therapy-beat

Couples Therapy Goes Public

A New TV Series Pulls Back the Curtain

Magazine Issue
January/February 2020
A man and a woman on a couch talking to a therapist

There’s a nagging question that racks my brain after watching the first episode of Couples Therapy. Sure, it’s a little reductionist, but it’s one I can’t help but think a lot of other viewers—and probably more than a few therapists—must also have: Am I Team Mau, or Team Annie?

Consider the opening scene. Mau and his wife, Annie, sit on either side of a long couch in their therapist’s office, not touching. They’ve been married 23 years. Mau is tall and slender, with dark features and salt-and-pepper hair. He leans back nonchalantly as Annie, with her golden hoop earrings and navy blazer, relays the topic du jour: Mau’s botched birthday celebration, two years ago. Annie, apparently, hadn’t been attentive enough in the days leading up to it, despite promising Mau that big plans were in the works—costumes, a dominatrix, maybe a threesome. In a huff, Mau had grabbed his passport and flown off to Italy, alone.

Later in the session, he explains the root of his long-held disappointment in the matter, saying, “I want a glass of water before I ask [for one].” That sounds like a mother–infant bond, Annie scoffs. The therapist wades in. “That’s a pretty profound thing to say,” she tells Annie. “Really?” Mau asks incredulously. “Not fairly obvious? Distracting? Insignificant? What’s profound about that?” He gestures to the shelves around them. “I’m sure if you open up one of these books, it’s on the first fuckin’ page.”

Yikes. Okay, Team Annie it is.

Of course, as any therapist will tell you, couples counseling isn’t about deciding who’s right and wrong. But as viewers of the new Showtime series watch—or binge-watch, in my case—four real-life New York couples navigate their way through therapy, putting their breakdowns, makeups, breakthroughs, spicy sexual tastes, and plenty of petty, cyclical bickering on public display, I don’t think I’ll be the only one tempted to pick a side.

Still, Couples Therapy isn’t simply the latest iteration of voyeuristic reality television. It’s smarter than that. Ironically, in putting people’s raw struggles front and center, it delivers a counterpunch to the notion that, in today’s world, there’s no such thing as privacy anymore. With beautifully intercut shots of the bustling Brooklyn streets below, the therapist’s office, quiet and book-lined, seems to whisper, This place is special. It’s an enclave, a space where, finally, you too can be your authentic, fallible self, and in the convalescent care of a wise guide, slowly but steadily piece your relationship back together.

It’s a message helped along in no small part by the steady hand of psychoanalytic therapist Orna Guralnik, who, in the midst of the turmoil unfolding in front of her, often leans forward intently and waits, with catlike focus, for any indication—even a single word—that the time is right to interject with a thought-provoking question or insight.

Take a moment much later in the series, for example, with married couple Elaine and DeSean. A few weeks earlier, Elaine recalls, DeSean went to a funeral for a colleague’s relative, someone he hardly knew. It’s part of a pattern in which he repeatedly fails to prioritize her, Elaine says—“a punch in the face.” Guralnik extends a palm to slow her down. “That is not the equivalent of punching you in the face,” she says, calm but resolute. Perhaps the analogy is a little rough, Elaine admits. “It’s not only a little rough,” Guralnik replies, “it gives you a direct clue as to where these feelings come from.” Elaine, who once suffered violence at the hands of an old partner, falls back on the couch, astounded. She nods contemplatively. “That’s interesting,” she repeats, over and over.

What’s not to love?

Breaking the Walls Down

One message Couples Therapy delivers is clear: therapy virgins, this probably isn’t what you thought treatment would look like. Guralnik spends a lot of time listening, letting partners duke it out, and doing what she can where she can. Much of the time, the therapy isn’t especially deep, mystical, or profound. Sometimes, in fact, it goes nowhere. “We’re out of time,” Guralnik tells Annie and Mau in a later episode, cutting them off mid-argument, with seemingly little resolved. But when therapy does go somewhere, the show seems to suggest, it’s worth the wait.

