Why couples therapy works; plus, what happens if there's a writer's strike : It's Been a Minute A big strike might be coming to Hollywood. That's because the Writer's Guild of America - the union that protects screenwriters - is pushing back against what they see as unfair wages. NPR's Linda Holmes explains why we as viewers should care. Plus, Brittany talks with Dr. Orna Guralnik. Orna is the lead therapist on Showtime's docuseries Couples Therapy, and her and Brittany discuss how to bridge differences in relationships, how to maintain meaningful relationships, and why humans have the capacity to heal.

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Brittany goes to 'Couples Therapy;' Plus, why Hollywood might strike

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Hey, hey. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. And as you may have heard by now, a big strike might be coming to Hollywood. The Writers Guild of America, or the WGA, is the union that represents writers all across the television and film industries, and they voted last week to authorize a strike, with over 97% in favor. That doesn't mean the strike will happen. If a new bargain is reached by May 1, business will go on as usual. But if it isn't reached, we might see a lot of change in what we watch. I caught up with NPR pop culture correspondent and TV aficionado Linda Holmes to break it all down. We talked about what this strike might bring and why its effects should matter to us viewers. Linda, welcome back to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. We are so happy to have you.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Thank you so much, Brittany. I'm delighted to be back.

LUSE: I'm glad. I'm glad. I'm glad. OK. So we're going to talk about the potential writers strike coming up, but I want to take us back to the last one. You started doing pop culture criticism and TV analysis full-time right around the time of the last big WGA strike in 2007, 2008. What do you remember about that strike, and how did it change TV and movies and the way we watch them?

HOLMES: What I remember about that strike is we were still on more of a regular fall to spring schedule, so it was easier to understand what the effects of it were going to be. And now, you know, there still is a substantial chunk of network television that works that way, but there's also all kinds of other stuff, whether it's cable or streaming or whatever, that operates on a completely different schedule. In terms of what it changed about how we watch television, I think that strike is widely credited with continuing the beefing up of reality television because reality television could be done without WGA writers who are working in the same - under the same kinds of contracts. So I think there was some of that. It shortened some seasons, so there are some seasons of shows from that time where you'll just, like, notice it stops on a - you know, a show that would normally be, like, 24 episodes. It'll stop at 17 or something like that. So you still will find those kind of ghost artifacts of the writers strike past.

LUSE: So if this strike does indeed happen, how will it show up on our screens?

HOLMES: Well, one of the interesting things is, like, nobody really knows yet because there's no precedent for a strike in the environment that we're in right now. Some things we know. Some things - you know, you will probably see disruption first in things that have their writing done on the fly. Late night is probably the biggest one. So Kimmel, Colbert, "SNL," things like that are probably expected to have to deal with disruption first. Broadcast is still broadcast. Fortunately for the studios, they are coming in on the ends of these seasons, so broadcast is probably not immediately in jeopardy in the same way that it might have been with a strike timed to a different part of the year. Streaming - you know, they work ahead. They have a lot of stuff that's in the can that's filmed.

LUSE: Right.

HOLMES: They have the ability to call upon internationally produced content. That's always been a popular thing to do. But the other thing to keep in mind is there's also a Directors Guild that is going to potentially have a negotiation, and the Screen Actors Guild is potentially going to have a negotiation. So how disruptive this turns out to be exists on a gigantic scale from it won't be that disruptive right away to it will have the entire industry at a screeching halt by the middle of the summer. So I am afraid my answer is, (vocalizing)?

LUSE: Well, I mean, we know that currently, right now, we are living in a golden age of TV. There is more good stuff to watch, I feel like, than I - all at once than I've ever experienced previously in my life.

HOLMES: Oh, of course.

LUSE: If it has been a golden age, can you give a quick rundown of how we got to this point where we're at right now where 97.85% of the Writers Guild are ready to strike for better conditions?

HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, I'm not in that guild. I think it's important to sort of let them lay out the closely held specifics. But in general, a couple of things have happened. The streaming environment has, first of all, messed with the way that writers are paid. You know, your show would air - this is very much the olden days now, but, like, your show would air, and then your show would air again in reruns, and then your show would air in syndication.

LUSE: Right.

HOLMES: So you could get money whenever your show aired. But if you make your show for Netflix, that entire system does not exist.

LUSE: Right. There's no need to syndicate when it's already available, like, in a bajillion countries...

HOLMES: Absolutely.

LUSE: ...Through the streaming service. Right.

HOLMES: So one thing that has happened is that there's been a complete remaking of how writers are paid. And studios - according to the WGA, studios have been eager to sort of use those changes as a way to pay writers less, frankly. The problem is the arrangements under which writers work are so complex that there are a lot of changes that can be made to their work arrangements that are cheaper but are bad for their careers. And this is one of the things that you'll hear talked about as the quote, unquote, "mini room."

LUSE: Right.

HOLMES: And my understanding of it is instead of having a writer's room that kind of works on the show throughout the production of the show - and the writers are around as the show's being made. Maybe they consult as the show is being made - you have a smaller group of people who are essentially working before the show is produced who write some scripts, and then they leave. So they don't get paid as much because the show doesn't necessarily have success yet, so a lot of them are working for more like minimums. And then also, they're not around for the production of the show, so they're not getting paid anymore because they're not being included in kind of the entire production process.

So one of the ways we've gotten to this point is that I think the writers' argument is every time the economics have shifted, the world has gotten worse for writers. And if and when there are big profits for studios and networks and whoever and budgets increase, the budget for writing doesn't increase. My assumption would be a lot of it is going into paying actors, given the fact that you now have this very porous boundary between movie actors and TV actors. So you're paying, you know, Julia Roberts or Kate Winslet or whatever. You know, the quote is going to be higher, and so the budget, I would think, can balloon just from that. But whatever they're spending it on, whether it's production and lush everything or whatever they're spending it on, it's not making it to writing. That's their argument.

LUSE: In what ways might this possible strike change things for up-and-coming writers from marginalized backgrounds who have, you know - at least it feels to me as a viewer seem to finally be getting opportunities to make content?

HOLMES: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think the ones who you see who have shows and who are getting their films and shows made...

LUSE: Like an Issa Rae or something like that.

HOLMES: Exactly, or a Quinta Brunson, people like that, like, who already have great projects that are getting made. The issue is kind of who comes up behind those folks. And so my hope is that if they make this industry a place where you're not going to see these situations where the studios are making gigantic, enormous profits and the writers are literally talking about - you know, people who are in writing are literally talking about being on food stamps despite seeing a certain amount of success selling pilots and getting hired.

LUSE: Right.

HOLMES: When that happens, my hope is that will make it a path that people can afford to be on because any path that people can't afford to be on is going to hit marginalized people harder. You know that. I know that. Everybody knows that. And so my hope is if you make the path more workable, then more people can afford to be on it.

LUSE: We as viewers - we don't often see the labor that happens behind the scenes of our favorite shows and movies. What does it mean to you as a critic to think about how our entertainment is made? Why does this possible strike matter?

HOLMES: I personally believe, and it may sound corny, but I think ethical consumption is as important with entertainment as it is with anything else. I think if you believe that you don't want to buy clothes that are made in sweatshops and you don't want to deal with companies that you think are engaging in various kinds of practices that you consider unethical, I think you have to think about, when I am watching a show that I love or seeing a movie that I love, do I want to be confident that it's being made in a humane, reasonable way that is not perpetuating various injustices, you know, that I see in the world around me, right? I personally don't want to watch a show and then find out it's, like, a super toxic environment. And I don't want to watch a show and find out that the writers are all broke. Like, that's terrible when that happens.

