I’ve skipped four weddings this year. Three of these weddings were for people close to me—my high-school best friend, my cousin, etc. In each case I had a reasonable enough excuse: I was finishing the term, I was starting grad school, I was working through a breakup. But in the aggregate, I ask myself if my absence wasn’t more than accidental. Weddings are important. Naturally, people make all sorts of sacrifices to ensure they can be there. Except me, for some reason.
I don’t understand marriage. More than that, I don’t understand love. Marriage in our culture is allegedly founded on romantic love. Yet when divorce is as likely as not, how could you ever be confident about the endurance of your love? And if love does not endure, how significant is it? I’ve often accosted older married people in my life with these sorts of questions about love and its durability, yet I’ve never received a satisfying answer. There are the clichés: love is work, love is a choice, love waxes and wanes, but none of these seem adequate. I ache for certainty in matters of the heart. And so a wedding is an anxious affair for me—how does anyone know that it isn’t just a farce? How does anyone love confidently in the face of such uncertainty? And how does one love without knowing how?
Playing hooky from my dear friends’ weddings has given me time for other pursuits: rumination and television. At one point, I found myself hooked on a series called Couples Therapy, which purports to show its viewers the most intimate moments of various struggling couples as they undergo counseling together. I was expecting it to confirm all my darkest intuitions about love. I was wrong.
Couples Therapy is a documentary series following four couples (in the first season, at least) through a course of relationship counseling. The episodes are composed of recorded therapy sessions, broken up by footage of the couples going to and from therapy or hanging around their homes. The show is strikingly shot and edited; despite all the cameras being hidden, it can seem as if there’s a full camera crew at work. Because of the ease with which the couples seem to forget they’re being recorded, the show feels more real than any reality TV. Though the premise might sound exploitative or pornographic (the most famous therapy television show I can think of is Dr. Phil, after all), the series is sensitive and tasteful.
The star of the show is, of course, the therapist herself. Dr. Orna Guralnik gives the impression of a master at work. She speaks slowly and knowingly, delicately dissecting the problems her clients present her with. And she seems to stare right into their secret selves; whether by dint of the editing or just sheer charisma, Orna’s gaze threatens to break the screen so that she might address the viewers as well. Orna spends most of the show silent, listening to her clients as they try to explain their struggling relationships.
The clients present a variety of specific problems, but these problems coalesce into a simple plot: Will they or won’t they? Three couples explicitly raise the question of separation over the course of the show. The first episode ends with the intimation of a future failure of love: we are introduced to Evelyn and Alan, at the apparent end of their course of therapy. The therapist, Orna, asks the couple if they are sure they want to separate; they both answer yes. And then we cut back to their first session, where all parties look happier, hopeful. The episode ends.
You might view this ending as mere good television. The “will they or won’t they?” plot is a staple of all sorts of shows. But Couples Therapy presents something beyond good drama. The show is educational—and not just for those on screen. The appeal to the viewer extends beyond voyeurism. Everyone involved struggles with pressing moral and existential questions; the viewer cannot but be invited into these deliberations.
When Orna tells a client that “wanting to separate or reaching an end of a relationship is not a disease,” he asks: “But how do you know?” The question has universal existential heft: How does anyone know anything above love? Orna’s response is educational. She replies, “You have to really want the relationship and love your partner in a way that moves you to transcend yourself.” This is a serious ethical proposition—one that raises difficult questions. To sustain a loving relationship, you must transcend yourself. But what does that mean?
Self-transcendence obviously means going outside yourself, but to where? Orna’s comment might seem to suggest that you ought to transcend yourself into the other person. But this seems like a dangerous path—if I transcend into you, and you transcend into me, who am I? who are you? The show dedicates significant attention to a couple in which a man insists that he is meeting all his wife’s needs perfectly, and that his wife does not sufficiently anticipate his own desires; at one point, he says that he shouldn’t have to ask for a glass of water—she should simply know when he’s thirsty and bring him the water. Orna does not urge the wife to transcend herself and dedicate her life to better predicting her husband’s desires, no matter how unreasonable they are. Rather, she encourages the wife to assert herself, and tries to chasten the husband’s desires. Orna does not commend total self-renunciation, but rather some sort of moderation, balance.
The transcendence Orna commends is thus not into the other person—at least, not fully. Rather, it seems that one ought to transcend to a point where one can love without either losing oneself or obliterating the other person, where one’s own desires diminish in importance without disappearing, where one can truly meet their beloved. But where is that point, and how?
For the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, that point could only be God. Kierkegaard wrote that “when there is no third in the relationship between man and man, every such relationship becomes unsound, either too ardent or embittered.” In Kierkegaard’s eyes, humans are too fickle to figure things out between themselves. Without mediation, our desires will be in intractable conflict, and we will grow to hate each other. To remain stable, lovers need a third term, what Kierkegaard calls “the true, the good, or more accurately, the God-relationship.” The presence of God humbles a lover so that they can chasten their desires and forgive their beloved’s trespasses. And love is ultimately secured by God’s authority—God commands love, it is the whole of the law. As Kierkegaard writes: “By this [command] love is also forever secured against every change.”
A therapist is not a priest. She does not have God’s authority to fall back upon; she has only her own. Yet she does occupy the position of the third in troubled relationships. She translates the couples’ speech to each other. She even lays down her own mandates (though they are infinitely milder than the Christian law that states that “you shall love”). The transcendence that Orna advocates is a transcendence toward the neutral, therapeutic perspective. She invites the couples to see with her eyes.
