The Group Therapy Contract

A backstage pass to group process

By Sean Grover

When it comes to establishing more intimate and enduring relationships, individual therapy can help you understand your history and influences, however, is that enough to open new pathways to relationships?  What if you still find yourself cycling through the same old relationship problems, making the same mistakes over and over again?

When individual therapy loses its oomph, group therapy offers a refreshing way forward.

Living in the Here & Now

The transformative power of group lies in its focus on the here and now. Rather than investigate your history, group therapy directs you to tune into your thoughts and feelings in the moment, particularly the feelings you experience toward your fellow group members. Of course, this is not easy. In fact, nearly all new group members protest, “I don’t know anyone here. How could I have any feelings toward them? And why would I express my feelings to total strangers?” Whether you realize it or not, you’re having thoughts and feelings toward others all the time.

For instance, the moment you step into an elevator with someone, you experience a wave of feelings toward that person. Do you feel safe with that person? Are you attracted to that person? Do you smile? Avoid eye contact? Feel annoyed that they are standing too close to you?

As you tune into these feelings and investigate them further, you’ll stumble upon your history.  Does this person remind you of an old friend? An in-law? A menacing high school teacher or your first love?

Tuning into your feelings is the first step toward living more fully in the moment; it transports you to the here and now and strengthens your attunement to others.

The Group Contract

After you’ve identified your feelings toward someone and considered your history, there’s more work to be done. Sharing your thoughts and feelings with others is the best way to form genuine and meaningful relationships. This is what will make your group experience so exhilarating; it empowers you to sustain intimate relationships outside the group.

To enrich your way of communicating and connecting to others, you’ll be asked to:

  • Voice your thoughts and feelings toward fellow group members.
  • Share any associations, memories, or dreams brought to light by relationships in the group.
  • Respond candidly to group member’s responses to you.
  • Express frustrating feelings maturely, refraining from verbal attacks.
  • Strive to take emotional risks; step outside your comfort zone.

For group members to feel they’re in safe hands, the therapist establishes a secure and structured environment. Toward this end, group members are directed to:

  • Refrain from outside social contact with group members.
  • Respect confidentiality.
  • Arrive to sessions on time.
  • Pay for sessions on time.
  • Attend sessions with minimal absences.

To insure maximum emotional freedom with your group therapist, you’re encouraged to:

  • Express feelings toward therapist (i.e. frustration, fantasies, anger, affection, etc.).
  • Voice fears and concerns about the group to the therapist.
  • Reach out for help or direction from the therapist as needed.

Group in Action

Steven, a prosperous real estate agent with rock-star looks, had a long history of failed romantic relationships.This had me particularly perplexed. In individual sessions, he was charming, thoughtful, had a good sense of humor and a high degree of emotional intelligence. So why did women flee from him?

After several weeks, I asked Steven to join one of my groups. He baulked, “What? Share my personal feelings with a bunch of strangers?  No, thank you.” I explained I couldn’t help him form better relationships until I could study how he relates to others. “Forget it,” he guffawed, “Group’s not for me.”

Three sessions later, I told him we’d soon be ending our treatment together. “Why?” he demanded.

“You hired me to help you solve your relationship problems. I can’t do that under these conditions. You’re wasting your money.”

Reluctantly, he agreed.

Within the first fifteen minutes of his entry in the group, I was stunned by what I witnessed. Steven related to the men in the group in a relaxed and easy-going manner. But with the women, he was wooden, insincere, and arrogant. To mask his insecurities with women, he adopted a false persona that proved disastrous.

Naturally, the reaction of the women in group mirrored the reaction of women he had failed with so many times before. At first contact, they liked Steven, but the more he spoke, the more they lost interest and patience with him. Poor Steven felt hurt and abandoned by the women, just as he has felt all his life.

Then one day, Steven came to group with sad news; his mother had been hospitalized after a severe heart attack. During the week, Steven had stopped by her apartment on the way home from work and discovered her on the kitchen floor.

As Steven relayed his story, at times with tears in his eyes, the group members were moved.  They understood his fears and shared their experiences with him.  Steven listened and responded in a natural and unaffected way; gone was the superficial voice and arrogant manner. As the group praised him for his openness, Steven discovered that his authentic self was much more appealing than the counterfeit one.  One woman confessed, “I like this Steven so much more. I would marry this Steven in a heartbeat.”

The more positive reinforcement he received, the more he began to share his feelings frankly and openly. Over the next several weeks, as Steven began to form intimate relationships in the group, his anxieties dissipated and he achieved a new level of comfort with others.  Soon after, Steven reported a greater sense of social confidence in the world.

Learning to Embrace Intimacy

Living fully in the here and now puts you at the intersection between your past and future – the best entry point for positive growth and change. In group, you’ll learn to embrace intimacy, honor your feelings, and communicate with others with greater skill and authenticity.

Most importantly, group therapy offers you the chance to break free from your past – your unhealthy relationship patterns and blunders.  As my mentor Lou Ormont, the father of American group psychotherapy, often said to group members, “If you can do it in group, you can do it in life.” And what could be more rewarding than that?