I’m a Couples Therapist. Something New Is Happening in Relationships.
"For more and more of Orna Guralnik’s patients, the ideas behind Black Lives Matter and #MeToo are leading to breakthroughs at home.
One afternoon in 2020, early in the pandemic, I met Syl’violet and Matthew for a virtual session. Young, idealistic, deeply in love, they were also prone to dramatic fights. In this session Syl’violet, a vivacious essayist and spoken-word poet, was trying to describe the ways she felt Matthew, a measured medical student, was trying to control her, in this case by trying to dissuade her from buying a slushy. He thought they should keep to a tight budget until after he became a doctor and achieved financial stability. Then she could have “all the slushies you want later.” Syl’violet found his reasoning maddening, especially since he seemed to imply she was reckless.
On the face of it, the fight seemed insignificant, but then an exchange took place that changed the tenor of the argument, connecting us to the underlying roots of the issue. “I have trouble envisioning that finish line,” Syl’violet exclaimed, tearing up, “because the plan that he’s talking about? My life has always been: The plan never works. You can do all the right things, you can obey all the right rules and get [expletive].” For a moment, Matthew continued to try to reason with her and convince her of his sound financial strategy. “I know that sounds very conceited, cocky,” he said, to which Syl’violet whipped back: “No! It sounds privileged!” She described her family’s relationship to money; they’d had nothing but trauma for generations. Syl’violet resented Matthew’s pride in his plan. “A privileged setting gave you access to all these things,” she said. “You’re taking ownership over it like, ‘I did it according to plan,’ as if, like, if other people did it according to plan, it would work out.”
With the mention of the word “privilege,” Matthew came around to realizing they were talking about forces larger than themselves. Each of them was African American, but he came from a financially stable family; his parents, a firefighter and a bank manager, followed a middle-class trajectory and did well. “Let me rephrase,” Matthew said carefully, signaling to Syl’violet that he could see how his certainty about his future reflected his class background: “I recognize that if it wasn’t for my parents’ credit score, my loans to get — OK — so, I get that.” As the relevance of class and race came into focus, Syl’violet’s rage transformed into deep sorrow, generations of poverty weighing heavily on her. “I cannot stop thinking that we’re going to go bankrupt.” She worried that they might even be evicted. “I wish I could believe what you believe,” she told Matthew. He replied, his voice growing tender: “We have the same life now.” He looked at her, exuding care. “We have to live with the idea, the thinking, the viewpoint, that we’re going to die old together.”
One of the most difficult challenges for couples is getting them to see beyond their own entrenched perspectives, to acknowledge a partner’s radical othernessand appreciate difference and sovereignty. People talk a good game about their efforts, but it’s quite a difficult psychological task. To be truly open to your partner’s experience, you must relinquish your conviction in the righteousness of your own position; this requires humility and the courage to tolerate uncertainty. Coming to see the working of implicit biases on us, grasping that our views are contingent on, let’s say, our gender, class background or skin color, is a humbling lesson. It pushes us beyond assuming sameness, opening up the possibility of seeing our partner’s point of view.
I’ve been working as a psychologist seeing individuals and couples since the mid-1990s, and in the past eight years, I’ve witnessed a tremendous change in the kinds of conversations couples can have. Not long ago, if I would ask a couple about the ways class or race played out between them, I’d typically be met with an awkward shrug and a change of topic. But recent events have reshaped the national conversation on power, privilege, gender norms, whiteness and systemic racism. Together these ideas have pushed us to think, talk, argue and become aware of the many implicit biases we all carry about our identities, unconscious assumptions that privilege some and inflict harm on others. These insights have also made it easier for people to realize there may be plenty of other unconscious assumptions undergirding their positions. I’ve been surprised and excited by the impact of this new understanding, and it has all made my work as a couples therapist easier.
There has, of course, been ferocious pushback against many of these ideas, claims that they are divisive or exclusionary. #MeToo, B.L.M. and trans rights have been weaponized in service of the culture wars dominating the media. But in my practice, I’ve found that engaging with these progressive movements has led to deep changes in our psyches. My patients, regardless of political affiliation, are incorporating the messages of social movements into the very structure of their being. New words make new thoughts and feelings possible. As a collective we appear to be coming around to the idea that bigger social forces run through us, animating us and pitting us against one another, whatever our conscious intentions. To invert a truism, the political is personal.