Sure, the four upper-middle class couples whose stories we follow—a heterosexual couple, a queer couple with one trans partner, a black couple, and a Millennial Latinx couple—probably isn’t representative of your caseload if you practice therapy in, say, rural Alabama. But it works nonetheless. Sometimes, in between sessions, the show cuts to scenes of ordinary life unfolding. A father on a park bench kisses a baby wrapped in its mother’s arms. A young, 20-something woman playfully shoves a male companion as they wait to cross the street. An older couple bundled in winter coats shuffles down the sidewalk, arm in arm. Relatable? Definitely. Later, we watch as Annie and Mau join the hubbub, and quietly, tearfully finish their earlier conversation on the subway platform. Here’s the show’s most poignant message: Any of these people could be in therapy. Some of them are. Maybe we could all use a little therapy.

Considering how popular media has pilloried psychotherapy in the not-so-distant past—think Richard Dreyfuss’s stiff Dr. Marvin in What About Bob?, the tortured therapist played by Gabriel Byrne in In Treatment, and David Hyde Pierce’s comical portrayal of the neurotic Niles Crane in Frasier—Couples Therapy is a much-welcome, overdue breath of fresh air that could have implications beyond awards season. In 2014, the peer-reviewed APA journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture cited a recent study in which participants ranked their willingness to seek mental health care after watching movie portrayals of therapists and clients. The more favorable the impressions, the greater their willingness to seek help. Negative impressions had the opposite effect.

Couples Therapy shows real clients with a real therapist in actual therapy, dramatic zoom-ins and professionally decorated offices aside. This on the heels of noted couples therapist Esther Perel’s 2017 podcast Where Should We Begin?, which also highlights real couples in therapy. Slowly but surely, pop culture seems to be changing its tune about psychotherapy. But just how accurately does Couples Therapy portray the magic—and sometimes, lack thereof—that unfolds between partners in the security of their therapist’s office?

A Little Fact-Checking

Tamara Faulkner is a clinical social worker at The Family Institute in Illinois. In the 10 years she’s been practicing, she’s worked with couples from a wide range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, including more than a few with nontraditional views on monogamy and partnership. “I’m kind of a junkie for watching presentations of therapists in the media,” she laughs. In other words, a great candidate to weigh in on Couples Therapy.

Faulkner says the series has the potential to demystify therapy for people who are unfamiliar with what it entails. It feels “smaller” and “quieter” than other shows portraying counseling, she adds, which makes it more inviting. “The series isn’t about creating drama,” she says. “It shows there’s plenty of drama that already exists in interpersonal relationships.” Plus, “it conveys that couples therapy isn’t just for people who are about to get divorced,” which she thinks is a common misconception. “I hope that when couples watching this see no blood is being shed and people aren’t just out to get them or judge them, they’ll feel like they can do this too.”

Couples Therapy isn’t just informative, Faulkner says. It’s humble, careful not to overpromise results. “As far as narratives go, these couples wind up in places we wouldn’t necessarily imagine,” she says. “They weren’t necessarily all ‘fixed.’ In the end, is it better for them to be together or apart? I’m not sure we get an answer, and that’s a good thing.” In therapy, as in life, there’s ambiguity.

Still, Faulkner does have a few reservations about the show. “There was no diversity in terms of class, whether it was the therapist—I mean, who wouldn’t want that office?—or the clients,” she says. “The issues Guralnik’s clients brought in never had anything to do with things like financial scarcity.” Whether it was an oversight or a deliberate move to make therapy, an expense in itself, seem more appealing, Faulkner believes it was a mistake. “When you’re talking about the decision to stay together or not, to not have the topic of money enter the conversation is unrealistic,” she says.

Even so, Faulkner says the show did make a positive impression on her, even leading her to ponder how she might improve her own practice. “It actually did make me go into my next session and try giving clients a little more space,” she explains. “Guralnik does a great job of creating room for her clients to communicate. For clients, therapy is their moment, not ours.”

The Space Between

In much of Couples Therapy, it’s the moments between sessions that pack the most punch, like brief montages of our four couples at home going about their mundane business: reading in bed, tidying up the living room, or preparing dinner—all silently, with palpable levels of connection and disconnection. And on the heels of big, in-session blowups, that silence is fraught with meaning.

