The first episode of the gripping Showtime docuseries Couples Therapy opens on Annie and Mau, an attractive middle-aged couple, sitting on opposite ends of a rust-colored sofa. “So he has a lot of birthday… stuff,” Annie begins, pausing and gesturing on the last syllable, as if to indicate annoyance. “Always has. I have been unsuccessful for 20 years.” In today’s therapy session, Annie and Mau are talking about Annie’s repeated failures to satisfy Mau on his birthday, just one example of his disappointment with her inability to anticipate his needs.
As Annie describes her painstaking attempt to plan a special weekend full of “sexual events,” including a dominatrix theme and a threesome, her husband of 23 years looks around impatiently, each fleeting facial expression seemingly conveying his disagreement with her statements. “The things she was doing,” Mau explains when it is his turn to speak, “[are] the things she could only imagine I would want if she never was paying attention.”
Opposite the sofa, charged with helping the partners work out their sexy birthday party woes is Dr. Orna Guralnik, a New York City-based clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst. Guralnik’s brunette ponytail is in the foreground of these opening shots as she listens attentively to her clients. The framing, with the therapist’s back to the camera and the audience seeing what she sees, invites us to step into Guralnik’s shoes.
The soft-spoken Guralnik has her work cut out for her. In the same conversation, Mau frustratedly declares that he is the easiest person in the world to please. A few beats later, he says, “What I want is to have zero responsibility, to have all the sex I want without any work on my part of any kind. Like zero work, zero thinking about it and it has to be both spectacular and enthusiastic, and genuine.”
These are the kinds of unfiltered, sincere exchanges that make Couples Therapy so fascinating. Sometimes you are tempted to laugh at the show’s participants, as in the above example, but then you realize that these are just normal people exposing their most intimate thoughts. Who hasn’t, at some point, sought the release of venting one’s self-proclaimed “terrible” desires?
Couples Therapy, which follows four couples’ therapy sessions with Dr. Guralnik over the course of 20 weeks, allows viewers to experience this catharsis in close proximity, tracking every tear, sigh, and fidget. The series comes from Edgeline Films—the same production company that produced the Sundance-prize-winning Anthony Weiner doc, Weiner—and it’s often as juicy as reality TV. Yet it somehow manages to feel completely real.
“It was pretty astonishing both to myself and, I think, to everyone who participated,” Guralnik tells The Daily Beast. “But it just felt like the work took over and the fact that it was filmed, it doesn’t matter. The conversation is happening, and all the cameras and production immediately recede, and the real work happens.”
Still, the presence of a camera crew and the promise of broadcasting a couple’s most private moments to millions of viewers is undeniably counterintuitive to the expectations of therapy. Though Guralnik insisted that the atypical circumstances surprisingly had little impact on her approach to her job, she says, “Often in couples’ therapy you talk a lot about sex, or you talk way more explicitly about certain things, like money. I think maybe I, as a therapist, held back a little bit and didn’t go to the most exposing aspects. But it was very minor, that kind of restraint.”
Guralnik, a graduate of the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychoanalysis, had reservations about doing the show. In fact, she initially planned only to offer her expertise as a consultant, but she was compelled to audition for the analyst role at the urging of a colleague. One of the main draws, she says, was the opportunity to correct what she believed to be inaccurate portrayals of therapists in mainstream media. “There’s a lot of negative and paranoid projections onto analysts,” she explains, “and I was thinking, ‘These guys seem like they actually want to portray the real work, which would be awesome.’”
Though the fraught dynamics dissected in Couples Therapy are often specific to the couples involved, Guralnik is able to pinpoint a few common issues in relationships. She says that couples often have two or three issues they keep coming back to, defined in psychoanalytic terms as “repetition compulsion.” “We get stuck in certain patterns and we don’t know how to do things any differently,” she tells me. “We see things a certain way, and then we keep doing the same thing, and we don’t understand why it keeps feeling bad.”
Another frequent problem? Something she calls “the blame game,” or the idea that any bad feelings a person is experiencing must be a result of someone else’s actions. With a laugh, she admits that even she is sometimes guilty of playing the blame game. “I mean, we all do that,” she concedes. “I lose my keys and I’m like, ‘Who put [them] somewhere?’’’
Likewise, she has some basic relationship advice to offer the show’s viewers, free of charge: “Don’t be afraid of the truth.” According to the relationship expert, maintaining a healthy love life really can be as simple as adhering to the “honesty is the best policy” mantra plastered on the walls of elementary school classrooms. “People are afraid of the truth and they don’t trust themselves, and they don’t trust other people and their capacity to handle truth,” Guralnik says. “People actually do much better with the truth than with dancing around it.”
The nine-episode first season of Couples Therapy premieres Friday, Sept. 6 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.