Couples Therapy: Can you resist the call of the couch?

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Couples Therapy: Can you resist the call of the couch?

Richard Ferrer books a session with Israeli psychologist Dr Orna Guralnik, star of BBC2's engrossing new reality show Couples Therapy

Richard Ferrer has been editor of Jewish News since 2009. As one of Britain's leading Jewish voices he writes for The Times, Independent, New Statesman and many other titles. Richard previously worked at the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, edited the Boston Jewish Advocate and created the Channel 4 TV series Jewish Mum Of The Year.

After binge watching BBC2’s compelling new reality show, Couples Therapy, my wife and I are proud to announce our marriage has never been stronger. Honestly, it’s just been one healthy revelation after another. We listen to each other more, don’t take each other for granted and have shared a glorious epiphany – one frankly long overdue – that I’m a terrific husband and Jen’s lucky to have me. (At least I think that’s what we agreed. I was playing Wordle at the time).

From First Dates to Love Island, break-ups and make-ups have long been the basis for countless successful reality shows. Ambitious nine-part series Couples Therapy breaks new ground in the genre by analysing the early warning signs in relationships well past the honeymoon stage, where the stakes are high and both sides desperate to work out where – if anywhere – they go from here.

We see the couples on the couch – including strictly-Orthodox Jews Michal and Michael – through the eyes and ears of Israeli-born clinical psychologist Dr Orna Guralnik. On Zoom from her Brooklyn home, I asked the mum-of-two how concerned she was about cameras intruding on such intensely private moments.

“I was worried, for many reasons,” she nods, her long dark hair up in a ponytail and thick-framed black glasses balanced on the bridge of her nose. “I wasn’t even sure it was possible to film a documentary series about real therapy. To show what it is really like to be in the room. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to function normally under such conditions, that the couples would feel self-conscious and that there wouldn’t be enough good material to make a show. People also warned me it would ruin my career. So, yes, I was anxious in 100 different ways.”

Strictly-Orthodox Jews Michal and Michael settle in for a session with Dr Orna Guralnik.

Orna, 57, needn’t have worried. The soothing sessions in her stylish clinic seem genuinely unhurried, with a breakthrough, of sorts, at the end of each fraught scene. The drama is in the detail – a pursed lip, raised eyebrow, unbroken gaze; a hand searching for a hand. Did watching the footage back reveal intimate details about the couples Orna hadn’t picked up at the time?

“Being in the room with them is a very different experience to watching it back. So yes, there were times when the camera was focused on a particular facial expression while I was absorbed in something else. Empathising and problem solving requires concentration, so yes, the camera does catch things I don’t. Then, when I watch back, I feel for them and understand them in new ways. That’s been one of the most surprising benefits of the show.”

The drama is in the detail – a pursed lip, raised eyebrow, unbroken gaze; a hand searching for a hand.

Much of Orna’s concentration is spent listening. “Hearing the other person is more than 50 percent of a healthy relationship,” she says. “It’s enjoyable to talk when you know someone is listening. It makes you want to say more. It’s helpful to make a distinction between being in listening mode and communication mode. Rather than trying to convince or influence, you’ll find there is so much more you can get out of simply listening. Your relationship will go so much further if you use your ears more to stay curious about your partner.

Much of Orna’s concentration is spent listening. “Hearing the other person is more than 50 percent of a healthy relationship,” she says.

“It’s the same as being a parent. We are driven to influence our kids but when we turn the volume down on influencing and turn the volume up on just seeing our child for who they are it tends to improve our relationship. Influencing all the time can disrupt natural growth.”

Strictly-Orthodox Jews Michal and Michael are one of seven couples Orna works with for 20 sessions across the first two series of the show (a third has just been filmed). Tearful Michal paces the room, incensed at her husband for not providing the life she feels she deserves (“You literally do nothing. You’re so lazy. Your existence is worthless!”), while forlorn Michael struggles to cope with her anger.

I was anxious about the show in 100 different ways. People warned me it would ruin my career.

I ask Orna if working with a strictly-Orthodox Jewish couple brings unique challenges. “I have worked with a lot of strictly-Orthodox couples. Many have incredible family values and are deeply invested in their loves ones. This solid foundation can help a lot with relationship difficulties. Other strictly-Orthodox relationships can be incredibly repressive. If one person feels different or struggles in some way they can be ignored and pushed away by their partner and community.

“As with all cultures, there are different types of relationships within the religion. I have a lot of respect for the strictly-Orthodox community and the importance they place on family.”

As the drama plays out across eight months of deeply personal sessions, it becomes clear that Orna is unpacking the baggage of more than just the couple on her couch. As she puts it in one of the show’s most telling moments: “You don’t always know who is in the room with you. When the couple talk to each other they are not necessarily speaking to their partner. It could be their mother talking to their father, repeating a certain dance.

“These conversations are never over and you are always having them. You may find yourself having a conversation with your kid and you are actually continuing a conversation you had with your father 35 years ago.”

Couples Therapy is on BBC2, Mondays at 10pm and available to watch on iPlayer

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