Orna Guralnik on Couples Therapy.Photo courtesy of Showtime.
Couples Therapy seeks to portray not just particular couples but the fraught practice of coupledom.
Nothing can be done to close the outrageous gap between desire and satisfaction. Often this problem appears in the form of another person. Ping is constantly angry with her husband, Will, who retreats further and further into stunned passivity. She thinks that if he could emerge from the protective fog surrounding him and really see her, perhaps she could feel loved like she did when they first met. Around the halfway point of the third season of Showtime’s Couples Therapy, the radiant therapist-protagonist, Orna, has disappointing news: “There’s a certain degree of being unseen that you’re gonna have to live with . . . It’s not like somebody can come in and see you the way you needed to be seen [in childhood].” (I was reminded of the analyst Alice Miller’s account of a successful treatment for depression: “He now has another possibility of dealing with disappointment, namely, that of experiencing pain.”) For a moment, Orna’s unromantic summary of love’s limits seems to jolt Ping out of her present struggle with Will and into herself. From an intimate camera angle, we watch her silently absorb the new thought. Will’s hand rests uselessly on her shoulder, caressing her automatically with his thumb. While she expects too much from love, he seems frozen by an inarticulable despair about it. An appropriately sad song plays softly over Ping’s bottomless, objectless gaze; the episode draws to a close; the credits roll.
Romantic love as spectator sport is good TV. On Love Is Blind, singles flirt through walls and fall in love sight-unseen. On Love Island, part-time fitness models congregate in a vacation spot to pair off on pain of exile. Amid these emotional gyrations for the camera, Couples Therapy stands out in that it’s also an exploration of the professional activities of therapists. The show’s ultra-charismatic star, Orna Guralnik, has worked in the field for over 20 years; offscreen, she charges $700 per session and publishes psychoanalytic papers whose startling topics (hot toddlers, dead babies) belie her previous gig as a consultant in corporate psychology. We see her not only interacting with struggling couples, but also in discussion with her mentor, the analyst Virginia Goldner, and—in the recently released third season of the show—a group of colleagues. The set replicates Orna’s real-life office and was carefully constructed to enable both the illusion of privacy and a multitude of camera angles, the lenses boring directly into the participants’ souls.
Emotional extraction is not the innovation here, as anyone who has kept up with the Kardashians will be able to attest. But while most reality TV is premised on its subjects’ apparent ability to disengage from their inner lives—to re-perform heartbreaks, to turn a profit on attachment, to fall in love at high velocity—Couples Therapy requires couples to spelunk through the recesses of their psyches. We watch people wrestle with their childhoods and confront their most painful mistakes. Orna, like a priestly intermediary between action and interiority, offers the promise of absolution. When her patients arrive at their innermost parts, it seems as though she’s been waiting there for them all along, like a chthonic god.
When her patients arrive at their innermost parts, it seems as though she’s been waiting there for them all along, like a chthonic god.
In recent decades, therapy has elbowed its way into the collective psychic space also occupied by romantic partnership: It is credited with the power to heal, support, and render experience comprehensible—unless, of course, you choose the wrong person! The stakes are precipitously high and therefore the terrain teems with competing critiques. Like romantic love, therapy has been variously accused by its detractors of affirming individualism over the social, of displacing adult agency into childlike dependency, and of being hopelessly marked by its bourgeois origins. Like love, its allure is undiminished by these criticisms, which are easily swept away by sheer nakedness of need. Couples Therapy is a CSI: Brooklyn of the soul, portraying Orna as a brilliant investigator attending to the forensics of alienation. We see her scribbling notes and tapping away at her laptop, working on her cases like a cop or lawyer in a procedural drama. In the scenes with her mentor, Goldner is as much detective’s partner as clinical supervisor—a foil and a pretext to verbalize.
