Can Watchtime ‘Couples Therapy’ Help Me Too?

I watched the entirety of Couple therapy from my childhood bedroom during a visit to my parents in July. It was a time and a place as propitious as any other to entertain heavy psychoanalytic ideas which, without a doubt, would make me reflect on my life. The Showtime docuseries follow Orna Guralnik, a real-life psychologist in New York City, as she works with couples for several months. Deep in the second season, Guralnik challenges a woman to consider that the outbursts she feels towards her husband are not really about him, but rather are motivated by anxiety inherited from a demanding mother who is falling apart. considered a failure. “Anxiety tells you something about your parents’ misfortune and that you are being recruited to do something,” Guralnik tells the woman.

At this point I must have shut down my laptop and stared at the wall for a few minutes. Had I been doing emotional errands for the two people in the hallway without realizing it? I wasn’t sure if it was wise, or fair for my parents, to apply what Guralnik had said to my own life, but I had some ideas on how I might do it.

Couple therapy makes good TV: Couples seem lively and serious, but there is still a lot of drama, if not quite the overkill kind you can find on reality shows like The single person and Real housewives. They point fingers, reach dead ends, and struggle to see how past traumas have shaped the way they treat their partners. Over time, some of them progress, understand their role in negative relationship dynamics and learn to adopt a more empathetic view of their partner. The show belongs to a nascent genre – let’s call it “therapeutic voyeurism” – in which real counseling sessions are recorded and packaged for mass consumption: in addition to Couple therapy, there is Viceland The therapist and Esther Perel’s Couples Therapy Podcast, Where to start ?, who both debuted in 2017. (The premiere ran for a season, while the fourth season of Perel’s podcast was released last year.)

My own experience watching Couple therapy made me wonder if therapeutic voyeurism can be more than just entertainment. Right now there are good reasons for people to turn to these shows as a replacement or supplement to actual therapy. The pandemic has ushered in a deep mental health crisis, and although many people have been left out of therapy under normal circumstances due to a lack of time and money, even those who are actively pursuing treatment have now been stymied by a shortage of therapists with openings in their schedules. Coincidentally or not, a Showtime spokesperson said the streaming audience of Couple therapy had doubled from its first season, in 2019, to its second season, released in April. I contacted psychologists to get their opinion on the phenomenon, and they were very clear: therapeutic voyeurism is not real therapy, but that does not mean that it is totally useless either.

In all likelihood, viewers won’t leave an episode (or even a season) of Couple therapy with a practical guide to manage their anxiety, lift their depression and solve their relationship problems. But in the most basic sense, watching Guralnik guide couples to the root of their conflict through a combination of questions and observations can help you better understand how to deal with your feelings. That, says Steven Tuber, professor of clinical psychology at City College of New York, is not that different from the outcome of actual therapy, in which psychologists are generally less eager to tell their patients how to handle a situation exactly than they are. to give them a new way of thinking about their problems. “If you give a person a sophisticated interpretation, they’ll feel a lot better that day,” he told me. “But if you teach them to think psychologically, they can do it all their lives.”

Guralnik certainly entered my head. After watching the show, I found myself considering my own role in perpetuating certain dynamics in my relationship, rather than assuming they start and end with my boyfriend. I became more open to the possibility that my negative reaction to something he was doing might have more to do with my existing anxieties than his inherent injustice. (Although sometimes, yes, he’s dead wrong.) Relying on those ideas didn’t make me feel particularly bad at relationships – after all, I had just seen several other people do the same.

Another potential benefit of therapeutic voyeurism, Tuber said, is that these shows could encourage people to seek out a therapist by showing them what treatment actually looks like. (Assuming, of course, that they can get an appointment in the pandemic rush for mental health support.) While the stigma surrounding therapy has diminished over time, it remains a significant barrier for many people who could benefit from assistance. “Yes [the psychologist] comes across as thoughtful and multidimensional, it will make it easier for people on the fence to say, “It’s not that scary, I’m going to look into this,” he said. People who are already in therapy also have something to gain: they can see how they react to different approaches, which makes them more informed consumers and potentially forces them to find a therapist who is better suited to what they are looking for.

Last month I contacted Guralnik via Zoom, and she confirmed that I’m not the only one using Couple therapy like a lens through which to look at my own life. (Her dog, Nico, an Alaskan Klee Kai and a delightful presence on the show, slept on the sofa behind her.) “People usually watch the show with other people,” she said. . Parents and children, romantic partners and friends tune in and they will take a break to discuss their own relationships. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, he reminds me of you’ or ‘He reminds me of me,'” Guralnik said. “We didn’t know this was going to happen.

Guralnik does not see Couple therapy as a replacement for couples therapy. “I hope people don’t use the show to do this,” she said. But in his opinion, it can be useful for the same reason that it is not a suitable substitute: it is not about you. Much like pretend games for children allow them to engage in scenarios they may encounter later in life, Guralnik sees his show as a space where adults can imagine their own problems being played out from one location. sure. This distance frees us to think more creatively, come up with different solutions, and have greater compassion for ourselves and others.

But what this does mean is that therapeutic voyeurism is just one of many activities that provide us with this kind of productive distance from ourselves. In fact, they’re all around us: books, movies, games, and even sports can all perform a similar function. In a couples therapy program she teaches, Chicago psychotherapist Karen Bloomberg tells Alain de Botton The course of love, a novel that tells the story of a long-standing romantic relationship and ends each chapter with an analysis of the couple’s dynamics. “Sounds a little hokey, but it’s very well done,” she told me. She and her husband ended up discussing their own relationship after both reading it, and she recommended it to their grown children. As with therapy shows, this offers a new way of looking at your problems: “It wasn’t you, but it could be you, and it could hold the space until you’re ready to look at yourself.” this way, ”she said.

None of the psychologists I spoke with mentioned any major drawbacks to consuming therapy shows and podcasts, although it seems possible that some viewers might extrapolate in the same way that WebMD can entice them. people think that their minor problems are actually cancer. But the irony of therapeutic voyeurism is that its potential benefits may be limited by the reach of the genre. Tuber said he was skeptical that therapeutic shows would penetrate beyond the relatively narrow segment of the population that is already open to the therapeutic process: in 2019, less than 20% of adults had received health treatment. mental health over the past year, according to the CDC, and those who did were much more likely to be white and female. “Most of the time when people are struggling with issues, they talk to a family member, religious figure, or their GP long before they go to see a therapist,” Tuber said. (Guralnik said he heard from viewers around the world, although Showtime won’t provide details on the show’s audience demographics.)

I had bought into the idea of ​​therapy long before I heard about it Couple therapy, and I liked the show precisely because I already wanted to go further in this world. Watching him made me feel good about myself: smarter, because I could clearly see when someone put too much blame on their partner; more benevolent, and maybe a little holy, because I’ve learned to sympathize with those on the show who seemed to me absolute villains at first. These lessons, if not self-glorification, were a good thing, and they were largely possible thanks to the neutrality and emotional buffer I had as an outside observer. But while this tampon can be useful, it has to come down if you really want to dig into your own psyche.

Unfortunately, the frenzy of a show hasn’t solved all the problems in my life. “We talk a lot about ‘bring something into the room’. What that means is to really experience the vulnerability right there in the moment with the therapist, ”Bloomberg said. “That’s what doesn’t happen when you look.”

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