Showtime’s Couples Therapy resonated deeply with me. And when I talked to its main therapist, I realized why.
When my wife and I arrived to our joint interview with therapist Dr. Orna Guralnik, I walked in with an agenda: I wanted her to start interviewing us.
That’s not how interviews like this usually work. Usually, the journalist asks the questions and the subject answers. It’s how that relationship is “supposed” to go.
My wife and I are both journalists. She’s Libby Hill, TV awards editor for Indiewire, and the two of us — as the first couple of TV criticism — thought it would be cute if we interviewed Guralnik together. (Libby’s piece will run later in the year.)
Guralnik is a licensed therapist and the “star” of Showtime’s riveting documentary series Couples Therapy, one of my favorite new shows of last year (it was recently renewed for season two). And I’ve been in enough therapy — and enough couples therapy — to know that the therapist-patient relationship isn’t so different from the journalist-subject relationship. It’s also driven by questions and answers, by careful listening to what someone is saying, by actively pushing back against ideas that don’t quite hold together.
And Couples Therapy captures the drip-drip-drip erosion of self-justification that sits at the core of good therapy as well as any film or TV show I’ve seen. Working with four couples, Guralnik zeroes in on what’s broken in their relationships, from seemingly minor issues (a slight difference in timing on when a couple wants to have kids) to potentially marriage-ending ones (infidelity). She aims to treat all three people in each of these relationships: the two partners, and then the third, separate person they form between them, a ghost in the room who’s always there.
But Guralnik herself remains almost a cipher on the show. We know as little about her as I know about my own couples counselor, who once showed up for a session with my wife and me wearing a medical boot. She had injured herself playing soccer, and that is basically everything I have ever learned about her personal life: She once injured her foot playing soccer.
So I knew Guralnik probably wasn’t going to tell us much about herself. She’s too much of a professional. But I wanted her to ask us questions, because I wanted her to tell us something not just about marriage in general but about our marriage. It’s been through a lot lately, and I wouldn’t mind a little clarity.
As it turns out, we got there eventually. But first, we talked about therapy and television — and how they’re really not that different in the end.
Therapy, reimagined for television
My wife and I interviewed Guralnik last October. When we met up with her, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that her real office looked nothing at all like her TV office, which is the kind of simultaneously tiny and vast space that TV series are so often set in. (Her TV office is a fully fabricated set, something I probably should have guessed.) On TV, her fake office is lit so that it feels much more stage-like and dreamy. If it has walls, they’re suggested but not shown.
This is all part of the sleight of hand of Couples Therapy. Early in our chat with her, Guralnik corrected herself to say that the people she meets with on the series are not “patients” but “participants,” because whatever rules might exist around confidentiality and the therapeutic process become moot the minute you put cameras in a therapist’s office. Everybody involved in the show knew they were going to be on television, which is perhaps not conducive to the kind of soul-prying work therapy often requires.
“It’s a very ethical profession. You take on responsibility for other people, and there are a lot of things that are set as parameters to keep the space safe — to know what are the limits of how much contact you have, how much they know about you,” Guralnik told us. “Here we had to kind of recreate the frame. One of the first things that people asked me is, ‘What about confidentiality? How do you work without that?’ So there’s no confidentiality. It’s so bizarre.”
In therapy, major revelations can take months or even years to achieve; they’re often the result of a steady accumulation that eventually overflows. So constructing a season of television around therapy is tricky. TV favors compression — moving the story along at a consistent pace and getting to the next bit. But in a therapeutic context, compression is dangerous because it threatens to turn the televised version of therapy into a constant string of unearned breakthroughs.
So why take on that challenge, if you’re a serious psychoanalyst like Guralnik? She said she wanted to do Couples Therapy for a variety of reasons, but two kept coming up throughout our conversation with her. The first was that it would allow her to spread the idea of what good therapy can do, and the second was that it offered her a chance to advance her politics. She said she believes the show’s ability to speak to those ideas might actually be enhanced by airing on television.
Let’s start with the idea of evangelizing for good therapy, because it’s the easiest to explain. A series like Couples Therapy will have a niche audience by default, but in this digital era, its afterlife will be long. So a fairly rigorous presentation of talk therapy might create a better understanding of the process than any number of scenes in sitcoms or New Yorker cartoons where someone lies down on a couch and a man with a beard says, “Tell me about your mother.”
“We’re sketching a therapeutic process,” Guralnik said. “There are certain ingredients that are not there, but other ingredients are there instead. So the confidentiality is suddenly taken out, in both directions. Right? They get to see my conversations with [her colleague] Virginia. The work is documented and recorded by a crew. You sacrifice confidentiality, but you get something that’s actually pretty amazing, which is that the people who are participating feel deeply held, respected, what they’re doing really matters and matters now. And there’s evidence that they did it. It gave the work heft.”
