When Sharon was pregnant, Joe had an affair. Sharon knew this for two reasons. Joe was staying out all night, and the "other woman" called to admit everything. As for me, I know all this because I watched a television show called "Couples." Next to the nightly news, it is the most informative show on the air.
Now I know that that is not the standard thing to say. The standard thing, I think, is to denounce the show and everyone on it--the troubled couples who appear and the psychiatrist, Dr. Walter E. Brackelmanns, who counsels them. It is de rigueur to liken this show to "The Newlywed Game" or some other program where people, lusting either for fame or money, willingly make fools of themselves, usually by jumping up and down like human pogo sticks.
On "Couples," no one jumps up and down. The couples simply tell a vast audience of perfect strangers intimate details of their marriages. In the case of Sharon and Joe, for instance, Sharon revealed that since her discovery of Joe's affair--and his denial that it had taken place--her desire for him had turned into something like revulsion. Even though his affair was over, Sharon did not want to go near Joe. To her, Joe's persistent denial of the affair represented a continuing betrayal. The affair was over, but the lie lingered on.
Next on stage came Joe. The trouble with his wife, he said, was that she would not have sex with him. This, of course, was no surprise to either the several million people watching, or to Dr. Brackelmanns, who explained the reason for Sharon's behavior. Then he told Joe he had a very important question to ask: Had he had an affair? Yes, Joe said. Would he now tell his wife? Joe hesitated. Yes, he said. And then he did. It is said they are living happily ever after.
Now you may ask what sort of person would appear on this show and admit to this sort of thing. You may ask--and, by telephone, I did. Brackelmanns had no ready answer. He guessed that most of them were "very alienated"--people who thought, as so many people do, that their problems were unique. It was only when they started to watch the show that they realized that other people also had problems. They came on the show both to be helped (Brackelmanns calls it counseling) and to help others.
This may or may not be explanation enough for you. You may think that fame is the pull or maybe something else--possibly exhibitionism, a label that really explains nothing. Whatever the reason, though, these people serve the same purpose as cadavers at medical school. They are wonderful teaching tools.
That might sound coldhearted, but the people who come on "Couples" represent less of a problem than do the people watching who consider their problems unique and shut up about them. If "Couples" does anything, it shows that no marriage is truly unique and neither is any marital problem. And it shows further that the experts--therapists of one sort or another--do know, as the old song goes, a little bit about a lot of things. They know enough to help a troubled marriage sometimes.
This is not, strictly speaking, news. But despite the publicity given to therapy, it often is seen as an occult science of almost no practical value.
The upshot is that at most workplaces there is a nurse standing by if you should happen to get a paper cut. But if you're sitting at your desk for three weeks doing nothing, a hangdog look on your face and depression dripping out of your eyes, not only is there no trained person to help you, but colleagues will stay away. Unlike a cut or, say, the flu, depression is your own business.
"Couples" teaches otherwise. It teaches that failing to communicate can be fatal to any relationship and that there are some basic rules for figuring out what the problem might be. If the show does nothing more than point that out, it deserves an Emmy. The couples who appear on the show may be funny, but if viewers are laughing at the problems of those people and not talking about their own, the biggest laugh comes when the set is turned off. It's on the viewer.