Some five years ago I started working on a documentary series called “Couples Therapy,” created by the filmmakers Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg and Eli Despres and airing on Showtime, that chronicles 18 to 20 weeks of therapy with couples who courageously volunteer to have their sessions filmed. (The couples in this essay were filmed for the show, which makes it possible for me to write about them; only some of those who are filmed end up on air.) We are now several seasons in. I was drawn to the project knowing that the directors were committed to an honest, vérité portrayal of therapy, and to looking at the social factors that thread through people’s lives and relationships.
I am also trained as a psychoanalyst. Psychoanalysis is about exploring unconscious motivations behind thoughts or actions. It allows people to gain access to how early experiences — vicissitudes of attachment and trauma — have shaped them, and to expand their capacity for thought and feeling. For couples, I incorporate systems thinking, a practice that focuses on the system — a couple, say or a family — and interprets how each individual unconsciously behaves in ways that serve the system as a whole.
But what we mean by “unconsciously” is an ongoing debate. Freud was known in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for his singular focus on the private, interior world. In particular, he wrote about the epic battle between unconscious drives and forces of civilization. Traditional psychoanalysis has mostly focused on early scenes between the young and their caregivers as shaping the psyche, leaving the sociopolitical context to other disciplines. I am of a later theoretical school that, rather than seeing civilization in conflict with the self, sees the social contract, our relationship to the collectives we belong to, as nested in the deepest corners of our unconscious. For me, psychoanalytic exploration is just as much about our deep ethical dilemmas regarding how to live with one another, and our environment, as it is about early family dramas; my patients’ repressed experiences with the ghosts of their country’s history are as interesting as with their mothers.
Over the years, I’ve come to see that one of the most pernicious issues couples struggle with is working through wrongdoing and blame. The claim “You hurt me” often sends couples spiraling. People want to feel like good and lovable beings; their intentions make perfect sense to themselves, and they hate being interpreted as selfish. In psychoanalytic jargon we often say, “No one likes being the ‘bad object.’” In fact, there are few things people resist more than being held responsible for causing harm. It immediately threatens to overwhelm the “offender” with shame (Am I a bad person?) and guilt (Have I caused irreparable damage? Should I be punished?). Yet serious hurt that goes unacknowledged leads to the accumulation of resentment and a deadening of the relationship.
Our ongoing national conversations about systemic biases have made it easier for couples to acknowledge wrongdoings by easing people into the idea of unconscious complicity. Accepting that you are part of a complex social system and implicated in its biases no matter what you tell yourself can also help you accept that in other aspects of your life, you are partly governed by unconscious forces you do not necessarily recognize. In Freudian terms, the ego is not a master in its own house. In other words, to know if you’ve caused harm, it is not enough to ask yourself, “Did I intend to hurt the other?”; you may need to listen to the feedback of others. These insights can have ripple effects beyond an awareness of specific biases, becoming relevant in many aspects of our lives — in our relationships with partners or children, in reviewing our life history. As my friend Nick described it: “Everything about me was raised to believe I am not racist or privileged, but in recent years I realize how easy certain things have always been for me simply because I’m white. I am humbled. And that has changed the way Rebecca and I talk with each other.”
One of the most difficult challenges for couples is getting them to see beyond their own entrenched perspectives, to acknowledge a partner’s radical otherness.
A shift in our vocabularies has also played a role. Language tends to evolve to better accommodate experiences of the dominant social group, leaving other experiences obscured from collective understanding, and thus silently perpetuating bias and harm. When these gaps are filled by new concepts, social change can follow. The expanding lexicon around bias and privilege includes terms like “white fragility” or “white tears,” referring to white people’s defensive refusal to fully engage with accountability; other phrases like “virtue signaling,” being “a Karen” or “performative allyship” underline the difference between honest and fake engagement with questions of ethics, morality and responsibility. These terms have implications beyond race, and I’ve seen them work their way into the therapy room. They’ve helped couples see the difference between the wish to receive forgiveness and assurance of your goodness and actual concern for the one you offended. Analysts call this distinction the difference between guilt and guiltiness. Guilt entails feeling bad for having harmed another; guiltiness is the preoccupation with yourself — whether you are or aren’t guilty. This preoccupation is all about warding off shame, which blocks concern for others.
