If you’re thinking about going to couples therapy — and, really, who isn’t? — but are wondering what to expect, you can now pop in your earbuds for a podcast preview. There’s a show for just about any relational issue: the effects of 24-7 technology, unintended consequences of 50/50 parenting, the intricacies of polyamory.
Perhaps the most highly touted is Esther Perel’s “Where Should We Begin?” — which since May 2017 has voyeuristically and provocatively let its audience listen in on actual couples therapy sessions.
“I have always thought that what happens in this room is like the Dostoyevsky novels,” Perel, 60, said of her private practice. Though it feels almost wrong to listen, there’s no betrayed confidentiality; the couples on her podcast have applied to work with her and agreed to be taped.
Currently available as an Audible audiobook and arriving on iTunes later this spring, Season 3 (“The Arc of Love”) tracks a series of relationships at different stages, from “nascent love to small town affairs to mother/child to happily divorced.” It includes (unusually) a couple told by Perel they’ll be better off as friends. “Once you hear what happened there, you will understand what could lead me to make such a statement, which I make very, very cautiously,” she said.
A celebrity in her field, who consulted on the television show “The Affair,” Perel appears to have inspired an entire genre of podcasts. Simply type “couples therapy” or “marriage therapy” into your phone’s podcast app search function, and they’ll pop up, many with confusingly similar names.
You can listen to a couple fighting (“The Couple’s Therapy Podcast”); therapists talking shop about recent research in the field (“The Couples Therapist Couch”); people chatting with experts or couples about their relationships (“Relationship Advice”); therapists offering advice (“The Marriage Podcast for Smart People”); segments on morning radio shows in which disc jockeys with no credentials whatsoever help couples air their grievances (“KX969 Couples Therapy”); and (by and large religious) wives on what they do to keep things afloat (“Stay Married”).
If you’re married to a doctor and want a community, you’re in luck (“Married to Doctors”)! If you want to learn every detail of the relationship between a YouTube star (Casey Neistat, 38) and his wife, a jewellery designer (Candice Pool, 41), there’s “Couples Therapy with Candice & Casey.”
“We do have an oftentimes contentious relationship,” said Pool, on speakerphone in a car after a real-life couples therapy session. “It’s very difficult to go into a quiet room, sit a foot away from each other and talk about resolving problems when in the moment you can’t be near each other.”
Her husband said, “There’s real irony to the fact that the only time we can make a couples therapy podcast is if we’re in a good place in our marriage.”
What About Books?
“Podcasts reach people in a specific way; you can get deeper than you can in an article or a book,” said Ellyn Bader, who founded the Couples Institute in Menlo Park, California, in 1984 with her husband, Peter Pearson, with whom she has written several books.
Bader doesn’t have her own program — yet? — but has been a guest on other people’s shows. “What has surprised me is how many people have called me after who have heard it,” she said. “People are listening and are being affected.”
For Perel, who is also an author, voice (in her case, alluringly Belgian accented) is a key element of therapy. “Today with the affluence of text, voice has really disappeared,” she said. “We don’t call; we don’t hear the voice nearly enough. And yet we begin by hearing the voice in utero. It’s so powerfully intimate.”
She considers books (at least on the printed page) two-dimensional and podcasts three-dimensional. “When you listen deeply to the experience of others, you find yourself standing in front of your own mirror.” she said.
Laura Heck, 34, of “Marriage Therapy Radio” and Salt Lake City, thinks of podcasts as “the middle ground between self-help, a book and going to couples therapy.” She and her co-host, Zach Brittle, 45, who broadcasts from Seattle, believe speaking directly to their listeners helps establish a more intimate relationship.
“We demystify therapy and take it out of a stodgy, dusty, stigmatised thing and make it practical and normal and real,” Brittle said. They cultivate an American next-door neighbor vibe (“just a guy off the street,” he said), with details from their own lives. On one show, Heck shared that she has seen the movie “Elf” 23 times, deeming it “an American classic.”
Establishing a connection, however it is done, is as critical on air as it is in an office. “In therapy, it’s really the match in the relationship with the therapist and couples that predicts the highest success,” said Laurie Watson, a sex therapist, author and co-host of “Foreplay,” which is billed as “radio sex therapy.”
Watson, who did not want to disclose her age, acknowledges that a connection made through listening versus conversation is a “pseudo-relationship.” But when her listeners think they know her, they feel less alone. Adam Mathews, a marriage and family therapist and Watson’s co-host on “Foreplay,” said: “As sexual as our culture is, couples just do not talk about sex in a good way. They fight about it a lot. Podcasts are a nonthreatening way to begin this conversation.”
The podcast has featured episodes like “Sleeping With a Narcissist” and “Cunnilingus.” The hosts say that 55 per cent of their listeners are male — not necessarily what you’d think given that, according to many couples therapists, the vast majority of sessions are initiated by women.
Mathews, 40, believes this is because when sex trails off in committed relationships, as it sometimes does, men can feel especially isolated. “They see the podcast as a way of getting that connection back,” he said. “It’s hard for men to admit there are issues; it’s so performance-based for them. It’s hard for them to find a way to get help in a nonthreatening way.”
