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TV series 'Couples Therapy' gives viewers a rare look into real life therapy sessions

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We often think of couples therapy as some last ditch effort that people make when they're pretty much ready to break up, right? Well, one documentary series is challenging that idea by following the experiences of couples who are in therapy at different stages of their relationships. Across nine episodes, viewers have a rare look into real-life therapy sessions, deeply intimate conversations that are normally intensely private.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We crossed boundaries that shouldn't have been crossed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The yelling, the drinking, it feels helpless.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Why are you bringing that up again?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Because it happened.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: It's just embarrassing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I'm having a hard time (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: It stabs me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: It's not about you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: I just feel blindsided.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Put in the effort.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: How are you not understanding?

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Enough.

CHANG: This show, called "Couples Therapy," is now in its fourth season on Showtime. And it revolves around one psychotherapist, Orna Guralnik, who joins us now. Welcome.

ORNA GURALNIK: Thank you. Thank you, Ailsa.

CHANG: Oh, well, thank you. I am a huge fan of participating in couple's therapy. I've done it in multiple relationships, so there's a lot in these episodes that resonates with me except for the fact that I don't think I could ever do therapy on TV. Like, I could never put such intimate moments out there for the world to see. And I guess that's my first question for you, Orna, as a therapist - why? Like, tell me what excites you, what is compelling for you about making public something that is usually so intensely private.

GURALNIK: I know. And the frame of confidentiality is usually sort of our first rule, right?

CHANG: Right.

GURALNIK: We - this is, like, the thing we respect the most. I know. I felt the same way when I first heard about this idea. But what excites me the most about what the show has been able to accomplish is that it manages to offer something to people that otherwise wouldn't have access - wouldn't have access to therapy, wouldn't have access to how other people work through their issues as - relationship issues always emerge. There's a lot of really vital information that I think the series offers.

CHANG: How do you think the interactions change because everyone participating knows there is an audience present, a huge audience?

GURALNIK: Shockingly, in a fundamental way, nothing changes. There's something essential about the work that doesn't change at all, no matter the cameras. I mean, not that the cameras are in the room. You don't really see the cameras, but people know they're being filmed.

CHANG: Yeah.

GURALNIK: And still, the work is the work is the work.

CHANG: That's so interesting. You don't think it's more performative because people know they're being made into a TV show.

GURALNIK: You'd think so. I would think so, too.

CHANG: But it's not.

GURALNIK: But I can tell you just even from my own subjective experience that all of that kind of drops away. But there is something about knowing that it's being recorded and that may be aired and - that it intensifies the work a lot. It's almost like therapy on steroids. So it happens faster.

CHANG: Well, you know, as we mentioned, this is the fourth season. The show is called "Couples Therapy." But what's new about this season is we encounter the show's first polyamorous relationship, a group of three people. And I was curious watching you working with them, are there universal lessons that we can learn from this group even though they don't represent a, quote, "typical relationship"?

GURALNIK: What's interesting to me about working with, like, nontraditional structures is that the ingredients of a relationship don't change. It's more like the weights of what do people prioritize and what do they move to the background. So in the case of polycules or people in polyamorous relationships, there's a great deal of emphasis on verbalizing things...

CHANG: Yes.

GURALNIK: ...On keeping things very explicit.

CHANG: I was so struck by how explicit the understandings were, at least how...

GURALNIK: Yeah.

CHANG: ...Explicit they wanted the understandings between them to be. There was almost this...

GURALNIK: They have to.

CHANG: ...Contract that they were trying to draft among the three of them.

GURALNIK: Well, there's always a contract. In every relationship, there's a contract, whether it's explicit or implicit, or it's passed down from, like, tradition. What happens with, like, nontraditional structures or with polycules is they have to - since they're kind of throwing away some of the old contract, they have to reiterate a new version of the contract.

CHANG: Yes.

GURALNIK: And they're figuring it out as they go 'cause they're not relying on tradition. So they have to be very, very thoughtful and explicit about the new contract.

CHANG: Right. And I feel we can all learn so much from that kind of communicativeness.

GURALNIK: Yeah.

CHANG: Your show also reminds me - we bring so much of our own past into relationships and so much about what makes a relationship work is learning how to work with your partner's past as you're working...

GURALNIK: Yeah.

CHANG: ...On how to deal with your own past, right? And there is another...

GURALNIK: Yeah.

CHANG: ...Couple on this season, Casimar and Alexes, who are deeply in love, yet they both have suffered trauma. And sometimes the two of them have these explosive fights that leave Casimar wondering how to love someone like Alexes.

GURALNIK: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COUPLES THERAPY")

CASIMAR: I'm in the corner. I'm sitting in the bathroom cowering. And I'm like, just walk away, please. How much more understanding am I supposed to be? When does this cross the line of, like, you're being a survivor and this being a traumatic episode and this just being abusive?

CHANG: I was so drawn to this couple...

GURALNIK: Yeah.

CHANG: ...And that particular piece of tape that we just heard. It made me want to ask you directly that question. How would you answer that? At what point is being supportive to someone you love harmful to you?

GURALNIK: I mean, it's a profound question. I don't have, like, a pat answer. It really varies from person to person, from couple to couple. I can say about Casimar and Alexes, there was never a moment there that I thought, oh, this is going too far, or now we're going into, like, very destructive terrain. It was always couched in so much mutual care. But, you know, when you carry a history of trauma, it doesn't just vanish. It shows up in later intimate relationships, and it's a chance to really work things through. But it's going to be hard. It's going to take everything you've got.

CHANG: Well, you know, as we were preparing for this interview, a colleague of mine shared that watching your show was instructive for him in his own decision to break up with a longtime boyfriend. And I'm wondering how you feel about your relationship with viewers. These are people you are not talking directly to, but who are learning from you and from your clients and who are changing their own behaviors and making decisions about their own lives because of what you and your clients talk about. What do you think about your own relationship with viewers?

GURALNIK: I feel super, super responsible. I think that's been, like, the biggest honor and privilege and the biggest burden of doing this show, which is that I feel, like, a great deal of responsibility. We take that very, very seriously, like, what message are we putting out there to make sure we're really pushing it in the direction that we ethically and morally and psychologically believe in. I take it really, really seriously. I mean it's an honor and a very big responsibility.

CHANG: Therapist Orna Guralnik stars in the Showtime series "Couples Therapy." Season 4 is out now. Thank you so much, Orna, for spending this time with us.

GURALNIK: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Katia Riddle
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.