On Couples Therapy, race deeply affects how relationships unravel and repair

Season 3 follows a Black couple learning to navigate their relationship under the pressures of a racist society.

Showtime
Culture

Since its 2019 premiere, Showtime’s addictive series Couples Therapy has focused on two of the world’s most necessary yet complex lifelines: love and communication. Each season, the show’s resident psychoanalyst, Dr. Orna Guralnik, and her blue-eyed husky Nico invite viewers into her spacious New York office to sit with a new quartet of couples for nine visits. Once Orna slides her doors shut and turns her hourglass upside down, the session begins, and so does the unraveling.

There’s this unwritten belief that your therapist is an endless well of wisdom and insight, but on Couples Therapy, Orna routinely consults with her own clinical advisor, Dr. Virginia Goldner, about her patients. To see Orna seek advice adds an unexpected layer of humanity to the collected and intuitive doctor. In Season 3, she still checks in with Dr. Goldner, but this time viewers are introduced to her peer advisory group — or, as I like to call it, the psychological group chat. This diverse crop of counselors of races and genders assist Orna, and it’s here that a light is shone, and Orna’s blindspots come into focus.

While other relationship shows opt for drama, crescendo, and obvious depictions of victim and perpetrator, Couples Therapy goes below the emotional epidermis to demonstrate that right and wrong aren’t directions or destinations but spectrums from which each individual governs themselves and reacts. Most of this season’s patients have been married just shy of a decade. Dale and India, together for eight years (married for four), are the only heterosexual Black couple. From the onset, race, gender politics, and how it affects their ability to love one another, are at the fore of their troubles. “I feel like as African-Americans, we come into relationships with a lot of trauma that we’re not necessarily willing to acknowledge,” Dale says during the initial session. “There has to be a lot of self-searching, if you will, to realize how it affects your relationship.”

That self-exploration is traversed throughout their treatment but is first noted in Dale’s accent, or lack thereof. Born in Guyana and raised in Antigua and later New York City, Dale carried a weighty lilt growing up, earning him taunts from other kids upon his arrival to the states. While India recognizes that his entire family still has their native tongue, Dale admits he taught himself how to speak in a way that would make him seem less different. What’s left in his voice are the broken artifacts of a man who sacrificed a part of his rich identity just to comply and thus survive, which is a vein that runs right to the heart of the Black experience.

Each couple has perfected an unhealthy dance with one another, and Orna’s role is to help them all learn a new two-step or decide to get off the dance floor altogether. But Dale and India must learn to waltz with one another under the pressure of a racist society that undoubtedly seeps into their relationship. During one of Orna’s peer group sessions, Dr. Kali Cyrus, who holds a dual medical doctor and master’s degree in public health, and Licensed Clinical Social Worker Cynthia Chalker ask if Orna’s patients have named or challenged her whiteness.

Cyrus notes that for India, a southern Black woman, being virtuous and “put together” was expected of her, and anger, whether justified or not, collides directly in the face of what a woman is “supposed” to be. In the next scene, India, wearing a mauve floor-length summer dress, gold jewelry, and her hair freshly curled, recounts a conversation in which Dale said he almost gave up dating Black women because he didn’t want to argue all the time.

Passionate discussions or flat-out arguments aren’t something India is afraid of, but India has her own internal conflicts about race. During the same session, Dale recounts a time at a home christening when India and another woman got into a heated debate about the suspicious 2015 death of Sandra Bland. India questioned why Bland didn’t tap into her resources to have someone bail her out of jail. The woman responded by calling India privileged. “B, you don’t know me,” India said to Orna with a smile, as if still fighting off the sting of the comment and remaining “put together.”

India says she immediately apologized afterward, but what she doesn’t realize is that by questioning why Bland didn’t call someone, she’s (unintentionally) blaming the victim and the victim’s community for her own death. It’s fascinating to see India repel the idea of being privileged. She undoubtedly worked hard to go from being born and raised in Georgia to being a working Broadway dancer, but the idea of privilege is so synonymous with a lack of accountability and whiteness that maybe India assumed her work ethic and her Blackness were under attack. Does any sort of privilege within the Black community dilute your Blackness, your struggle, and your accomplishments? Is the idea of being privileged such a blemish?

For Black men, however, showing anger plays into a dangerous white supremacist trope that can result in state-sanctioned violence. On a more familial level, Dale’s aversion to confrontation is a survival tactic, a way to distance himself from the trauma caused by a violent and heinous father. Anger is a portal that can lead to a dark world, which Dale avoids even if the sun from the universe he currently occupies blinds him from his own projections.

While other relationship shows opt for drama, crescendo, and obvious depictions of victim and perpetrator, Couples Therapy demonstrates that right and wrong aren’t directions or destinations, but spectrums from which each individual governs themselves and reacts.

Sacrificing, shapeshifting, and masking parts of one’s Blackness is how many in the community get by in America. Being our authentic and flawed self isn’t a luxury many Black people can afford, but how that “hiding” shows up and is received is often unfairly categorized by gender. For India and most Black women, anger is an emotion that has been weaponized against them. Believed to be a feeling we don’t have a right to, Black women have two hurdles to overcome. The first is proving our anger is valid, and then working through the anger itself.

In a subsequent session, Dale shows the most emotion he ever has (and chest hair, by way of a few unfastened buttons) when he details how pushing through the micro and macro aggressions in his life has aided his success and also kept him from engaging with most emotions. “Hell, there are times when I take Lincoln, our dog, out for a walk, and I’m not allowed to be cold,” he says. “If I put my hoodie on and I’m walking next to someone, they’ll stop and wait for me to pass.”

Taking Cyrus’ suggestion, Orna asks India if her whiteness makes India feel uncomfortable. India admits that she feels she has to “dress it up” when speaking to Orna but is glad she went with a white therapist. The dialogue and overall experience are beneficial, which for me, highlights an unexpected positive byproduct.

India and Dale, in Season 3 of ‘Couples Therapy.’

Showtime

I’ve been in therapy for more than six years, and I don’t know if this underscores how broken I am or how deep my sadness actually is. However, my therapist is also white, and this choice was intentional. There’s a shorthand that develops within the Black community that allows you to express yourself without having to express yourself. Some things don’t need to be said because they’re understood. I chose a therapist outside of the community because I needed to understand everything that wasn’t being said but that I felt.

I wanted to comb through this with someone who presumably didn’t understand my cultural nuances to ask questions and help me question everything I assumed was “normal.” Could a Black therapist have assisted in this process? Yes, of course. I fully support and advocate for Black people finding Black therapists if that’s what they feel they need. But similar to India, speaking to Orna, who offered a different perspective outside of her and Dale’s worldview, helped magnify things in a way they couldn’t see, and the same has been true for me.

It takes courage and tremendous care to even step into the space to reveal your fears, bear your truths, cry and then receive feedback about how you’re potentially assisting in your own pain. Couples Therapy works because it’s innately fascinating to watch relationships unravel and repair themselves in real-time. Seeing the joy and safety of a healthy companionship gives people hope that they might experience the same one day, even if just for a spell. Yet, too many of us know from our experiences that for each smile, there are oceans of tears, confusion, misunderstandings, and projection. We’d like to believe we’re intelligent, whole, and would never throw our emotional shortcomings onto our partners. But we all know that’s not true.