But female listeners are engaging intently too. “A woman says to me, ‘I have low libido.’ And I say, ‘What have you done?’ She will tell me in great detail about her daughter’s birthday party, the favors … ,” Watson said, adding that couples should put that kind of effort into their erotic life. “We have to struggle and be mature to keep risking.”
Sex is also the most downloaded topic on “Marriage Therapy Radio.” The second is affairs. “These are not things you talk about in polite company, so people are interested in listening without having to expose themselves,” Brittle said.
But should you be listening to just anybody opine about relationships?
“You do not want to see someone who specialises with eating disorders or teenagers,” said Brittle’s co-host, Heck. “You really want a couples therapist.” They met while training at the Gottman Institute in Seattle, which advertises “a research-based approach to relationships,” led by two married psychotherapists with doctorates, John and Julie Gottman. The institute offers a four-step certification for licensed therapists, which includes practices like guided exercises and other ways to create what it calls a “good-enough marriage.”
The Gottman framework is one of many models of couples therapy training in a field that is relatively young. When she started treating patients, Bader said, what we now think of as couples therapy barely existed. With her husband she wrote a developmental model textbook for the practice, called “In Quest of the Mythical Mate” (1988). “Over time, it has gone from being a stepchild to being considered a powerful form of therapy,” Bader said.
Perel was trained in “systemic family therapy, and in psychodynamic therapy and in expressive art therapies,” she said. “I do not really belong to a particular school. I like to say I followed my mother, who was a seamstress. She used to do fittings. And I do fittings.”
Perel has found her podcast sessions useful as part of her clinical work with young therapists. “I have turned them into training tapes where I really break down moment by moment why I do what I do,” she said.
Advertisements for the therapists’ webinars, workshops and retreats tend to punctuate the episodes, like an in-person intensive couples retreat from April 4 to April 7 in Asheville, North Carolina, led by the “Foreplay” duo. “I love this way to work,” Watson said. “You’re not rehashing the most recent fight. You hear the issues and you dive right into the deep dynamics for sometimes 13 to 16 hours.”
But disclaimers are necessary when you’re not face to face, even for the professional hosts. “I’m not your therapist unless you give me money,” Brittle, of “Marriage Therapy Radio,” joked.(All the podcasts mentioned in this article are free to stream, some via the hosts’ websites and others through app stores.)
Every episode of “Foreplay” states that podcasts are not actually a substitute for therapy. “Podcasts can be a source of accurate information that dispels the myths out there and the stigma that keeps people away from therapy,” Mathews said. “My hope is that they use the podcast as a jumping-off point.”
Perel, on the other hand, embraces the idea that her sessions are being used to directly help relationships. She is pleased that listeners are discussing her episodes with their partners. “It becomes like a transitional object, like going to a movie and then saying, ‘Do you think about that? Do you think we do this, too?’ ” she said.
All You Need Is Laughs
Some prefer to hear from amateurs. Pool of “Couples Therapy With Candice & Casey” finds podcasts made by marriage counselors “boring.” Her husband thinks professionals lack vulnerability. “When it’s two people laughing about their own relationship problems, it’s much more relatable,” Pool said.
Neistat is clear, though, that he is no expert. “We probably remind the audience 10 times in every episode that we have no idea what we are talking about, and they should not take us literally,” he said. “We permanently live on the precipice of divorce, and we are not good role models for how to have a good marriage!” This made his wife laugh.
Another podcast, “Couples Therapy,” is hosted by Naomi Ekperigin, 35, and her fiancé, Andy Beckerman, 39, who are comedians. It started as outright entertainment — a stand-up show — and morphed into recordings when they moved from New York City to Los Angeles last year.
“If you don’t have a podcast in LA you don’t exist,” Ekperigin said.
They open most episodes riffing on their own relationship and then cut to segments of couples doing stand-up, mostly taped live the first Saturday of every month at the Virgil, a club in Los Angeles.
One of their favorite live sets was actress Alice Wetterlund and her ex-husband. “They had already gotten divorced, and they were so honest about why they should never have gotten married in the first place,” Beckerman said. “Audience members came up and said, ‘I almost wish they were still together.’ ”
He and Ekperigin are in couples therapy, too — the off-air kind. They started going after they got engaged, three years into their now nine-year relationship, because they were having the same fights around the same issues. “We are about to do this forever; it’s so important to work that out,” Ekperigin said.
These days, they Skype weekly with their therapist, who is in New York. “We come from very different backgrounds, and it’s helping us translate things across those boundaries,” Beckerman said. “Our therapist is an emotional translator for our U.N. meetings.”
They see the attention they have drawn to couples therapy is helping to break down the stigma around it. And while they enjoy doing advice episodes, they’re clear with their audience that “we are not professionals in any way,” Ekperigin said. Just in case listeners weren’t clued in by their podcast’s tag line: “Open your hearts and loosen your butts.”