The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan noted a certain symmetry in the relationships of God/man and therapist/therapized.1 Both God and the therapist are, in Lacan’s jargon, the “subject who is supposed to know.” God is omniscient—when one prays for insight, one prays to see, if only a little bit, from God’s perspective. God secures certainty in all things. It is not only that God knows what is, but that God’s knowing makes it be. As Lacan interprets René Descartes: “What Descartes means, and says, is that if two and two make four it is, quite simply, because God wishes it so. It is his business.” So too with love, as Kierkegaard illustrates so well. What is love? God. How does one love? Ask God.
Though the therapist, like God, is supposed to know, they differ from God in one important respect: they do not know. As Lacan puts it, “for the psycho-analyst there is no beyond, no substantial beyond, by which to justify his conviction that he is qualified to exercise his function.” Ultimately the therapist has no authority to appeal to beyond her own; her question “How do I know?” is fundamentally unanswerable. She finds herself in an impossible situation: she is supposed to know (that is, her client trusts her to decode their speech, to solve their problems, to speak the truth), but she cannot. She can render no certainty.
Though in moments she speaks authoritatively (as all analysts and therapists must), Orna, too, shows herself unable to know. Couples Therapy shows us not just Orna as a therapist, but also Orna as therapized; we get to watch her conversations with her clinical advisor, in which she expresses her frustrations and fears, and runs up against her own ignorance. In the first episode, Orna tells her advisor, “I feel like I have a lot of power over [the couples], so that’s a little scary, the amount of responsibility I have there.” Orna’s power comes from her position as Lacan’s subject who is supposed to know. For her clients, she can create truths about their relationships merely by speaking them. It does not matter whether Orna’s diagnoses are correct or not, so long as her clients believe that they are. A relationship is, among other things, a series of stories that two people tell about themselves. A couples therapist is in a unique position to change those stories.
Orna’s advisor responds to her fears by reminding her that, despite her power over her clients, she does not ultimately know the solutions to their problems. Her advisor tells her that couples therapy is “not about ‘should they work on it or should they separate.’ You have no opinion on that.” That essential question, will they or won’t they, is beyond Orna’s ken as a therapist, however much her clients may want her to answer it. Part of couples therapy, then, is being disabused of the wrong sorts of questions. Orna and her clients both must come to see what she cannot know.
The New York Times review of Couples Therapy begins with the reviewer praising the show for delivering Orna’s “casual but tremendous truths.” Then the reviewer highlights some of the truths that the show gifts us: the formative nature of childhood, the impossibility of litigating someone’s experience, the importance of honesty. But these, I think, are trivial truths, totally inessential to the higher lesson of the show. Orna’s therapeutic authority is undercut by the structure and editing of the show—no matter how true these little lessons might be, we are invited to question them insofar as we are shown, again and again, the questions that Orna cannot answer for her clients, or even for herself.
Sometimes Orna seems totally mystified. Concerning Evelyn and Alan (the couple that the show initially suggests will divorce), she asks, “Why would people spend their life together if they can’t be honest with each other? Personally, I don’t understand what’s the point.” And yet despite the show teasing us with their separation, despite Orna thinking they ought to divorce, they decide to stay together. In their last session with Orna, they both voice their desire to work on the relationship, once again. Love wins out, even in its unknowability.
Couples Therapy’s real effect on the viewer is to show them just how limited the authority of the therapist is. Orna is not God, she cannot give us love’s law. In the end, love gives its own law. This is not to say that Couples Therapy comes down against therapy—the couples all seem to grow over the course of the show, and by the end they seem more open, trusting, even insightful. And they seem to make this progress with the help of Orna, their third term. But though Orna may act as a transcendent perspective, her authority is always within a limit. Beyond that limit lies love’s present mystery.
The final proper episode of the season begins with a long shot of Orna sitting alone in her office with her eyes closed, her fingers interlaced before her face. She looks as if she could be praying. Another conversation with her clinical advisor plays over this footage, in which Orna says: “Suddenly, like, the enormity of their stories is sitting with me… I don’t know, it feels like I need a lot of heart and head space to kind of hold it all and do something with it… A really overwhelming sense of responsibility.” Orna feels the absurdity of what she is asked to do. Freud famously called psychoanalysis, and by extension psychotherapy, an “impossible profession.” Every person is a world unto themselves, and a couple doubly so—how can a therapist claim to understand anyone, much less change them? And if a highly trained professional feels the impossibility of guiding love, what are we lay people to do?
Couples Therapy does not counsel despair. It demonstrates that, despite their impossibilities, therapy and love both work. Above all, Couples Therapy must be commended for its hopefulness. It insists that, statistics be damned, committed romantic love is possible. It demonstrates that people really can find saving insights; they can be helped to hear each other through the intercession of a third.
But the show deftly demonstrates the limits of those insights. At bottom, love is no technical problem and thus admits no professional solution. No matter how much insight one has into it, love remains unmasterable. A therapist can only sit with the couples and try to make sense with them, as love does what it will. Couples Therapy reminds us that love must be approached reverently, even prayerfully. It reminds us that, in the final analysis, love will not be saved by the rational understanding offered by therapists or moralists—or even philosophers. Because love has no greater champion than the quiet heroism of hope, which believes in things yet unseen.