What Finally Convinced Dr. Orna Guralnik To Star In Couples Therapy

Photo: Courtesy of Showtime.
Couples Therapy, a nine-part Showtime documentary series premiering September 6, turns four couples’ actual therapy sessions into riveting TV. Filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg had the ambitious goal of capturing the therapeutic process on camera — and they weren’t sure it would work.
There’s never been a show like Couples Therapy before, but there wouldn’t be a Couples Therapy without Dr. Orna Guralnik, the accomplished New York-based clinical psychologist and writer who patiently shepherds couples toward difficult, hard-won plateaus of mutual understanding. She gives the series its sense of forward momentum, despite the sessions’ seemingly constant back-and-forth.
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Guralnik first heard of the series though her colleagues at NYU's Postdoc program. With her background in film and psychology, 55-year-old Guralnik was fascinated by the project from a theoretical standpoint. Could the therapeutic process, so intensely private, be captured on camera with the knowledge that it would later be shown to millions? 
Initially, she planned to be involved with Couples Therapy as a consultant. Next thing she knew, filmmakers Kriegman and Steinberg were recruiting her to be Couples Therapy’s lodestar. The show provided Guralnik a seamless transition from civilian therapist to reality TV therapist. She slid from her real office to its exact copy on the Couples Therapy set, with the same books and the same precise distance between her chair and the patients’ couch. The only difference? Cameras, imperceptibly installed in key locations. 
Eventually, these cameras would capture Guralnik’s expression of serious, sharp empathy, the only constant through the varied sessions. It’s the face of someone straining to hear what another person is really saying. I got the sense, watching Guralnik’s eyebrows furrow then clarify with understanding, that this is what the act of listening looks like (and also that I’d never been listened to before, not like this). 
We spoke to Guralnik about why she took the leap into working on a project that was the first of its kind. Unfortunately, she can’t answer the question you’ll certainly have while watching: Come on, Orna. What are you really thinking? 
Refinery29: Have you watched the show?
Dr. Orna Guralnik: “Yes. I've watched the whole thing twice.”
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What was that like?
“It was pretty incredible. They stayed utterly true to the mission and exceeded any expectations I could’ve had for this. I was just blown away. I said, ‘You did some kind of magic here. I don’t know how you guys did this, but you followed a true therapeutic, psychoanalytic narrative and put it on film.’ What you see is what really happened.”
Why did you agree to be a part of the show? 
“I was quite skeptical about in the beginning. Can I do this in front of the camera? We tried it out a few times and I realized it's the same thing as doing therapy. I have a certain style. I just do it. Then I got quite excited about the whole mission of the series. I thought Wow, This would be a great opportunity for me to share something I believe in and I love with a larger population. This could be a real public service.”
What, in your mind, is the show’s shared mission that convinced you to overcome the hesitations you had about going on camera?
“There’s something quite radical about this show even though it’s quite subtle. It breaks through taboos or firewalls around the privacy of what happens in a marriage, what happens between a couple, what happens behind closed doors of therapy. To actually see what goes on there. Not in a way of sensationalizing or big drama, but to see very pure, human truths about how people struggle through difference and conflict and emerge. It’s all about nuance.” 
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The show focuses on your experience as a therapist, too. Why was it important that Couples Therapy include your perspective on the process, too?
“I wanted people to identify with me, too. I feel like whoever is gong be watching this will identify with whoever is in this. What it’s like to be the couples and what it’s like to be the one who’s trying to think about it like a therapist.”
Are there any misconceptions that people have about being a therapist that this show might challenge?
“In popular media, therapists are often conveyed either as very simplistic and coming with cookie-cutter answers to things, quick fixes. Or, as people who are there to exploit their patients. There are a lot of those negative representations that miss the main point of what goes on, day in and day out, in a psychoanalyst’s office — which is really very subtle and about careful listening, taking your time, and refusing to get too simplistic about issues.”
As a therapist, you’re supposed to remain a mystery to your clients. Were you ever worried about how personal the show would get in showing your life?
“Yes. It was an ongoing exploration with the directors. Of course, as documentary filmmakers, they wanted to know everything about me. My stance was, Look, this show is not about me. It’s about the work. If you include my personal life into it, you are misrepresenting the work. Anything you do with my personal story will contaminate the honest representation of the process of what therapy is really like, would hurt my current patients. I don’t want to do that to them. It’s a betrayal.”
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What can people learn from Couples’ Therapy?
“It’s about how to deal with the radical Otherness of your partner. And I mean it really with a capital “o.” The Otherness of your partner is a source of growth. It constantly confronts you with a kind of irritant that moves you to go beyond yourself, beyond your ego, beyond what you’ve learned with your history. It’s tis provocateur that give you the possibility of growth and true love of another. I hope people get inspired by that, but the beauty of that. The difficulty of it but the beauty. You see these couples really struggling with someone who is different from them.” 
It’s hard not form judgments and make opinions while watching. How do you recommend viewers approaching this show mindfully? 
“I love that. What I would recommend is observe your judgments. Note them to yourself. Watch the show all the way through until you see where all the couples end up for the duration of the show. You’ll see your judgments morph. You’ll realize that the story is so much more complicated and nuanced than your immediate first judgment. To learn how to suspend your judgement, hold them lightly, then watch them evolve as you get to know each other he’s character and what led them to where they are. You become a more compassionate person.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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