Like most aspects of contemporary society, the origins of couples therapy lie in fascist social engineering. Marriage therapy was invented in the 1920s and 1930s by German and American eugenicists eager to fluff the falling birth count of the white middle class. Forced sterilization advocate Paul Popenoe, founder of the American Institute of Family Relations, also wrote an advice column in Ladies’ Home Journal called “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” The column unremittingly postulated that marital difficulties of all kinds could be overcome if wives endeavored to stop being selfish and ungrateful. Contemporary couples therapy distinguishes itself from this dispiriting model by taking an attitude of principled neutrality regarding a relationship’s survival. “The therapist should not try to ‘save’ a marriage,” advises a 2016 paper on psychoanalytic couples therapy, “since dissolving or saving a marriage is the couple’s responsibility.”
Orna has admitted, in a recent New Yorker profile, that she is a partisan of long-term love. But aside from this glancing similarity with Popenoe’s pro-marital program, her practice is far from evoking midcentury attempts to herd white people into prolific reproduction. When one of the show’s couples eventually decides to break up, this is taken to prove rather than disprove therapy’s efficacy: The issue, all involved agree, is that they have reached the limits of what can be changed in couples therapy and one partner needs to go further alone. That every individual is burdened with emotional difficulties that disfigure their relationships is taken for granted—those who appear on Orna’s couch are de facto having a hard time, but observations by Orna and colleagues describe a wider relational world pockmarked with private abysses and abyssal privations. B-roll footage affords brief glimpses of couples who didn’t make the cut for the show’s main plotlines wrangling over their love in Orna’s office, as well as couples in the wild outside Orna’s remit, wandering around New York City. Couples Therapy seeks to portray not just particular couples but the fraught practice of coupledom—often just as unwieldy and hurtful as solitude, though the threat of solitude is the barbed wire at its perimeter. “Romantic relationships tend to bring up a lot, because they’re the closest in terms of intensity and dependence to early childhood experiences,” Orna says. “The whole system gets kind of reactivated as you rework certain things that were frozen in time. For a shut-down, traumatized person, that can be pretty scary. So I try to convince people to let go of their fear.”
All therapists, not just Orna, are depicted here as members of a priestly caste beyond good and evil. Identity appears as expertise: In the collegial discussion group, a black therapist advises Orna to address her whiteness, and a male therapist opines that a husband should be understood as a hungry baby boy rather than a parasite. Though these discussions, like the conversations with Goldner, are intended to show that Orna too can be uncertain and in need of advice, she is fated to remain the show’s least well-drawn character in order to preserve the auratic power of the healer, a consensual projection that allows patients to find out for themselves what they already know they don’t know they know (realizations always arrive as recognitions). Beyond this sleight of hand, there is no such thing as expertise in love; as Orna says to Ping, “There’s a certain pain that you’re living with that this [or any] relationship can’t fix.” Though not every therapist is as charming and competent as Orna, her approach as depicted onscreen fairly accurately reflects the bracing wager of psychoanalytic therapy: that a person can arrive at the blunt joy of aliveness by gradually accepting that the past is irredeemable, pain is self-inflicted, and time is finite.
Part of the show’s allure is the pleasure of watching someone’s inner realization of a character trait that is blindingly visible from the outside. In this, of course, the edit probably flatters us. And a viewer’s taste in personality can mislead: I could not stand Molly, a Season 3 character whose moralistic anguish I found self-serving—most of all when it reminded me of my own tendency to mistake feelings for laws—but her mild-mannered husband turned out to be dependent on it for jolts of emotional electricity across the dead circuitry of his avoidance. The dyad of voluble sufferer and who-me bumbler is a classic, present in Season 3 twice over in different forms and reminiscent of Season 2’s Michael and Michal. In a characteristic moment, Michal screams at her husband that his existence is worthless, as he sits beside her mutely, apparently conceding the point. Yet, of all the couples in the show so far, they are unsurpassed in their easy, spontaneous enjoyment of each other. Michal’s development, like Molly’s, reveals a subterranean link between rage and devotion.
Perhaps Michael can find his way past Michal’s anger to her love partly because they are unified by a shared culture—both are Orthodox Jews. The function of shared identity is more complex in the case of India and Dale; the social toxins of anti-blackness and misogynoir penetrate their love, sometimes operating as an inner censor, and they wrestle over the legitimacy of India’s anger. Two black therapists in Orna’s peer group help her address the impact of her whiteness, and in the end India is glad, she says, that she didn’t go with her gut and choose a therapist of color instead. The scenario is different and more confusing with the first season’s DeSean and Elaine, who read as a black couple despite Elaine’s vigorous disidentification with blackness (she is, she says, Puerto Rican). But black participants in Couples Therapy are more likely to be expected, or to expect themselves, to speak to the question of race as such, unlike the show’s white or Asian participants: an arduous but perhaps ineluctable double duty.