But as we all know, therapists aren’t immune from that overwhelm, either. And this is where Couples Therapy truly excels. Toward the end of episode one, as the day winds down, the camera follows Guralnik as she gathers her belongings, switches off the lights in her office, and quietly wades into the night. A short subway ride later, she arrives at another office. An older woman with wavy red hair and big, oval-shaped glasses answers the door. “I couldn’t sleep last night,” Guralnik confesses after she plops down on the woman’s couch. “There was this really overwhelming sense of responsibility.” The woman, who we learn is Guralnik’s clinical supervisor, Virginia, nods affirmatively.

Throughout the series, we see snippets of these meetings. Guralnik wonders out loud why one couple ever got married in the first place when they clearly can’t trust one another. She worries about accidentally using the wrong language with her queer couple. She reveals that Mau triggers her, and debates whether she should refer him and Annie out. Sometimes, she says, she even dreams about her clients’ dreams. “Between them all, my head is sometimes spinning,” she admits. “Just knowing that people are relying on you to help them through, that’s a heavy duty.” Her job, Virginia reminds her in a later scene, is simply “to deepen their understanding of their dilemma, and nothing more.” Like her clients before her, Guralnik, in a moment of self-reflection, nods and leans back to process the feedback.

Here’s another part of the therapy process that we don’t typically hear much about—supervision. How else is a good therapist, who doesn’t shy away from difficult topics like racism, homophobia, and domestic abuse—all things Guralnik confronts with her own clients—supposed to digest all this, offer valuable insight, and then, 45 minutes later, wipe the emotional slate clean and do the same for the next couple that enters her office? Without help for the helper, it would be nearly impossible.

Marissa Nelson, a marriage and family therapist who leads couples retreats in the Bahamas, says Guralnik’s supervision with Virginia struck a chord. After all, when you’re working with a dozen couples trapped on an island, sometimes you need a little help. “When I finish a session, there are often questions I’m left with,” she says. “When I’m in the shower, my mind will race: Oh God, did I mention this? Should I have asked that? Was I fair? Maybe I spent too much time with her and not him?” It’s par for the course for any couples therapist, she says, especially if a client’s behavior reminds you of, say, an abusive ex or estranged parent.

There’s a moment in the series where Mau, becoming agitated, lays into Annie with a barrage of curse words and ultimatums. For a minute or two, Annie and Guralnik sit quietly, until Mau runs out of steam. Why is she being so quiet? Nelson remembers thinking about Guralnik. Why didn’t she stop him? Then, she thought about what she’d do in Guralnik’s place.

“Truth be told, I think I’d shut down too in that position,” Nelson admits. “Personally, I have a hard time challenging people.” Sometimes, she says, you don’t know your triggers until they happen, or you don’t want to make one partner mad, so you let something slide more than you’d like to. Then, only after the couple leaves, the self-doubt sets in. “You wonder why you didn’t challenge them,” she says. “You wonder if you’re doing your job well.” When that happens, she adds, you need your own wise Virginia.

The fact that the therapist’s vulnerability makes it on screen is a testament to Couples Therapy’s authenticity. That it makes some therapists think deeper about their own work is something bigger—proof that the show, and any therapy-friendly successors like it, could influence the field, not to mention viewers on the fence about going to therapy.

Whether you’re Team Annie or Team Mau, therapist or nontherapist, chances are Couples Therapy will move you in one way or another. “I feel like the show itself is therapy,” Nelson says. “It’s telling the story of couples, of relationships, of love. It’s beautiful, complicated, and raw. This is what love looks like, in all its complexity.”

***

PHOTO © SHOWTIME

Chris Lyford

Chris Lyford is the Senior Editor at Psychotherapy Networker. Previously, he was Assistant Director and Editor of the The Atlantic Post, where he wrote and edited news pieces on the Middle East and Africa. He also formerly worked at The Washington Post, where he wrote local feature pieces for the Metro, Sports, and Style sections. Contact: clyford@psychnetworker.org.