Guralnik argued to us that what she does is essentially what a good documentarian does, because both are practicing the art of listening.
“As a psychoanalyst, you’re listening to material, and you’re waiting for the unconscious to sort of show itself through the surface. You’re waiting for a certain kind of story to come out,” Guralnik said. “The documentarian does the same thing. They have a camera, but it’s not a neutral camera. It’s a camera that’s kind of listening, listening, listening. What is the true story here?
“That’s where [the listener’s] politics come in, because how are you listening?” she continued. “Are you listening to try to prove a point of, you know, good guys, bad guys? What’s the truth here as far as the unconscious narrative? It’s listening to the unconscious woven in together with your politics and your ethics and your philosophy of what makes a person human.”
The politics of TV therapy
Guralnik’s trickier-to-explain motivation for doing Couples Therapy stems from how she thinks of the show as speaking to some political project. And the reason it’s tricky is that the first thing many people will think of when they hear the word “political” is probably Congress or Donald Trump or Nancy Pelosi — not the process of talk therapy.
Guralnik pointed to how the casting of Couples Therapy’s first season was refreshingly diverse, keeping in mind racial diversity, class diversity, and LGBTQ representation. That’s true: One of the couples is a cis woman married to a trans woman, and they’re navigating the process of having children. Other participants are people of color.
Among Couples Therapy’s core ideas is that everybody in a committed relationship experiences the kinds of issues being discussed on the series — regardless of their other circumstances.
“Even if your politics were bigoted, you could not not identify with every person on this show,” Guralnik said. “I don’t care what people’s politics are. In experiencing the show, they can’t ‘other.’ They can’t break people down into ‘like me’ or ‘other than me,’ or ‘I could never be that’ or ‘I could never feel that.’ The people are so honest, you have to empathize with them and identify.”
Is Guralnik right? I’d like to think so — because wouldn’t it be wonderful if we lived in a world where Couples Therapy became the No. 1 show on television and changed the course of human history? But I have my doubts. Couples Therapy works for me, but it’s difficult to imagine it having the same effect on everyone, because no two people ever have the same experience with any one piece of art.
Yet Guralnik’s argument that Couples Therapy is a political show goes beyond its diversity.
She pointed out that the series was created by Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, and Elyse Steinberg, the filmmakers behind the critically acclaimed political documentary Weiner, about the rise and fall of Anthony Weiner. That film was about the difficult-to-understand psyche of one specific person. And if understanding other people is key to both therapy and art, then maybe the best way to understand politics — at both the personal and national level — is through therapy and art, too.
The project of both therapy and Guralnik’s progressive politics is to expand the circle of who we consider human. Consider the lesbian couple from Couples Therapy. On some level, their story is just, “We want to have a baby,” which is one of the oldest desires humans have. But because of who they are, this very human desire is framed from a radically different perspective.
The politics of the show aren’t about Donald Trump. They’re not about the immediate reality of 2019 America. They’re about creating a world where we all know enough about ourselves to better understand other people — to create a world where politics, like therapy and art, is driven by building empathy for someone other than yourself.
Indeed, Guralnik talked about the idea of politics being about feeding psychological appetites we might barely understand, the way Trump’s narcissistic moments are red meat for some of the people in his fan base, who long to feel as important as Trump portrays himself. But Guralnik suggested that a show like Couples Therapy might actually find a way to subvert that narcissism — if not in the president, then in some of the rest of us.
“The fact that when one person is talking, the camera is often focusing on the other person, that’s a political move,” Guralnik said. “It’s not about narcissism, it’s not about the person speaking, it’s about, it’s a relationship. You’re speaking, you’re having an impact. But that’s a political move.”
And right after she said that was when — completely out of nowhere and with about 10 minutes left in our allotted interview time slot — she asked my wife and me about us and about how it had affected our marriage to go from seeming like just another heterosexual couple to being a trans woman and a cis woman in love, navigating a country not always enthralled by our very existence.
Our marriages, ourselves
Late in Slave Play, Jeremy O. Harris’s new play about a deeply unconventional couples therapy program that tries to heal relationships between black and white people by having them role-play pre-Civil War scenarios involving slavery, one character has a realization that drives much of the rest of the play’s action. He might be a black man, but when he gets close enough to a white person (like his white female lover, for instance), his race evaporates from the conversation. His lover might try to see him as just a person, not as a black person. And that makes him feel alienated from himself.
The play inspired an uncomfortable resonance with my own life and my marriage since I came out as trans. I am white and couldn’t relate directly to the racial aspects of the story. But I could relate to the idea that every monogamous relationship is between two people, and within that space, those two people try to see the best in each other.