This emphasis in India and Dale’s storyline is an editing decision—each of the four couples attended between 15 and 20 sessions with Orna, which are condensed into nine 30-minute episodes per season—but we also see other aspects of their relationship. In a striking moment, Orna suggests that Dale is aggrieved by India’s emotional expressiveness not just because it makes him uncomfortable, but because he envies it. “There’s this pattern with these men that are not as expressive and they attach themselves to very expressive women,” muses Orna. “It’s like constantly putting this gas nozzle into her . . . and constantly inviting her to emote towards him, whether by aggression or love or demands.” This dynamic is, as Orna’s little speech makes clear, canonically straight, but both roles can be played by people of any gender, and the contours of similar problems appear repeatedly across all three seasons of the show. There must be couples out there whose neuroses are nearly identical, and perhaps those people live in relative harmony and are unlikely to be seen arguing on TV. But Couples Therapy suggests that there is a widespread pseudo-heterosexuality of the emotional life, even in couples of the same gender. Like in the bio-romantic image of phallus fitting orifice as key into lock, emotional patterns between two halves of a couple seem to mesh in the mode of both climactic fulfillment and fight to the death. “In some kind of, in a way, beautiful way, but very not good for the two of you, you’re enacting . . . parts of your childhood with each other,” Orna points out gently to Cyn and Yaya, two women who compare their 18-year relationship to being trapped in a sleeping bag. “You’re really nicely fitting each other to re-enact what’s been very painful for you in the past.”
The idea that love is a theater for ancient specters is a commonplace, but everyone has their own irreducibly singular performance. Will, who has found in Ping’s defensive contempt a distorted echo of his unkind, bewildering mother, has trouble adjusting when his wife begins to relinquish the punitive stance he associates with love. Molly can’t stop raging about Josh’s failures of communication for long enough to register his attempts to communicate. India thinks her constant harsh criticism of herself must be emanating from inside Dale’s head. Everyone turns up with a story about who is victim and who is perpetrator, a lurid plot that Orna encourages them to rewrite even as their ego spasms and writhes away from the intrusion. Shamelessly proselytizing for therapy, the show suggests that the reward of giving up these beloved, brittle narratives is more life. Michal’s permanent paroxysm of disappointment, for example, turns out to be a veil draped clumsily over her love. At the end of their treatment, she and Michael bring Orna the gift of a tiny garden under glass, and Orna interprets it as their relationship: real and able to grow.
Everyone turns up with a story about who is victim and who is perpetrator, a lurid plot that Orna encourages them to rewrite even as their ego spasms and writhes away from the intrusion.
The inherently dialectical nature of couples therapy means it can move faster toward resolution than individual therapy, but practitioners have to manage an exponentially more complex gyre of emotional currents. The aforementioned 2016 paper on psychoanalytic couples therapy suggests that some practitioners bring on a co-therapist to help manage the combined force of a couple’s pain. Orna’s co-therapist is, effectively, the invisible presence of the camera, which gives the therapeutic process an additional dimension of fantasy and projection. Yet its fulcrum is Orna’s evident skill as a love worker in a plague era. The show is at pains to depict her as hard-working. Like couples therapy, Couples Therapy emphatically reinforces the truism that love is work—in an inversion of the usual order of therapeutic process, the show’s starring couples are paid for their time. (I wish this was customary: While I was in five-times-a-week analysis, a 50-minute commute each way, my maps app sympathetically saved my analyst’s office as my workplace. But my fitful progress was not televised.)
