De-privatizing Our Relationships

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“Creating Our Mental Health”: Welcome to a conversation between two social therapists who meet regularly to share and advance our therapeutic work. We hope these dialogues can support and stimulate others who are integrating developmental conversations into their therapeutic practices and personal growth. See the first post in the series for a brief explanation of what social therapy is and the perspectives we’re coming from in our dialogues.

A few months ago, we were both intrigued by an article in The New York Times Magazine entitled “I’m a Couples Therapist. Something New Is Happening in Relationships” by Orna Guralnik. Dr. Guralnik is a psychoanalytically trained psychologist who is featured as a couples therapist in the TV series Couples Therapy. In this Times article, she wrote of some profound ways that her practice was being transformed that we wanted to share with our readers.

A standout point for us was her comment, “The couples I’m seeing are talking differently these days—they’re telling me how much their values, attitudes, and ways they’re living are shaped by their class background, race, color, religion, gender.” She further emphasized, “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.”

A black couple holds hands out of focus in background. In foreground, a therapist's hands on a clipboard taking notes.

Ann: Could you have imagined 20/30 years ago that we would see couples openly sharing what goes on “in the bedroom” on national TV? Or, couples and their psychotherapist opening up the privacy/confidentiality of the therapy session for public scrutiny? And what about the acknowledgement that “the political is personal?”

Hugh: No, and I find that quite exciting.

Ann: Yes, me too. So many couples hide what’s happening in their relationships, and many couples who are struggling compare themselves with peers who seem so happy and appear to have no problems. So much is happening in the realm of relationships. We’re seeing increasing numbers of bi-racial and multicultural couples, challenges to gender roles, redefining gender and sexual identities, open relationships, chosen families. Guralnik’s work with couples shows us how these cultural changes have impacted her practice which demands that she address social, power, and class dynamics in relationships.

Hugh: Guralnik shares some of her work with the couple James and Michelle. James is a white police officer from a politically conservative family, and Michelle is Black and works as a social worker. They came for help because they were constantly fighting. During the pandemic, one of the fights was about Covid protocols. Guralnik writes, “Michelle was aware of the way Covid was devastating Black communities and was more careful. James, along with his fellow police officers and his conservative parents, thought the concern was overblown.” When Michelle said she thought their argument was rooted in her attitudes as a Black woman and his as a white man, James responded by saying “I don’t see color” and abruptly ended the conversation.

However, the protests following the murder of George Floyd shifted their dynamics. With the outpouring of outrage about the murder and increasing calls for police reform, and with Guralnik helping them to explore their different attitudes and judgments, James slowly began to see Michelle’s point that Black people had a very different relationship and response to the murder. Their therapeutic work together helped James begin to let himself not be color-blind.

“In a meaningful moment,” states Guralnick, he said “‘I know it hits her harder than it does me…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 was able to become less defensive and to see that “she’s not directly attacking me.” Michelle, too, became less defensive and less attacking because, with Guralnik’s help, she was hearing for the first time James’s concern and fear about impending race war in this country. She said, “these are things I never heard him fully articulate…That’s helpful for me to hear because it makes me more conscious and aware of how he’s feeling.”

Ann: What moved me in this work was Guralnik relating to James and Michelle as people whose attitudes, values, and judgments grow out of their histories and social circumstances and are not reduced to intra-psychic phenomena. This is refreshing and a break from conventional psychology which often relates to the intrapsychic as separate from the world. I also thought it brought James and Michelle closer when they were able to see the other as different from themselves, with unique histories and relationships to what was happening in the world. This allowed them to see who they each were and get to know each other in new ways.

Hugh: Yes, we learn who we are in the process of building something together with others that can’t be known because it’s an evolving and becoming process.

Ann: Yes, and we build with these quite different histories, values, and attitudes something that’s qualitatively other/new than what “each” contributed. That’s the beauty of building with our contradictions and differences.

Hugh: While this was not in the Times piece, I really liked one of the episodes on her TV show. It involved a straight couple disagreeing and arguing constantly in the session. Guralnik, rather than remaining objective, brought herself into the conversation and talked about the impact that the man’s defensiveness was having on her. She said it made it harder for her to be giving to them. Guralnik said that she needed that to change if they were to move forward in their work together. I thought that was so important, to ask for what she needed as a condition to helping them. She was reminding them that she was in the room and that their arguing was having an impact on her. Often when couples argue or fight they become oblivious to the impact they have on others.

Ann: Yes, I think this could be seen as Guralnik helping to create a group of three working together and breaking out of the often impenetrable world of the couple. Couples can get trapped in their dyadic relationship with their own language and accepted norms including argument and fights. Couples need help to build a “we”—to relate to each other as a social unit, and the “we” can go beyond the couple to include the family, friendships, and community they are part of. Relationships are distinct from the “me” and “you.”

