had had previous growth group experience. These persons became de facto facilitators. The group chose a book on marriage5 and agreed to read two chapters between sessions as a stimulus to interaction.

The group succeeded in reaching a feeling level, discussing such matters as their perceptions of each other, feelings about having children as this relates to marital intimacy, and the grief experience of one member. There seemed to be a consensus that the group was helpful to the participants.

Making Marriage a Growth Group

Experiences in a group are most likely to help a marriage become an ongoing stimulus to growth if these guidelines are observed: (1) The couple agrees on certain things both want (goals) and decides how to attain them (strategy). They tell the group about both goals and strategy. (2) Each partner concentrates on changing his side of the relationship rather than trying to reform the other. (3) Between group sessions they use new communication and problem-solving skills learned in the group.

Marriage is very much what we as couples make it. We construct what it becomes, day by day, as we argue and love, have intercourse, take out the garbage, hurt and pleasure each other, raise children and search for meanings, make little and big decisions, feed the relationship by caring, or starve it by neglect. By our dozens of daily "growth choices" (Maslow) we can create a living relationship. It's as simple and as complex as that.

From the ups and downs of our own growth struggles over the years, this truth becomes ever clearer and more of a challenge: "Marriage could provide the ideal setting for personal development. It could open the way to lifelong learning."6

Creative closeness in marriage is like a many-faceted diamond. Most of us polish only a few areas and leave the others rough. However far you've gone in achieving intimacy, it's safe to say there are other aspects which could be developed if you worked on them. A growth group can give you that fresh approach to developing a more satisfying marriage.

Additional Reading -- Marriage Growth Groups

( "L"=of interest primarily to group leaders. )

L Ackerman, N. W., The Psychodynamics of Family Life. New York: Basic Books, 1958.

Bach, George R., and Wyden, Peter, The Intimate Enemy: How to Fight Fair in Love and Marriage. New York: William Morrow, 1969.

Baruch, D. W., and Miller, Hyman, Sex in Marriage, New Understandings. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

Berne, Eric, Games People Play, the Psychology of Human Relationships. New York: Grove Press, 1964. Chap. 7 describes marital games.

Clinebell, Howard J., Jr. and Charlotte H., The Intimate Marriage. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.

Eichenlaub, John E., New Approaches to Sex in Marriage. New York: Dell Books, 1968.

Gunther, Bernard, Sense Relaxation. New York: Collier Books, 1968, Chapter 9, "Intimate Games."

Otto, Herbert, More Joy in Your Marriage. New York: Hawthorne Books, 1968.

Snyder, Ross, Inscape, Discovering Personhood in the Marriage Relationship. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1968.

L Stewart, Charles W., The Minister as Marriage Counselor. Nashville: Abingdon Press, rev. ed., 1970, Chap. XII, "Group Marriage Counseling."

Tournier, Paul, To Understand Each Other. Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1967.




1. "Marriage as a Framework for Developing Personal Potential," The Family In Search of a Future, Herbert A. Otto, Ed., New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970, p.113.

2. Gallup Poll, Los Angeles Times, February 11, 1971.

3. Personal communication, Kenneth Jones, Corvallis, Ore., February 10, 1971.

4 The Sensuous Woman, "J" (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1969), p. 15.

5. Howard and Charlotte Clinebell, The Intimate Marriage.

6. George B. Leonard, "The Man and Woman Thing," Look, December 24, 1968, p. 57.