You might ask yourself what kind of depraved human being gets off on watching the suffering of others. But most of us fall under that category, hence our insatiable obsession with true crime and reality TV, which – let’s be honest – is a sick (albeit entertaining) spectacle hinged on the public humiliation of people. Amid all the warped options available to us – which include shows about people not shagging, about people going on first dates dressed as minotaurs, and social experiments where contestants see their love interest’s junk before they see their face – a new obsession has arisen. It’s raw, unfiltered and utterly addictive.
BBC Two’s Couples Therapy is a new series which follows a diverse cast of couples who have agreed to bare their souls and crumbling relationships as they embark on counselling together over an eight-month period, overseen by New York-based relationship expert Dr Orna Guralnik. It’s a stark contrast to the other relationship reality TV fodder on our screens: rather than capturing those sexy, pheromone-filled early days, here we come face to face with relationships in their death throes, marred by years-long resentments, bitterness and conflict. You think seeing someone’s penis before you see their face makes for shocking TV? You haven’t witnessed the stomach-twisting feeling of watching two real people, suddenly small and frail, coming to the sudden realisation that they need to end things – and all they needed was a third person in the room to tell them that.
Alcoholism, financial woes, sexual ruts and the impact of the pandemic all get air time. Now, I’m no therapist, but here are the six things I learned about relationships while watching the show (sometimes cringing, laughing or gently weeping)…
There is hope in the first step
Even if all else fails, at the end of the day you have to applaud two people coming together in the first place to admit something is wrong. Therapy is ultimately a leap of faith and a promise to try and make things work. Even if people were stubborn in the sessions or had trouble unlearning some harmful behaviour, there was something really uplifting in the knowledge that every single person wanted to be there. Also that they had enough humility to risk their character and flaws being unpicked in front of the other. The show underlines something beautiful and inherent in humanity: we want to get better and grow, we want to connect and we certainly don’t want to lose the ones we love.
Repetition is a killer
I’m not talking about someone making you a morning cup of tea every day (this is obviously a habit I strongly advocate for). I mean those couples dances – or as I like to say, conflict waltzes – we all do. Every couple gets stuck in patterns and that can be the way they argue, whether it’s bringing up the past or not letting stuff go, or how one person always reaches and the other always retreats. The show underlines that if a negative routine is sinking your boat, break the cycle.
One person will never live up to your fantasy
There’s obviously no such thing as a perfect person. We often have friends for a specific purpose: good confidante, fun partygoer, hobby mate. Yet often with partners, we’ll project our hopes, fears and expectations onto one person – and it’s not fair. Once the couples started viewing their partner as just one person, who is ultimately flawed (as we all are) and who is trying their best, rather than someone with bad intentions setting out to ruin their day, it was like a door opened.
Communication is key
I hate calling out something that is so damn obvious but with every single couple that couldn’t see eye to eye anymore, communication was an underlying issue. Some of the participants seemed to have gotten into the habit of talking over their partner, therefore therapy ultimately was the last resort and they needed someone to mediate because they had just stopped listening to each other. Once Dr Guralnik was able to pump the brakes on either person so the other had the floor to speak and be listened to, it was actually miraculous some of the breakthroughs that were had.
Everyone is unique – no two relationships are the same
If you’ve ever loved someone and been heartbroken, you might find yourself recognising the signs of doom appearing like black mould in some of these couples. It’s a really bewildering feeling. Like, Oh, that woman was me hitting boiling point three months before my last breakup. Or, Wow, that was the first red flag for me in my last relationship. But humans are surprising. And everyone is different. At the beginning of the series I predicted failure for some couples who ultimately came out stronger on the other side. We can’t help but compare. We go off our own personal frame of reference. But it's the same as comparing new relationships to old ones and expecting the same results and reactions. A lot of the beauty of the show came in finally seeing people give their partners some trust and credit.
Humour and compassion can get you through the worst of times
This is a personal one for me. I think people might watch the show and walk away with more profound lessons. But I found that in the couples who exhibited a little kindness, a little positivity or toying humour at dire times, when their partner was being THE WORST, it showed a base level of forgiveness and understanding. Like, Remember? We still have fun together, I love you. Or as my own partner sometimes gently pleads with me when we’re having an argument and I’m doing overtime shifts at the stubborn irrational national bank: "Come back to me."
Couples Therapy is available to watch on BBC Two