Hugh: I have found, in my practice, that one of the reasons people keep their relationships private is that they are embarrassed or ashamed of their own performance in their relationship. They hide not only from others, but sometimes from themselves, that they’re being abused or being abusive, that they’re making compromises they’re not happy with, or that they feel intimidated by their partner and don’t speak up.

Ann: Yes, all the more reason to celebrate Guralnik’s approach and be joyous about de-privatizing relationships and allowing others to see, respond to, and support relationships to grow. Two of our social therapeutic colleagues, Carrie Sackett and Murray Dabby, expand on this approach and offer social therapeutic tools for de-privatizing relationships in their just published book, Social Therapeutic Coaching: A Practical Guide to Group and Couples Work. They talk about the “groupness” of couples, that in a couples session there are three people in the room. Like Guralnik in her session above, social therapists and coaches work to break out of the trap of the dyadic isolation.

Hugh: You know, I’m glad we’re sharing this with our readers. I think Guralnik’s work, our work, and the work of many innovative practitioners are taking on psychiatry and the language of psychology which have us stuck in our private hells. We get stuck in our identities, social roles, the labels we’ve been given or that we adopt for ourselves. It’s common for people to say, “I’m stuck in my head,” and they’re right, they are!

Privatization isn’t just a problem for couples. Psychology and psychiatry teaches us that we are isolated individuals. I’m glad we’re chipping away at the cracks in psychiatry and psychology and de-privatizing our lives. As Leonard Cohen says, “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. It is imperative that therapists develop a heightened awareness of their inherent biases and the influence they exert in these types of sessions. The term “performance” carries significant implications, particularly in contexts where individuals are experiencing genuine distress and interpersonal conflicts. While psychotherapy can be regarded as a form of art or “performance”, it is crucial to recognize that this perspective applies predominantly to the therapist’s role, not the client’s experience (even if it is as if which BTW never explicitly stated). In my opinion, a more effective approach would be to record each session, subsequently allowing both clients and therapists to analyze the proceedings, uncover unconscious elements, and identify more beneficial strategies.

    The current practice of editing these sessions for public consumption (and for the annoying clicks) often results in a distorted portrayal that not only misleads the audience but can also be detrimental to the clients. This is because the producers’ agenda to create drama or certain narratives takes precedence. I apologize if this viewpoint appears contrarian but I was not impressed with the easy breezy way of dissecting clients without their permission nor consent. At least a disclaimer would have cover the seriousness of the issue.

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  2. I whole heartedly agree that it is wonderful to de-privatize our relationships and bring them into the world and the world into our relationships! It’s LIBERATING and developmental to “chip away at the cracks in psychiatry and psychology and de-privatizing our lives.”

    And yes, perhaps Leonard Cohen said it best, “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

    Thanks to Hugh & Ann for letting some light in! And I do enjoy Couples Therapy, too (the TV show). Full disclosure, I’m also in a social therapy partners group!

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  3. “Could you have imagined 20/30 years ago that we would see couples openly sharing what goes on “in the bedroom” on national TV?” Yes Anne, not hard to imagine at all because already happening then. It was called the Jerry Springer Show, among other spectacles of TV Nation (just ask Dr. Phil). And that Hugh thinks such achievement of corporately controlled culture “quite exciting” only attests to how far we’ve declined in the digital (c)age to making a virtue of the (voluntary!) abdication of privacy to surveillance. Now we can perform public exhibition of programmed politics like we’re woke while having no clue to what purposes of population control our personal lives may be put in the data mining mills of capital. Oh for shame that we should keep secrets from Big Brother! What joy it brings to “de-privatize”! For sure, “bigger social forces run through us.”

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    • Dear Niko,

      I think it’s a mistake to equate Guralnik’s work on her TV show with the Jerry Springer Show. Her work is a showing of a therapist and the couples working together to help them break free of the oppressive social norms of how we’re all taught to do relationships and to create new ways of relating which express how they want to live their lives together. They are challenging rather than supporting the corporately controlled culture.

      Though I don’t agree with you, I was glad to read your opinion.

      Hugh Polk

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  4. Thank you, Marian, for your lovely comment. I agree that it’s LIBERATING! I think it’s ordinary people exercising our power to create our lives and relationships together rather than unselfconsciously carrying out roles and rules of conduct that we didn’t participate in creating. It’s the exercise of power rather than authority. Take care,

    Hugh

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  5. Thank you, Jennifer. I couldn’t agree more–the notion that we are individuals, separate from other individuals and therefore the best way to live is to do things ourselves keeps us locked in a prison of isolation. And we don’t have to–we can live socially and doing that opens up so many new possibilities. Best wishes,

    Hugh

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