The Therapist Remaking Our Love Lives on TV

“Couples Therapy” has turned Guralnik into that rare thing: a famous analyst. Her closest peer in this regard is Esther Perel, the Belgian-born psychotherapist who pioneered the couples-therapy-vérité genre with her podcast “Where Should We Begin?” Perel, something of a self-marketing maven, has two best-selling books, a viral TED talk, and even a mildly erotic…

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“Couples Therapy” has turned Guralnik into that rare thing: a famous analyst. Her closest peer in this regard is Esther Perel, the Belgian-born psychotherapist who pioneered the couples-therapy-vérité genre with her podcast “Where Should We Begin?” Perel, something of a self-marketing maven, has two best-selling books, a viral TED talk, and even a mildly erotic card game (“Where Should We Begin? A Game of Stories”) to her name. Guralnik, by contrast, has no tie-ins, no merch, no catchphrase—at least, not yet. Her popular reputation rests entirely on what “Couples Therapy” reveals of her frank, probing clinical style, which involves nudging patients to the edge of a terrifying emotional precipice, then encouraging them to jump. “One of the graceful things about Orna’s work is that she slides you into the setting in a warm and casual way,” Goldner told me. Goldner, who is also on the faculty at N.Y.U., is one of Guralnik’s closest mentors, and Guralnik eventually persuaded her to come on the show in the role of clinical adviser—the “all-knower,” Goldner joked—with whom Guralnik refines her approach to patients’ dilemmas. It was Guralnik’s idea to make supervision, as the practice is known in psychoanalysis, central to the show. Her authority rests, in part, on her willingness to admit what she doesn’t know.

In the show’s new season, Guralnik is stumped by a couple named Ping and Will. (Despite its commitment to radical exposure, “Couples Therapy” doesn’t divulge its subjects’ last names.) When they got together, seven years ago, they shared a desire for exclusive emotional commitment, but happily included other people in their sex life. Then Ping began to see a lover on her own, and Will panicked. He drew up a set of rules to govern Ping’s trysts: no long walks, no cuddling. But sex severed from flirting, from intimacy, wasn’t sexy to Ping. Soon, Will, too, started to date other people, and Ping found herself mobbed by the same anxieties that had tormented Will. “I feel fucking left out,” she tells Guralnik, at their first session.

That, Guralnik learns, is hardly the problem’s extent. Ping is mean to Will. She derides and belittles him. Will, big and boyish, cries easily, and when he says something particularly heartfelt—that nothing he does seems good enough for Ping, that she refuses the affection he proffers—Guralnik asks Ping what she hears. “Honestly,” Ping answers, “just a whole lot of whining.”

Guralnik, troubled, visits Goldner at her apartment, where, surrounded by her impressive collection of African statuary, they discuss the couple’s deadlock. There is something sadomasochistic in it, Guralnik feels. “I’m finding that my regular toolbox is not totally relevant,” she says. She wants to address the problem, but “I have to listen in as to when the timing is right.”

At their next session, Will confesses that he feels hopeless. “We’ve been to so many therapists, and it’s just going through the same thing again and again,” he says, in a choked voice.

“Where are you?” Guralnik asks Ping.

“I’m trying not to come up with a snide remark,” Ping says.

“But you have an impulse to do that?”

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

“Is some kind of theory that will help you understand ‘What’s the dynamic?’ ” Guralnik breaks in.

“Yeah, exactly,” Ping says.

Guralnik seizes her moment. “So one of the things we’ve talked about is you’re already deeply stuck in the groove where you’ll start with an assault,” she begins. “Now, we know already that underneath the assault there’s all sorts of feelings of hurt, vulnerability, betrayal.” She turns to Will. “And your response to that is to enter some state of helplessness, and trying to comply, trying to appease, but really you’re retreating.” Will makes a noise of assent.

“Which leaves you further abandoned,” Guralnik tells Ping. “So that’s your dance at the moment. And you’re exhausted by it. But something’s keeping you together.”

“I don’t know what!” Ping says. “This is what I keep digging for.”

Guralnik lays out the options: “You can tell me that you’re tired of it, you want to break up. We can try to understand how each of you got so deep into this particular position. I’d want to hear something about your family histories.”

“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.

Fine, Guralnik says. But “you’re too good at this role for it not to be well rehearsed.” Looking at the past might help them understand why they’re so stuck in the present. “Is that of interest to you?”

There’s a pause. Even Ping is quiet. Here is the cliff. Will they leap?

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

Early on a rainy morning in March, I went to visit Guralnik at her duplex apartment, which occupies the garden-level and parlor floors of a brownstone in Park Slope. The show had already given me a tantalizing glimpse inside; when the pandemic disrupted the filming of the second season, Guralnik, like therapists the world over, took to Zoom, and the cameras followed her as she conducted sessions from home, occasionally stopping to ask her preteen son, Jasper, to hush. Watching Guralnik as she peered at her laptop in front of a handsomely loaded bookcase, I had concluded that she was working from a luxurious home office, some hallowed room of her own. Projection! What I had taken for a desk was in fact one end of the dining-room table, fully exposed to the domestic elements.

“It’s complete public space,” Guralnik told me as she fired up the espresso machine. “I was shutting my son into his room. My daughter and her boyfriend were living here, so they had to go upstairs to another apartment to work.” Now the mood was calm. Guralnik shuffled around in red felt slippers. Her dog, Nico, a gregarious Klee Kai named for the Velvet Underground singer, sprawled on the floor, diligently chewing an action figure. Guralnik has lived in the apartment for sixteen years—“the longest I’ve lived anywhere”—and it has acquired the rich patina of family life. Board games were piled next to the fireplace, shoes strewn about the entryway. Propped in front of the TV was a Cubist-inflected portrait by an artist friend who’s also an analyst, showing Guralnik in a white hoodie, an enigmatic look on her angled face.

During her foray into consulting, Guralnik made the kind of money that does not generally come to mental-health professionals, even those who charge heftily by the hour. She owns the whole building; the film director Darius Marder, a friend of hers, lives on the top floor, and she rents the other two apartments to Israeli musicians, the kids of her best friends from home. “No one locks their doors,” she told me. “I have a little kibbutz in the house.”

Psychoanalysts generally keep their personal lives hidden from patients, the better to encourage transference: the phenomenon, described by Freud, in which a patient directs the intense feelings generated by a formative relationship onto the blank slate of a therapist. Even before the pandemic, Guralnik had made the surprising decision to allow cameras to follow her outside the consulting room, as she took walks with Nico, or headed into the subway, coffee in hand. Then COVID struck, and there she was, serving her kids breakfast and kissing them on the top of the head. Was there a partner in the mix? If so, such a person was kept out of sight.

When Guralnik and I first met, I asked if she would discuss her own romantic life on the record. She declined, reconsidered, then declined again. “It’s a little tedious for me, but it’s just not right for my patients,” she said, meaning not only those on the show but the ones she sees in private practice. “There’s so much that people gain from being able to not know about me, or from being able to imagine me as one way or another. Am I a conservative straight person? Am I gay? Am I queer? The moment I start talking about myself, I’m robbing them of all that.”

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