I feel like as a viewer and as a critic, I have a vested interest in supporting the idea that the things that I care about and support and recommend to other people are being made with some sense of ethics. And that includes economic fairness to everybody who's involved in the production, whether it's writers or whether it's actors or directors or anybody else. And I do not believe you can have a successful industry made up of creative people who are miserable all the time. I - and you know, there are creative people who say, ha, ha, all creative people are miserable. I think if people are constantly afraid that they can't pay their bills, I don't think that's a recipe for good environments, good shows, good movies. My hope is that some economic fairness and some economic stability is going to contribute to better stuff to watch. That's my hope.

LUSE: Well, we will certainly see what happens.

HOLMES: We will. We will. It's worrying.

LUSE: It is worrying. But your hope is my hope, as well. So we'll see how things go. Thank you so much for coming on, Linda.

HOLMES: Oh, thank you, Brittany.

LUSE: Thanks again to Linda Holmes. You can find her work over on Pop Culture Happy Hour and elsewhere at NPR. Coming up, getting into the culture of relationships with Orna Guralnik of the Showtime series "Couples Therapy." Stick around.


LUSE: Maybe you're like me. You love watching reality dating shows because you love to see couples try against all odds to make it work and fail. My next guest, Dr. Orna Guralnik, is not like us. Do you watch dating or relationship reality shows?

ORNA GURALNIK: No. I've never seen a reality show in my life.

LUSE: I'm not surprised. Orna is a couples' therapist. And if I were a therapist, I wouldn't be able to watch "Love Is Blind" or "The Bachelor" without losing my mind. I mean, I would just want to send everyone my business card. But we are in a reality dating show boom right now, and I think it's because we're all watching and analyzing why some of these relationships work and some don't. And in that, we learn something about ourselves.

GURALNIK: Human relationships are what matter to us most. I mean, what else? Ultimately, that's the thing that distinguishes, like, some kind of meaningfulness and happiness from not. I think we're always trying to, like, figure out how to do it, how to do it better. I think it's kind of the big mystery.

LUSE: Orna is a psychoanalyst and the focal point of Showtime's "Couples Therapy." Each season, the docuseries follows four couples as they go through therapy with Orna.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm running as fast as I possibly can, and he's inching along saying, it's OK. We'll get there. That has been our marriage, and I'm just tied to him.

GURALNIK: Completely what I see right here.


GURALNIK: Yes. I see how hard you're working. I get it.

LUSE: If you've ever screamed at the TV, you need to go to therapy, this is the show for you. It picks up where other dating shows leave off - the hard work of a long-term relationship. And today, Orna and I are going to therapy. We're going to talk about how relationships work and get some serious guidance for our own relationships. Dr. Orna, welcome to the show.

GURALNIK: Thank you, Brittany. Thank you for inviting me.

LUSE: Oh, my pleasure. To start off, what is it about couples that activates you? Because you really lock in when you get in the room with these couples, regardless of what condition they come in.

GURALNIK: In a way, I feel like couples' work is a mini political work.

LUSE: Yes. You've said that before.


LUSE: Say more about that.

GURALNIK: Couples are the smallest political system. They have to organize their differences in - according to some kind of system. Like, if two people want two different things, how do you decide on that? Is it, like, an authoritarian system? Like, one has more power, so they get to, like...

LUSE: Than the other. Right.

GURALNIK: ...Subordinate the other? Or are they going to try and do a real democracy? Or is it going to be a simple barter?

LUSE: And conflict is always inevitable. And...


LUSE: And the stakes are there because it's like, this - in the political system, everyone's ultimate - ultimately, everyone's survival is on the line. When it's the two of you, it's like, your survival, your happiness, your safety, your comfort - those things are on the line every day.


LUSE: What is your philosophy about relationships and what makes them quote, unquote, "successful"? And I suppose I should clarify by successful, I don't necessarily mean that they are lengthy or that people stay together against all odds but more so where things are healthy and supportive for everybody involved.

GURALNIK: Ultimately, I believe that truth and honesty set us free. And truth - I mean not just truth about facts. I mean emotional truth, moral truth, ethical truth. I also believe that an encounter between two human beings is difficult, that the other person's difference is not a simple thing, and it has to be dealt with with a lot of sensitivity.