Love is private, reproductive, and unpaid while work is public, productive, and paid. Thus love can operate as both a downward pressure on wages (what you love, you are expected to do for free) and an inducement to work (to support your children, for example). And work, with its often more rational effort-to-outcome ratio, its orientation toward the outside world, can be an escape from the complexities of love or a way to feel that you deserve it. Phenomena that press on the work/love divide, such as care work and sex work, are often terrains of vulnerability to violence and premature death, brutally policed and/or shoved out of sight. But the therapist, with her apparent autonomy from and expertise in relation, seems to escape the taboo on care. She is more aligned with the doctor than with the sex worker or nanny. She strives to help her patients follow a social script in which sexuality, childcare, intimacy, mourning, and love are contained within the drama of the private household. While watching, I, too, forgot the outside world, absurdly moved by these struggles in and for love. I allowed into my heart the conventional belief that, no matter the degree of suffering, being with the same person for ten or 20 years is an achievement in itself. After all, if these couples separated, wouldn’t they only encounter themselves all over again with another person?
But longevity is not a reliable indicator of a relationship’s good health. Couples Therapy affirms that, for better or worse, relationships can survive even destructive behavior—addiction, abuse, absence, adultery—if you choose a partner with the capacity to tolerate your particular brand of shit. In this, the show is very un-DSM: There are no objective categories, only the subjectivity of relation. To accept the show’s terms and try to stretch them past its focus on the couple: Orna’s indefatigable patience models an approach to difference that is unlike either the liberal obsession with truth or the fascist fixation on control. It begins from the irreducible idiosyncrasies of perception, neither concrete nor abstract, real nor unreal, willed nor automatic.
Is it foolish to try to extract, however tentatively, a liberatory praxis from a method first formulated by fascists and fused to the essentially privative logic of the couple? There are profound limits to using psychoanalytic perspectives to illuminate the political. While Orna’s website includes both “socio-politics/ideology” and “intergenerational transmission of trauma” among the subjects in which she specializes, the latter concept has been criticized for its tendency to elide the social and political roots of traumatizing events, as well as the culturally recursive nature of trauma: We are traumatized by post-facto representations and uses of trauma as much as the indeterminate trace of the events themselves. The difficulty of cleaving to the essentially depoliticizing concept of trauma while also paying attention to social forces is apparent in Orna’s life. She is an Israeli American who served in the Israeli army and has more recently written about her anguish about Palestinian children murdered by the Israeli state; Israeli radicals call this genre of self-expression “shoot-and-cry.” She works with the Israeli organization Parents Circle Family Forum, which, though well-intentioned, glosses over the violent asymmetry of the occupation to treat bereaved Palestinians and Israelis alike as common victims who must equally refuse the temptations of revenge. In a 2014 Huffington Post article she wrote in the wake of Israel’s attack on Gaza that year, Orna describes arguments with her brother about whether or not Palestinian parents mourn their murdered children and—though expressing genuine sorrow and revulsion about Israeli atrocities and her brother’s complicity—stops short of acknowledging his attitude as openly genocidal, instead rehearsing the over-determined trope of Jews’ unique sensitivity to suffering. Orna’s gifts as a healer and the sincerity of her transformative ambitions for her work are not in doubt, but even experts in ideology are shaped by the ideology that surrounds them.
Ultimately, therapy’s terrain lies at the far limit of politics, at the border of the hinterland where the administration of collective life must give way to the lumpen, the inconsolable, the already-dead: To quote the theorist and organizer Joy James, “the permanent child” inside us makes their “brilliant and . . . incessant demands for what cannot be delivered”—asks for the impossible, asks to be held, asks to be seen. Still, worlds must be made out of the material of relation, amid the mess of all our sentimental and political attachments, long-running childhood dramas, abuses of power, fantasies of powerlessness, wounds, gifts, and self-justifications. Romantic love is just one form of combined becoming, though wildly hypertrophied, and couples’ struggles to maintain it only affirm that it is in reality braided into other forms: politics, parenting, labor, childhood, community. In M.E. O’Brien and Eman Abdelhadi’s abolitionist science fiction Everything For Everyone, interviewees born in the 2020s reject older historians’ archaic fixation on the couple: “Ugh. People of your generation always say partner like it automatically means romance. We’re all partners!” But multiple characters in the novel reference benefiting from group therapy, trauma therapy, sex therapy, and so on. Maybe, as this implies, infrastructures designed to ensure the survival of the private household will outlive its social centrality. Until then, even the lonely can watch love on TV.