Couples Therapy on TV

I recently watched (with my partner) a programme on the BBC called Couples Therapy* and feel moved to share some thoughts on it.

  • it was a good advert for therapy
  • the couples were incredibly brave
  • it was well made with helpful insights
Orna Guralnik at work with a couple in therapy

Format – Real couples agreed to be filmed in session with New York psychoanalytic psychotherapist Orna Guralnik, who also revealed something of her process through segments with her clinical supervisor**. Couples were also shown briefly at home. Each episode interwove the journeys of three or four couples over several sessions so the viewer is invited to learn about them and witness their engagement and processing within the actual therapy sessions. The second series found itself in New York lockdown and on zoom. Multiple remote cameras were used to bring us in close and smart editing, music and cutaway segments helped us follow the various stories and added some context.

The couples’ difficult experiences were handled sensitively and appropriately, allowing us insight into how couple dynamics interplay and of course, how they can become enormously frustrating, painful and seemingly intractable.

It felt like great advertising for the often misunderstood process of therapy. My hope is that viewers can see change actually happening.

The couples have become convinced of certain outcomes or responses, they look desperate or defeated when they start, but gradually, through their own motivation, trust, courage and application, they begin to find other, better ways to relate. The therapist’s kindness and skill help form a place of calm where the couples break with habits of old, where they learn to hear what each other really wants and often they hear themselves differently too. This in turn opens up possibilities for real change.

This show demonstrates how many common assumptions can be challenged and even turned on their head. I have heard people say:

  • they wouldn’t want to dredge up the past
  • they wouldn’t want a therapist telling them how to be
  • I can’t change, this is the way I am
  • My partner can’t change
  • I’ve tried and tried but they (partner, family, boss etc) wont change

When client’s history was discussed we saw how early life experiences can embed beliefs in us that feel normal, natural or unchangeable. We witnessed how lives can not only be shaped but how they can be changed. How we can change ourselves.

Bravery. I don’t quite know how to express the feeling I have for the clients’ bravery. The show includes some wonderful moments where a person who seemed stuck finds a new perspective Or someone who habitually responds by dismissing, dissociating or even attacking takes a risk and steps into new territory. This requires trust and the courage to be really honest with their partner, with the therapist and with themselves. I see this in my work quite often, but to see it from the outside and in this narrative form was for me, profound and emotional. (Not every client manages this and the show includes one who quite strikingly doesn’t do it.)

As a therapist who works with couples it was fascinating for me to see another therapist at work. We know that the client has to do the most significant part of the work, but we know also that good listening, a solid theoretical foundation and our own integrity will be really important for the therapy to succeed.

image of water to mark the end of this post

*BBC iPlayer – Couples Therapy

**a clinical supervisor in an experienced and specially trained assistant to the therapy process. A therapist meets them regularly to discuss/review the client work that we are doing to help us work safely, efficiently and to assist our continuous learning. Having an outside eye can also help us to manage our own biases and to help us notice when our own experience is unhelpfully influencing our approach.