LUSE: It sounds like what you're saying is that each person in a relationship has to accept as given that the other person's differences or complexities are just as important as their own, which sounds simple (laughter). But...

GURALNIK: Well, I would say...

LUSE: ...It doesn't always work out that way.

GURALNIK: I mean, Brittany, you're already at stage two. I would say stage one is coming to terms with the fact that your partner is different. That's already actually a radical experience - hard.

LUSE: Really?

GURALNIK: Yeah. Most people - most of us function with the kind of underlying assumption that the other person is like me. We assume sameness. We don't consider, like, the fact that we each come with, like, a different history, that we each come with a different set of, like, assumptions, that we each come with a different biology. It's - there are so many things that we just don't see.

We assume sameness because when you really see that the other person is different and you really pause and consider it, it's complicated. It's scary. You may not want the same things. You may not feel the same way about things, maybe. Immediately, people start thinking, wait; am I wrong? Am I right? Who gets to get their way?

LUSE: It brings a lot of questions of control into play, I feel like.

GURALNIK: Yes. Control, value, who's worth more - there's a lot of comparison and tugging of, like, who gets what. It's just scary. Difference is scary.

LUSE: Why are we so blind to it - difference?

GURALNIK: I think the whole structure of society is built on a certain kind of creation of this, like, singular ego, right? We're individuals. The individuality is so kind of the mortar of, like, society. It's a pretty rickety, fragile operation - this idea of individuality. And we have to protect it. So we shore up these individual egos. And then when people are different from us, we get nervous. It threatens this kind of fragile construct, which is the individual.

LUSE: In the docuseries, difference and how to have empathy for a partner's difference are a huge part of the work Orna leads her clients through over a period of months. And just like her clients, Orna sometimes finds patients whose differences from herself require her to seek out other perspectives. She regularly turns to other therapists for advice, like when she, as a white woman, was working with a Black couple.


KALI CYRUS: Has your whiteness been named with them?

GURALNIK: In what way?

CYRUS: Do they ever challenge you about it?


CYRUS: I want them to.


CYRUS: I think it would be inquiring deeper about that difference...


CYRUS: ...Because I think they're showing themselves. But I'm - there's obviously more layers to them.

LUSE: Orna took that advice back to the couple and applied it.


INDIA BROWNE: Are we sharing the same Black experience?


I BROWNE: Because I know you are going through what Black men go through, but you don't tap into that. You don't talk about that, so...

GURALNIK: Can I ask you - India, you said earlier it's different to speak to someone who's other than to each other. Do you feel, as a person of color, a lot of discomfort to talk to me?

I BROWNE: I feel like I have to dress it up a bit.

LUSE: And it was remarkable. The acknowledgement of difference led to one of the most powerful therapeutic moments for this couple.


DALE BROWNE: I feel as though I can either let it get me upset and bog me down, or I can push through and make things happen. I choose to push through and make things happen.

GURALNIK: But there's some way that you deal with the emotional implications of whatever we're talking about differently.


GURALNIK: And I think India is suggesting that you do some kind of dissociation there, that you cut yourself off from that.

LUSE: Coming up, Orna tells me more about how she bridges differences and when she thinks a couple should call it quits. We'll be right back.

There's a really good mix, a good cross-section of Americans on the show.


LUSE: There are couples in their 20s, 30s and beyond. There's always a mix of ethnicities and sexualities. I know with something as intimate as therapy, it's easy to imagine - right? - that the best therapist for yourself can be someone who really understands your specific experience. I mean, I've been seeing the same Black woman therapist for over a decade. And I think that actually, there are so many things that I don't have to explain to her that has made it, in some ways, easier for me to be able to really get to the work of what we're - what I need to be doing - right? - in our sessions. But there are people who you have very different experiences from.