Questions of guilt hovered over another couple I worked with. He had recently cheated on his wife. They were generally deeply supportive of each other, but after she found out about his transgression, she was terribly upset and also confused. Their attempts to talk about what happened were halting. #MeToo rhetoric was woven into their discussions, functioning as a superego, shaping and inhibiting what they could even think. She said that she felt that the lessons of the movement were telling her not to forgive but to leave him — “Especially now, if a woman is being wronged, you get out.” It was hard for her to know how she actually felt about it all. Early on, he couldn’t separate remorse from fear. He was terrified of getting into trouble, and guiltiness prevailed. His voice was hushed while he scrutinized me intently, worried about how he would be perceived: “There are a lot of men in this business right now who have taken positions of power and use them to have sex with people.”
They were both white and understood their privilege and were apologetic about it. She often undid her own complaints — “I levitate out” — by having the thought, “Oh, poor cis white woman.” He was uncomfortable, too. He talked about reading the news “about another Black or brown person being killed. And it’s just like I feel a little — well, I feel guilty, to be honest, to be sitting here.” The lessons of the Black Lives Matter movement initially can provoke such paralyzing guilt and shame that people become defensive and stop fully thinking. Yet over time, I’ve found, the ideas can inspire deep psychological work, pushing people to reckon with the harm that has been done, the question of whom should be implicated, and the difference between virtue signaling and deeper concerns. These are tough and important lessons that can carry over into intimate relationships. In this case, the husband described a new understanding about the ways he exercised power at work: “Hold on. Have I been an ally? Has it just been optics?” These insights extended even to his way of speaking about his transgression. He had been rationalizing his behavior by saying that his wife was not giving him the attention he needed. But moving beyond what the couple called “optics,” now he was asking himself for a more thorough accounting of what his cheating was really about, and how it affected his wife. He explained how lonely he was if she traveled; he felt left behind and discarded, a feeling deeply familiar to him from early childhood. Acknowledging his vulnerability was hard for him, but it opened up a series of honest conversations between them. “I convinced myself she does not desire me,” he said. “I’m not the popular guy. I’m not the strong guy.” He linked those feelings to insecurities he felt as a teenager, when he suffered chronic teasing from kids at school for being perceived as effeminate.
This new, nondefensive way of talking made it possible for her to understand how his transgression hit her where she felt most insecure, and he could see it, generating remorse and forgiveness between them. She described how it had become easier for both of them to “check” themselves for their impact on the other person, and quickly “notice or apologize.” In one session she said, smiling: “You were a jerk to me yesterday, and then you apologized a couple hours later. You recognized that you took out your frustration there on me because I was an easy target.” He realized that he stopped skimming over ways he caused others pain: “I actually was just thinking therapy and the Black Lives Matter movement have made me keenly aware of the words that just came out of my mouth, and the understanding that she reacted adversely to that, instead of me just going, ‘We move on, because that’s awkward.’ There’s a need now to address it.” He continued: “ ‘Did I just upset you? What did I do to just upset you?’”
Couples work always goes back to the challenge of otherness. Differences can show up around philosophical questions like what is important to devote a life to, or whether it is ethical to have babies with a climate crisis looming; or it can be closer to home, like whether having a sexual fantasy about a person who is not your partner is acceptable; or even as seemingly trivial as the correct way to load a dishwasher. Whatever the issue, differences can become a point of crisis in the relationship. Immediately the question of who is right, who gets their way or who has a better handle on reality pops up. Narcissistic vulnerabilities about self-worth appear, which then trigger an impulse to devalue the other. Partners try to resolve such impasses by digging in and working hard to convince the other of their own position, becoming further polarized.
