Courtesy of SHOWTIME
On the Showtimes documentaryseries Couples Therapy, clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Dr. Orna Guralnik has played many roles for her clients: sounding board, support system, referee, reality check and, at times, an uncomfortable mirror. And she shares his insights into him in every guise with forthright simplicity and empathy. It’s what made the show such a revealing watch for its patients and viewers, it exemplifies the virtues of the therapeutic experience.
As a psychoanalyst, you really want to have equal distance from all the patient’s inner voices, says Guralnik. Otherwise, I try to really keep coming back to a place of what we call neutrality. Now, that’s not always possible, but this is the North Star. That’s where I try to go.
Series co-creators Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and EliDespres initially found Guralnik after embarking on what they call a crazy engagement across New York City involving conversations with hundreds of potential candidates. When I spoke to Orna on the phone, it only took me two minutes to know it was her, Steinberg recalls. She adds Despres, she is an intimidating listener. She’s so in tune with what people say and what they don’t say and she figures things out so quickly and with such erudition that she’s amazing.
In a show that ran the risk of reducing therapy to voyeuristic entertainment, Kriegman says Guralnik possessed the exact quality they were looking for most in their enterprise: doubt.
She came to this project with a certain kind of skepticism, which is to say she wasn’t interested in being on television, she says. It took many conversations to discover that we kind of shared a certain vision of what could be that finally put her at ease about coming on board.
After four years and a pressure cooker of a pandemic, Couples Therapy has not only offered a balm for audiences processing the complexities of their own interpersonal relationships, but has become a focus for the cultural shifts that impact those relationships from the outside. There are a lot of changes and upheavals going on culturally around gender, around what a family structure is, all these identities coordinate race, class, says Guralnik. People ask a lot, how are we supposed to be monogamous or are there other ways to overcome these frustrations?
Among the couples profiled in the season that premiered in April, lesbian partners Christine and Nadine explore the possibility of a polyamorous relationship, while ex-Mormons Kristi and Brock come to terms with the damage inflicted by their shared upbringing and subsequent marriage under the Church of the Latter Day Saints. . Two other couples Natasha and Joe, Erica and Sean are struggling with more conventional relationship challenges, such as intimacy and fidelity, but Guralnik’s hard-hitting approach makes it difficult to find agreement or a path to resolution.
Each pair begins the session in a waiting room, staring at wall art whose ambiguity leads them to ask questions even before they begin the hard work of self-examination. When asked whether the paintings were deliberately chosen as Rorschach tests for clients, Guralnik says: Well, first of all, everything is a Rorschach, especially one’s partners. But we try to choose an art that is evocative and will spark associations. That’s why we don’t put flowers.
Within the well-appointed room in which he holds his sessions, Guralnik attempts to operate in a judgment-free zone, free from personal opinions or political affiliations, as well as maintaining what he describes as a basic moral compass (otherwise it’s insanity) . It’s an especially vital distinction when meeting clients with different backgrounds than himself, as the Israeli-American Jewish therapist did while coaching Christine, who is Palestinian.
I mean, I have a Palestinian woman who is traumatized by my home country, she says. There is no way not to feel completely engaged and engaged.
An increase in therapeutic language, in our contemporary vernacular but particularly on social media, has enabled many people to diagnose themselves and their behavior. Even without the added pressure of one of the world’s longest-running conflicts, Guralnik admits he’s had to adjust his approach over the course of his career to accommodate the language and feelings of clients while providing more educated and objective insights.
To some extent, it really improves communication, but I’ve had to, in many ways, adjust to American culture and then adjust to the way the younger generation speaks, she says. I might feel a little cynical about it, or sometimes it makes me laugh. But I like to believe that I still know how to tell what’s good progression in learning to communicate better and when you really have to stick your nose in and tolerate the hardships, tolerate not feeling right and get things done.
Despite declaring herself to be little self-disclosing analyst, Guralnik reveals more vulnerabilities in the latest collection of episodes than she has in the past not only personally, but in describing the overall difficulty and fragility of the therapeutic process. After Sean not only shows little contrition for cheating on Erica, but virtually refuses to accept any responsibility for her behavior, the analyst must figure out how best to help the couple, or if she can. And at the conclusion of Christine and Nadine’s tenure as her clients, she confesses that she will miss the two of them. Guralnik attributes the change to the pandemic.
It changed because everyone was like working from home. We are all in this madness together, she says. And in the same way that people don’t want to go back to the office, there’s a certain type of intimacy that’s been created and is there to stay.
In addition to his advisor, Dr. Virginia Goldner, and an informal supervisory group to talk about the roadblocks he encounters with patients, Guralnik benefits from the perspective of the series’ production team, whose members make observations after each session. They point out things I may not have noticed, she might as well have been a camera person, from the way they focus the camera, she says. And then I have conversations with publishers when they want to figure something out. So between the session and what you finally see in the series, there are some important steps where you compare notes and think about it together.
When not performing, Guralnik enjoys maintaining a private studio. It’s great to have everyone out of the room and it’s just me and my patient, he says. I work with people who want to do the job and are awesome. I may facilitate a certain process, but really my job is to get out of the way and let people solve the problems.
But for someone whose professional life is dedicated to helping people find ways to work together, it’s no surprise that one of the great rewards of doing couples therapy is not only helping others, but collaborating with them as well. Much of a therapist’s work is pretty isolated, says Guralnik. This is a real team project, so it seems like an amazing benefit, a really good addition to my work.
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