Every monogamous relationship is inevitably built atop systems that perpetuate brutal inequalities. Because those inequalities are so huge, we often pretend we don’t have to grapple with those inequalities, that love can conquer all. And I honestly believe it can. But also: Can it?
Libby and I have been married for 16 years. We got married before we even finished college, because everybody we knew thought maybe it would be a good idea, and we didn’t see a compelling reason not to. It ended up being a bad idea, even though we’ve stayed together. We weren’t yet adults. One of us was clearing out a brain hampered by depression. The other wasn’t yet the person she needed to be. We grew together, but codependently.
We’ve navigated life together extremely well — Libby is my favorite person alive and the first person I want to tell about my day — but part of understanding each other means she sees me as a woman named Emily and not, specifically, as a trans woman, moving through a deeply transphobic society. And I see her as Libby, not as a person struggling with depression and anxiety in a world weighted toward the neurotypical.
The moment when Guralnik zeroed in on this quality in our relationship and started asking us questions was so fleeting that I didn’t realize what had happened until I read the interview transcript. Libby and I were talking to Guralnik about the idea of paying attention to the person who isn’t speaking. Much of our society is predisposed to pay attention to the speaker when it should be paying attention to the listener, and directing our attention to the listener is the work of more progressive politics. Who is being affected by what is being said? What actions must be taken to give them a voice?
The three of us began discussing Guralnik’s notion of a third, imaginary person — a phantom between two people who is, in essence, their relationship. Libby, jokingly, said that when I came out, I “murdered” that third person, that intensely codependent phantom. She didn’t mean that I murdered myself, in the sense of the problematic trope that people who transition are literally dead and must be grieved. She meant, instead, that my transition completely altered this third person, this specter. And we’re still figuring out the exact makeup of this new ghost.
But Guralnik seized on the word “murdered” and kept inviting us to explore what Libby could have meant by using that word, even though the two of us didn’t quite know what Guralnik was doing. Reading the transcript later was a jarring experience — it was so easy to see how the two of us kept being flippant and self-deprecating about that word “murdered,” only for Guralnik to challenge us to confront and articulate what we were thinking and feeling. That part of the conversation lasted for about five minutes, but it was surreal to revisit it and realize that Guralnik pushed us deeper and deeper, and we almost didn’t notice.
Later we returned to the topic of Couples Therapy, and I asked her what advice she’d have for every couple out there. She offered: “Take your own stories, your own narrative about what’s going on with a grain of salt. Don’t get too excited about your own story and your own narrative. Get curious about another person’s perspective.”
I realized while writing this piece that part of whatever frictions exist between Libby and me since I came out has emerged from our assumptions about what’s going on in each other’s narrative. I want her to see how much more vibrant and alive I am since coming out, but also how much more terrified I am of a world that offers plenty of reasons to be terrified. I want her to see me as both a woman and a trans woman. I want her to see how hard it is for me to talk to my parents now, and how destabilizing it is when someone introduces me on their radio show by saying I “used to be” someone else.
She wants me to see everything about her that is darker and stickier and more complicated. She wants me to see how hard it is to get out of bed in the morning, how difficult it is to just be alive some days. We each want the other to see not just the best in us but also the mess we stand upon. We don’t want our hardships erased by the cleansing power of love, even though we also require the beautiful acceptance that comes when love conquers all.
And in the midst of that, our new third person — that less codependent baby ghost who so desperately needs care and feeding to grow into its best self — is sometimes left to languish.
It is so easy to inadvertently convince ourselves that other people mostly exist as supporting characters in a story we are telling. But the real story, in life and on television, lies somewhere in between. The real story is the relationship, the person that exists between people, who is at once unreal and the most real thing any of us can possibly imagine. Creating a world where we pay attention to the health of the other selves formed among any congregation of people, be it through marriage or work or country, is the work of Guralnik’s practice, her TV show, and her politics.
The ending of Slave Play isn’t hopeful, but it’s also not as full of despair as it could be. Two of its characters realize that understanding the problems within a marriage requires finding a language for those problems, and admitting they exist outside of their love for each other. Since I came out, attending regular couples therapy has gotten harder, rather than easier, for Libby and me. Our problems sometimes exist outside of our love. But understanding that idea has opened up a world we didn’t dare acknowledge before we walked into the interview with Orna Guralnik. Something changed between us, and in trying to carry on as if it hadn’t, we only made things worse. Now, we see the pieces of ourselves and our marriage more clearly. We see how they might fit together again.
Couples Therapy is available on Showtime’s streaming services.
Author: Emily Todd VanDerWerff