I watched the whole episode Relationship Therapy from my nursery while visiting my parents in July. It was just such an opportune time and place to nurture some heavy psychoanalytic ideas that would no doubt make me rethink my life. The Showtime documentary series follows Orna Guralnik, a real-life psychologist in New York, as she works with couples for several months. Deep into the second season, Guralnik challenges a woman to consider that the rage she feels toward her husband isn’t really about him, but is instead caused by fear inherited from a demanding mother who considers herself a failure. considered. “Fear tells you something about your parents’ misfortune, and that you’re being recruited to do something about it,” Guralnik tells the woman.
At this point I had to close my laptop and stare at the wall for a few minutes. Had I done emotional errands for the two people in the hallway without realizing it? I wasn’t sure if it was wise, or fair to my parents, to apply what Guralnik had said to my own life, but I had some ideas of how I might do it.
Relationship Therapy makes for good TV: the couples come across as lively and serious, but there’s still a lot of drama, if not quite the over-the-top kind you’ll find on reality shows like The Bachelor and Real housewives. They point the finger, reach stalemates and struggle to see how past trauma has shaped the way they treat their partners. Over time, some of them make progress, begin to understand their role in negative relationship dynamics, and develop a more empathetic view of their partner. The show belongs to a burgeoning genre — let’s call it “therapy voyeurism” — in which real-life counseling sessions are recorded and packaged for mass consumption: in addition Relationship Therapy, there’s Viceland’s the therapist and Esther Perel’s couples therapy podcast, Where should we start?, both of which debuted in 2017. (The former lasted one season, while the fourth season of Perel’s podcast came out last year.)
My own experience of watching Relationship Therapy led me to wonder if therapy voyeurism can be more than just entertainment. At this point, people would have good reason to turn to these shows as a substitute for or adjunct to actual therapy. The pandemic has ushered in a deep mental health crisis, and while many people have been kept out of therapy in normal times due to a lack of time and money, even those now in active treatment have been thwarted by a shortage of therapists with openings in their schedule. Coincidentally or not, a Showtime spokesperson said that streaming viewers of Relationship Therapy had doubled from its debut season, in 2019, to its second season, which came out in April. I reached out to some psychologists to get their thoughts on the phenomenon, and they were very clear: therapy voyeurism isn’t real therapy, but that doesn’t mean it’s totally pointless either.
In all likelihood, viewers won’t walk away from an episode (or even a season) of Relationship Therapy with a guide to managing their anxiety, overcoming their depression and solving their relationship problems. But in the most basic sense, looking at Guralnik couples at the root of their conflict through a combination of questions and observations can give you a better understanding of how to deal with your feelings. This, says Steven Tuber, a professor of clinical psychology at the City College of New York, isn’t all that different from the outcome of actual therapy, with psychologists generally less eager to tell their patients how to handle a situation than to give a new way. to think about their problems. “If you give someone a nice interpretation, they will feel a lot better that day,” he told me. “But if you teach them to think psychologically, they can do that for a lifetime.”
Guralnik was definitely in my head. After watching the show, I found myself contemplating my own role in perpetuating certain dynamics in my relationship, rather than assuming they start and end with my boyfriend. I was more open to the possibility that my negative reaction to something he does might have more to do with my existing fears than his inherent flaw. (Although, sometimes, yes, he’s completely wrong.) Taking these ideas into account didn’t make me feel like I was exceptionally bad at relationships — after all, I’d seen several other people do the same.
Another potential benefit of therapy voyeurism, Tuber said, is that these shows can encourage people to seek out a therapist by showing them what a treatment looks like. (Assuming, of course, they can get an appointment in the pandemic mental health support rush.) While the stigma surrounding therapy has diminished over time, it remains a major barrier to many people who could benefit from it. getting help. “If [the psychologist] comes across as thoughtful and multidimensional, it will make it easier for people on the fence to say, ‘This isn’t so scary, I’m going to investigate this,’ he said. People who are already in therapy can also gain something: they can see how they respond to different approaches, making them more informed consumers and potentially forcing them to find a therapist who is a better fit for what they are looking for.
Last month I reached out to Guralnik via Zoom, and she confirmed that I’m not the only one using Relationship Therapy like a lens through which I can look at my own life. (Her dog, Nico, an Alaskan Klee Kai and a delightful presence on the show, slept on the couch behind her.) “People usually watch the show with other people,” she said. Parents and children, romantic partners, and friends tune in together, and they will pause all the time to discuss their own relationships. “They will say, ‘Oh, he reminds me of you’ or ‘He reminds me of me,'” Guralnik said. “We didn’t know that would happen.”
Guralnik doesn’t see it Relationship Therapy as a replacement for, well, couples therapy. “Hopefully people aren’t going to use the show to do that,” she said. But she says it can be useful for the same reason that it’s not an adequate replacement: it’s not about you. Just as pretend play for children allows them to deal with scenarios they may encounter later in life, Guralnik sees her show as a space where adults can imagine their own problems playing out from a safe distance. This distance frees us to think more creatively, come up with different solutions and have more compassion for ourselves and others.
But what that means is that therapy voyeurism is just one of many activities that give us this kind of productive distance from ourselves. In fact, they are all around us: books, movies, games and even sports can all serve a similar function. In a couples therapy program she teaches, Chicago psychotherapist Karen Bloomberg points out the The course of love, a novel that tells the story of a long-term romantic relationship and concludes each chapter with an analysis of the couple’s dynamics. “It sounds a bit hokey, but it’s done really well,” she told me. She and her husband eventually discussed their own relationship after they both read it, and she recommended it to their adult children. Like therapy shows, it offers a new way to see your problems: “It’s not you, but it could be you, and it could hold the space until you’re ready to look at yourself that way,” she said.
None of the psychologists I spoke to mentioned any major drawbacks to consuming therapy programs and podcasts, although it seems possible that some viewers may extrapolate from them in the same way that WebMD can. incentive trick people into thinking that their little problems are actually cancer. But the irony of therapy voyeurism is that its potential benefits can be limited by the scope of the genre. Tuber said he was skeptical that therapy shows would penetrate further than the relatively narrow segment of the population already open to the therapeutic process: In 2019, less than 20 percent of adults had received mental health treatment in the past year, According to the CDC, and those who did were far more likely to be white and female. “Overwhelmingly, when people struggle with problems, they talk to a family member, religious figure, or their primary care physician long before seeing a therapist,” Tuber said. (Guralnik said she’d heard from viewers around the world, though Showtime declined to provide details on the show’s viewer demographics.)
I had the idea of therapy long before I heard about Relationship Therapy, and the show appealed precisely because I already wanted to go deeper into that world. Looking at it made me feel good about myself: smarter, because I could clearly see when someone was blaming their partner too much; more benevolent, and perhaps a little holy, as I learned to empathize with those on the show who struck me as absolute villains at the beginning. These lessons, if not the self-aggrandizement, were a good thing, and they were possible in large part because of the neutrality and emotional buffer I was given as an outside observer. But while that buffer can be useful, it has to come down if you really want to dig into your own psyche.
Unfortunately, a show binge hasn’t solved all the problems in my life. “We talk a lot about ‘bringing something into the room.’ What that means is you really experience the vulnerability there, in the moment, with the therapist,” Bloomberg said. “That doesn’t happen when you look.”