A new television show takes on the therapy journey with a series of couples and the warm and wise psychologist that leads them to either better days… or a break up. We talk to Dr Orna Guralnik about the quiet power of the show, how lockdowns have affected couples and why we need to be aware that people handle their pandemic panic differently.
If you’re a nosy kind of person and, let’s face it, who isn’t, then the idea of peering into a couple’s therapy session might fill you with equal parts excitement and terror. As much as we try, we can never really know what goes on in other people’s relationships or other people’s minds, but a new show is here on ThreeNow to change that. Titled – aptly – Couple’s Therapy, this documentary style series follows a Brooklyn based clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst as she sees a variety of couples who are each working on their relationship situations. Dr Orna Guralnik is the specialist and she’s a warm, empathetic and yet reserved presence to observe as she slowly delves into each couple’s past history and present complications.
Filmed from behind two-way glass, Couple’s Therapy takes the viewer literally into each couple’s session with them and the full human experience is on display – vulnerability, anger, jealousy, love, resentment, pain. No wonder it’s a hit.
Chatting to Capsule from her Brooklyn home office, a wonderfully chaotic bookshelf behind her, Dr Orna is quiet and thoughtful as she talks about what drew her to the series in the first place. “When I first heard about it, it seemed to me like a pretty impossible project,” she says. “I mean, most of our work is based on very heavy privacy and confidentiality frames. And the concept of doing this kind of show, giving up all confidentially seemed to me too complicated.”
But after talking to the show’s directors and producers, she realised their vision was true and that also, this would be a great way of showing what the process of therapy actually is like. “Not in a way that tries to sell drama to the audience but in a way that really tracks the deep work that real therapy entails… potentially a great offering for a wider public that sometimes doesn’t have any access to therapy, doesn’t even know what it looks like.”
If you haven’t been to therapy, then the process can seem as mysterious as it is confronting. Put simply, Dr Orna explains, “therapy is based on the idea that if you pay attention to issues, talk about them and talk about them with someone who is not embroiled in your life… then big things can happen. A lot of change can happen in a way that it can’t happen if you’re talking to someone who’s close to you, like a friend or a spouse or parent.”
“Do men in New Zealand not talk a lot?” she asks. “Do they not dominate conversation?”
When it comes to couple’s therapy, it’s less about the individuals that make up the relationship and more about the relationship unit itself. “I pay attention to the individuals, because people can bring in different traumas or different traits or different kind of biological wirings,” Dr Orna says. “But what I’m really interested in is how these individuals affect each other and create a system between them.”
Coming from Aotearoa, where therapy is only just starting to lose its taboo, I tell Dr Orna that I was impressed by how talkative the men were – and how much that differs from the ‘She’ll be right’ nature of a lot of our men here. She is amused by this. “Do men in New Zealand not talk a lot?” she asks. “Do they not dominate conversation?” Oh yes, of course, I laugh, but there’s still a real reticence for a ‘here’s how I’m feeling’ conversation from a lot of men.
Dr Orna acknowledges that Brooklyn, where she lives, is a kind of “little Utopian society, where young men are socialised to talk a lot and pay attention to their emotional life and their mental health.” But she says most men are actually very willing to open up, if provided a safe enough space to do so. “If you give them the opportunity, and you give them just a little bit of an invitation, and they want to talk… I mean, we’re all human. We all have stories to tell and we all have feelings. You just have to give them space for it.”
If there’s ever been a time where we all need a safe space to talk about our feelings, these past two years definitely count. The pandemic has taken a huge toll on all of us, globally, and has, of course, taken a huge toll on our relationships as well. As a couple’s therapist, Dr Orna has been on the front row of this.
“Over the past year and a half, I saw a kind of bifurcation… one was that couples and families responded to the stresses and the lockdowns by coming to really appreciate what they have together and creating a cocoon in which there was a more forgiving appreciation of humanity, and a lot of appreciation for the fact that people even had a cocoon, someone to feel safe with,” she says. “And then some families and some couples where the amount of time spent together revealed to them things that are not going well that they chose to ignore in everyday life.”
She says it was impossible to predict in advance which couple would fall into what category but “you could say that the pandemic kind of exacerbated, for each couple, their inclination anyway.”
“People are differently anxious. Some people when they’re anxious, they disassociate and they just present that nothing bad is happening… And some people, when they’re anxious, they get hyper controlling.”
Her advice for couples weathering an extended lockdown together is to maintain their boundaries. “During lockdown periods, it’s really artificial boundaries – work in separate rooms, have scheduled times when you’re together and times when you’re definitely apart, don’t interrupt your partner with every thought you have… make sure you’re continuing to maintain some degree of autonomy and boundaries and then come back together when you’re choosing to, not just by default.”
A key lesson from the pandemic that isn’t just for couples is that everyone has a different way of handling this chaotic time. “People are differently anxious,” she says. “Some people when they’re anxious, they disassociate and they just present that nothing bad is happening, ‘this is nothing, it’s going to be over in a second.’ And some people, when they’re anxious, they get hyper controlling. They want to control everything and everyone and these are just different ways of being anxious.”
If you are interested in attending couple’s therapy with your partner, Dr Orna says to go in with honesty and kindness. “One way is to say, ‘look, we have issues – I’ve been trying to do my best to bring about change and I know you’ve tried your best and I think we’ve reached the limits of what the two of us can do. We might need to acknowledge a certain kind of humility and let’s bring in someone else where that’s their business, and see if they can help us. Let’s give it a try.’”
Stream every episode of Couples Therapy, only on ThreeNow.