The therapist remakes our love life on TV

“Couples therapy” has turned Guralnik into something rare: a famous analyst. Her closest colleague in this regard is Esther Perel, the Belgian-born psychotherapist who pioneered the couples therapy genre with her podcast Where Should We Begin? Perel, something of a self-promoter, has two bestsellers, one viral TED Conversation and even a slightly erotic deck of cards (“Where do we start? A game of stories”) to her name. In contrast, Guralnik has no affiliations, no merchandise, no catchphrase—at least not yet. Her general reputation rests solely on what “Couples Therapy” reveals about her open, exploratory clinical style, which involves pushing patients to the brink of a terrifying emotional abyss and then encouraging them to jump. “One of the graceful things about Orna’s work is that she lets you slip into the scenery in a warm and informal way,” Goldner told me. Goldner, who is also on the faculty at NYU, is one of Guralnik’s closest mentors, and Guralnik eventually persuaded her to come on the show in the role of clinical advisor — the “know-it-all,” Goldner joked — that Guralnik refines her with Dealing with patient problems. It was Guralnik’s idea to put supervision, as the practice is called in psychoanalysis, at the center of the show. Her authority rests in part on her willingness to admit what she doesn’t know.

In the new season of the series, Guralnik is stumped by a couple named Ping and Will. (Despite its commitment to radical frankness, “Couples Therapy” doesn’t reveal the last names of its subjects.) When they began dating seven years ago, they shared a desire for exclusive emotional connection but happily included other people in their sex lives. Then Ping started dating a lover alone, and Will panicked. He established a set of rules to govern Ping’s rendezvous: no long walks, no cuddling. But sex without flirting, without intimacy, wasn’t sexy for Ping. Soon, Will began dating other people as well, and Ping was plagued by the same fears that had plagued Will. “I feel damn left out,” she tells Guralnik at her first session.

That, Guralnik learns, is by no means the extent of the problem. Ping is mean to Will. She mocks and despises him. Will, tall and boyish, cries easily, and when he says something particularly heartfelt – that nothing he does seems good enough for Ping that she rejects the affection shown to him – Guralnik asks Ping what she hears. “Honestly,” Ping replies, “just a lot of whining.”

Troubled, Guralnik visits Goldner at her apartment, where, surrounded by her impressive collection of African statues, they discuss the couple’s impasse. There’s something sadomasochistic about it, Guralnik thinks. “I find that my normal tool kit isn’t entirely relevant,” she says. She wants to address the issue, but “I have to listen when the timing is right.”

At their next session, Will confesses that he feels hopeless. “We’ve been to so many therapists and it just keeps happening,” he says in a choked voice.

“Where are you?” Guralnik asks ping.

“I try not to make snide remarks,” says Ping.

“But you have an impulse for it?”

“I do. I feel like there’s a lot of ‘he said, she said,’ right?” says Ping. “But what’s missing is…”

“It’s kind of a theory to help you understand, ‘What’s the dynamic?’ ‘ Guralnik chimes in.

“Yes, exactly,” says Ping.

Guralnik seizes her moment. “One of the things we talked about is that you’re already deep in the groove where you’re going to start an attack,” she begins. “Now we already know that there are all kinds of feelings of hurt, vulnerability, and betrayal behind the attack.” She turns to Will. “And your reaction to that is to go into a state of helplessness and try to acquiesce, to appease, but really you’re withdrawing.” Will makes a noise of agreement.

“Which fails you even more,” Guralnik tells Ping. “So that’s your dance for now. And you’re tired of it. But something is holding you together.”

“I don’t know what!” says Ping. “I’ll keep looking for that.”

Guralnik spells out the options: “You can tell me you’re fed up, you want to break up. We can try to understand how each of you got so deeply into this particular position. I would like to hear about your family history.”

“I feel like everyone always wants to talk about my family,” Will sighs. He doesn’t have a good relationship with them, but he’s made his peace with it.

Good, says Guralnik. But “you’re too good at this role to not be well rehearsed.” A look into the past may help them understand why they’re so stuck in the present. “Are you interested in that?”

There is a break. Even ping is silent. Here’s the cliff. will they jump

“Okay,” Will says. “So where do we start?”

On a rainy March morning, I visited Guralnik in her duplex apartment, which is the ground floor and living room of a brownstone in Park Slope. The show had already given me an enticing glimpse inside; When the pandemic disrupted filming of season two, Guralnik, like therapists around the world, went to Zoom and the cameras followed her as she conducted sessions from home, occasionally stopping to ask for her teenage son Jasper to be quiet. Watching Guralnik peer at her laptop in front of a lavishly laden bookshelf, I concluded she was working in a luxurious home office, a sacred space of her own. Projection! What I had taken for a desk was actually an end of the dining room table that was fully exposed to the domestic elements.

“This is complete public space,” Guralnik said as she turned on the espresso machine. “I locked my son in his room. My daughter and her boyfriend lived here, so they had to go upstairs to another apartment to work.” The mood was calm now. Guralnik shuffled around in red felt slippers. Her dog Nico, a gregarious Klee Kai named after the Velvet Underground singer, was sprawled on the floor chewing on an action figure. Guralnik has lived in the apartment for sixteen years – “I’ve never lived that long” – and it has acquired the rich patina of family life. Board games were stacked by the fireplace, shoes scattered in the entryway. In front of the television was a Cubist-tinged portrait of an artist friend who is also an analyst, showing Guralnik in a white hoodie, an enigmatic expression on her slanted face.

During her foray into counseling, Guralnik made the kind of money that mental health professionals are generally not entitled to, even those who bill hefty by the hour. She owns the whole building; The film director Darius Marder, who is a friend of hers, lives on the top floor, and she rents the other two apartments to Israeli musicians, the children of her best friends from home. “Nobody locks their doors,” she told me. “I have a small kibbutz in the house.”

Psychoanalysts generally keep their private lives secret from patients to encourage transference: the phenomenon described by Freud, in which a patient directs the intense feelings generated by a formative relationship onto a therapist’s blank slate. Even before the pandemic, Guralnik had made the surprising decision to let cameras track her outside the consulting room as she walked with Nico or caught the subway with coffee in hand. then COVID and there she was, serving her children breakfast and kissing them on the head. Was there a partner in the mix? If so, was such a person kept out of sight.

When Guralnik and I first met, I asked her if she would talk about her own romantic life on the record. She declined, reconsidered, and then declined again. “It’s a bit boring for me, but it’s just not right for my patients,” she said, referring not only to those on the show but also to those she sees in private practice. “There’s so much that people gain by not knowing anything about me or imagining it one way or the other. Am I a conservative straight person? Am I gay? Am I gay? The moment I start talking about myself, I rob them of all that.”

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