As Americans were increasingly forced into pandemic lockdown in March, COVID-19 restrictions began to ease in China. And in the aftermath of China’s loosened social distancing rules came reports of soaring divorce rates, a shot across the bows of any couple headed into isolation, a Trans-Pacific admonishment: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
The lockdown has been difficult on everyone, but sheltering-in-place as a couple is a Sartrean nightmare all its own. Every quirk becomes an annoyance, every annoyance becomes a provocation, every provocation becomes a fight, and every fight ends with you reading Yelp reviews of divorce lawyers.
It’s lucky, then, that one of the best shows of 2019 was attuned specifically to the issues that couples face — even when not in mandatory lockdown — an incisive, revolutionary glimpse into what’s necessary to make a relationship work and how love isn’t enough to help another person thrive.
Showtime’s brilliant docuseries “Couples Therapy” follows four couples through several months of private sessions with clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Dr. Orna Guralnik. Over nine episodes, the audience witnesses people throwing themselves into the deep end of their own pain and fear, trusting that under Guralnik’s watchful gaze that they won’t go under.
Created by Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, and Elyse Steinberg, the filmmakers of the fly-on-the-wall documentary “Weiner,” about disgraced politician of Anthony Weiner’s failed New York City mayoral campaign, “Couples Therapy” is a wildlife documentary. It’s a window into a world that people would otherwise never experience and its success depends wholly on whether or not those creating it can remain unobtrusive. Or as Guralnik summarized the challenge facing the filmmakers: “How do we capture it without influencing it?”
Those who’ve seen Guralnik in action know that she’s special. After two separate interviews with her, I remain convinced that she learned more about me from the encounters than I learned about her. Like all of the best analysts, Guralnik listens. She takes your words and rolls them over in her mind, like a rock tumbler, making sure she understands what you’re saying and, by extension, making sure you understand what you’re saying. If jazz is not the notes you play, but the notes you don’t play, then therapy is not necessarily the things you say, but the things you mean.
It’s intimidating because you know you’re in the presence of someone with the ability to understand you almost certainly better than you understand yourself. After speaking with Guralnik for just a few moments, you’re suffused in a feeling of unanticipated vulnerability, so much so that it can be frightening. Watching the first few episodes of “Couples Therapy” you can almost see people bucking against that sense of uncertainty, eventually relaxing into the confidence that Guralnik only ever uses her powers for good.
In the beginning, she was reluctant to serve as the couples therapist in “Couples Therapy,” not wanting to blow up her career with something that could have been dismissed as “reality TV.” But it was in speaking with the filmmakers that she started to come around.
“As a psychoanalyst, you’re listening to material and you’re waiting for the unconscious to show itself through the manifest content, through the surface,” Guralnik said when we spoke last year. “You’re waiting for a certain kind of story to come out. Whether it’s a story of, ‘This happened with the mother at age two and blah, blah, blah,’ it’s kind of woven it’s way into the personality getting organized and into life right now.”
“The documentarian does the same thing,” she continued. “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?”
But it wasn’t just about trusting that the filmmakers could tell the story, it was also about whether there was an ethical way to tell these stories at all.
“It’s a very ethical kind of 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 explained. “One of the first things that people asked me is, ‘What about confidentiality? How do you work without that?’ There’s no confidentiality. It’s so bizarre.”
Because there is no confidentiality, because the couples appearing on the show are participants and not patients, the challenge became creating an atypical therapeutic proces, where certain ingredients are sacrificed, but others replace them — not unlike trying to complete a recipe in an understocked kitchen.
“So the confidentiality is suddenly taken out, in both directions,” she said. “They get to see my conversations with Virginia [Guralnik’s colleague] and I get to talk about them and the whole world sees our work. But, the work is documented and recorded by a crew. And it’s like you sacrifice confidentiality but you get something that’s actually pretty amazing, which is that the people who are participating feel deeply held, respected, [and] what they’re doing really matters and matters now. And there’s evidence that they did it.”
“It gave the work heft,” Guralnik said. “It condensed the work. People felt like, ‘Oh my God, this really matters and I better do it now and it’s time limited and the whole world could be watching this. And I gotta show up.'”
Throughout the first season, Guralnik works with couples from different walks of life, all grappling with something; pervasive issues, some of which are big, like systemic racism and transgender rights ,and some small, like communication and trust. But all of them could be life or death for a relationship. All are serious, because all could lead to a relationship’s end of days.
And everything has only intensified in recent months. After checking in on her this week, Guralnik reports that continuing her private practice in a lockdown has made for unique challenges, not entirely unlike those faced with “Couples Therapy.” She said that she missed the ritual of coming to her office and sitting down and showing up, but that taking therapy virtual has resulted in a unique sense of intimacy, born from having a window into someone’s home life, being invited into their home itself through virtual means.
Plus, she got to meet everyone’s pets.
There is even better news to be had, however, as Guralnik revealed to me that production on “Couples Therapy” Season 2 has continued apace, despite the pandemic. Filming began in February, but like much of life, shifted to video conferencing as social distancing measures persisted.
Until the unprecedented series returns, the good doctor had some advice for couples (and individuals) looking to survive and thrive through these trying times.
“Keep returning to this idea of being gentle,” Guralnik said. “And keep reminding yourself that what we’re in the middle of is not normal life. Find artificial ways to make up for the kind of boundaries that we’ve lost because of this quarantine, boundaries of space and time and location.”
“And just reminding ourselves that we’re in a very particular moment in time, thinking about big picture, about the collective issues that we’re all entrenched in, and kind of reorienting toward a stance of kindness and forgiveness, first of all toward the self and then others,” she continued. “We are in a in a very crucial political moment. So whatever agita you’re struggling with, try to funnel it toward good causes.”