GURALNIK: Yeah. Articulating to someone who doesn't necessarily know is very helpful. It's very helpful because you get to examine all sorts of assumptions you just took for granted. Because you have to speak it, you have to articulate it to someone else, you get to look at it, and you might suddenly have a different take on it. You know, when I was in analysis, I - often, the analysts I chose were not Jewish, certainly not Israeli, because I wanted that kind of space of difference that would make it possible for me to reflect on what these positions really meant to me.

LUSE: Yes, you do sometimes get people to explain things to you, but also there are times when you will really reach outside to a different therapist to give you perspective if you feel like you're really lacking it.


LUSE: It seems like - I think about this one couple that you worked with, Elaine and DeSean from season one. I didn't perceive them - I think many people, many viewers didn't perceive them as an interracial couple, necessarily. But Elaine did not identify herself as a Black woman, and DeSean identified himself as a Black man. And they saw race, racial conflict, racism, racial microaggressions very differently. And you ended up seeking counsel outside of your sessions with them, with a Black therapist who you could go to for consultation. Talk to me about how you decide when you do need to go outside to somebody else.

GURALNIK: It's not only our patients that are governed by unconscious forces. We're governed by our own unconscious, and it's really important to keep kind of checking in and getting an outside perspective so you're not stuck. It's - the whole business is, like, not just trusting your conscious mind but constantly getting input, both from your own unconscious, learning how to listen to your own unconscious from the patient you're working with and from supervisors and from peers, just to constantly try to liberate you from the constraints of your own mind. And, you know, positionality, social positionality, is one of those constraints. Like, you grow up with a particular skin color, particular class, particular gender, particular sexual orientation, and it all comes with a lot of thought constraints. Every one of these positions is like - it's both, like, OK, it's a way of being something, and it's a way of being blind to something else. So you always have to try to shake that up.

LUSE: I also feel like there are probably a lot of people who may be listening who are happy in their relationships but wonder if they have the skills or how to build the skills to maintain that desire to want to connect to each other even through difficulty. How do you cultivate that?

GURALNIK: When people have injuries and grievances, to some degree, they need some way to really process those. They need to go deep and understand what's hurt them, what they're upset about, and they need some - either self-understanding. They sometimes need some accountability. You know, I'm not like a Pollyanna, like, you know, positive psychology. Let's just all go towards the light, and that's it. I think attending to hurt and trauma and all of that is super important. And I think the more the couple operates from a place of giving each other the benefit of the doubt, really kind of moving towards this kind of more positive way of viewing each other, it feeds on itself. It becomes kind of the culture of the relationship. So the more you do that, the more it becomes the vibe, the underlying soil of the relationship.

LUSE: I like that description - the culture of the relationship. It feels tied to your idea that you shared previously about a relationship being like a mini political system.


LUSE: It also has to have a culture that everybody operates within. I never thought about that before.


LUSE: Could you talk to me about a time that a couple truly stunned you in a positive way in how they showed up for one another?

GURALNIK: All the time. All the time. I mean, this is what I love about my work. I mean, people stun me all the time because often people have a choice between, like, digging into their hurt and grievances, and they might be very justified in doing that. And then they - there's this kind of spirit that emanates from within them, and they're going towards grace and they're going towards transcendence and they're going towards love. And every time people do that, I'm in awe. It's amazing what people have in them, that they have the capacity to heal and forgive and go towards the light. I mean, humans are amazing.

LUSE: Well, Dr. Orna, thank you so, so much for joining me today. It was a pleasure to talk with you.

GURALNIK: Thank you, Brittany. Thank you for the awesome questions. I mean, you're - like, you really pushed me to think.

LUSE: (Laughter) That's what we try to do.


LUSE: That was Dr. Orna Guralnik. She's a psychoanalytic therapist on Showtime's "Couples Therapy." This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by...





LUSE: This episode was edited by...


LUSE: Engineering came from Stacey Abbott. Our executive producer is...


LUSE: Our VP of programming is...


LUSE: Our senior VP of programming is...


LUSE: All right. That's all for this episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. Talk soon.

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