The challenge of otherness may be easiest to see when we think of racial differences. This was certainly true for James and Michelle. Michelle was a calm, gentle, somewhat reserved African American social worker, and James, at the time a police officer, was a slight, wiry white man whose face did not reveal much feeling. They came in with classic conflicts around division of labor and differing parenting styles, and then the pandemic hit. Quarantined, working remotely and home-schooling their 3-year-old son, they started fighting about Covid protocols. Michelle was aware of the way that Covid was devastating Black communities and wanted to be careful. James, along with his fellow police officers and his conservative parents, thought the concern was overblown. Discussion about how race shaped James and Michelle’s experiences and ideas routinely dead-ended. If Michelle tried to bring up the topic, James would insist, “I don’t see color,” and say he didn’t know what she was talking about. In our sessions, Michelle sounded hopeless: She wanted him to understand how traumatizing Covid had been for Black people. But she was frustrated by his inability to acknowledge real difference, as if everyone was the same race. “He’s of the mind-set that ‘I don’t see color.’” She continued setting out his thinking: “ ‘I don’t want to hear what you have to say because that’s not how I think.’” That point of view “obviously angers me,” she said. James would shrug, expressionless. Michelle was describing the infuriating experience of trying to break through a barrier: Her husband wasn’t consciously aware that whiteness was a perspective that was constricting what he could imagine or comprehend.
After George Floyd was murdered and protests of all kinds erupted across the country, the dynamic between James and Michelle started to shift. Psychoanalysts are often interested in people’s fantasies, the scenarios running under the hood of conscious thought that express hidden desires and fears. When I asked James and Michelle about theirs, they shared apocalyptic ones: Each was imagining a full-on race war. Michelle imagined loss of all contact and trust between Black people and white people. James, who seemed uncharacteristically tense, saw himself on one side of a divide and was envisioning an “all-out physical combat.” “With whom?” I asked. “With anybody outside of this household. Anybody that tries to come and take anything from us because they’re struggling to survive and they start looting to feed their family, they’re now coming to my house.” Yet over time, as the conversation about Black lives continued, his own identifications became more complex and nuanced. He still felt loyalty to his fellow police officers and his conservative family, but he became aware that those feelings were now in tension with Michelle’s beliefs and what he was witnessing on the news about police violence against Black men and loud public demand for police reform.
James’s changing internal landscape was reflected in his clear distress about “the all-out chaos that a large conflict can bring if we’re further divided in this country. You wouldn’t know who to trust from place to place.” Not knowing whom to trust also meant he could no longer trust his old belief system — in which it was clear who was “good” and who was “bad.” This disruption was creating new concerns and fantasies. Rather than fearing looters, he now feared polarization: “Michelle might be able to seek refuge somewhere where I might get shunned, or vice versa.” He was terrified that they wouldn’t be able to keep their young child safe.
Interestingly, engaging with the question of systemic racism did not polarize Michelle and James but rather helped them do the important psychological work that I doubt I, as their therapist, could have inspired in them on my own. Something began to shift inside James, and he was no longer assuming sameness. He was no longer imposing his version of reality on Michelle, but rather “mentalizing” — understanding his and her mental states as separate and different subjective experiences: thoughts, feelings, beliefs and desires. In a meaningful moment he said, “I know it hits her harder than it does me.” I was moved to hear James plainly state: “We can never truly know what each other goes through because we’re not each other. So all we can do is be in as much understanding as possible.” He also recognized that he felt less defensive, “because she’s not directly attacking me.” And he saw a way for the two of them to remain connected, despite their difference. “We could get into a debate or an argument and be on opposite sides of the spectrum, completely juxtaposed, and manage to come through it and learn something about another perspective.”
Michelle, who often described herself as guarded, also began to drop her defensive posture. She was looking at him fondly, her voice warmer. “These are things that I never really heard him fully articulate, particularly about his insecurities and feeling caught in the middle. That’s helpful for me to hear, because it makes me more conscious and aware of how he’s feeling.” For the first time, they were each entertaining multiple perspectives. Love is ultimately measured by people’s capacity to see and care about the other person as they are; succeeding in this effort is how people in relationships grow.
Dr. Orna Guralnik is a clinical psychologist, a psychoanalyst and an academic who serves on the faculty of the N.Y.U. postdoctoral program in psychoanalysis, teaching a course in identity and politics and psychoanalysis with culture in mind. She is also the therapist on the Showtime documentary series “Couples Therapy.” Her writing centers on the intersection of psychoanalysis, dissociation and cultural studies. Dina Litovsky is a Ukrainian-born photographer who moved to New York in 1991. In 2020, she won the Nannen Prize, Germany’s foremost award for documentary photography.