‘Ours’ Makes Couples Counseling More Accessible. Does It Work?
On a recent sticky summer evening, Andrew and I assumed our trademark marital position: hovered over the iPad in bed.
But this time it wasn’t to binge-watch the new season of “Borgen” or “The Bear.” Instead, the screen was glowing with … an interactive couples therapy module.
It could be argued that couples counseling is having a moment: The psychotherapist Esther Perel has reached rock star status, and the Showtime series “Couples Therapy” is three seasons in, with more on the way.
But navigating real-life couples counseling, like so much of the health care system, can be expensive and laborious. If you want a therapist who takes your insurance (assuming you have some), you need to put in the work (and a lot of it — many therapists don’t accept insurance). And without insurance, sessions can cost hundreds of dollars. And if you want to do it in-person, there are many scheduling hurdles, especially for working parents, which we are.
These are some of the problems that Ours, a new relationship platform that’s a hybrid of live counseling and online modules, is hoping to solve. It was founded in 2020 by Jessica Holton and Adam Putterman, who came from consulting backgrounds, and Elizabeth Earnshaw, a marriage and family therapist with a large online following.
Backed by investors like TMV (a venture capital firm), Serena Williams and Andy Dunn, Ours debuted in the spring, offering counseling “for relationships of all kinds — new connections, serious relationships, recently engaged, the married crowd and everything in between” — though the website emphasizes the premarital. (Later this year, Ours plans to roll out life-stage specific programs, such as ones centered on expecting a child or moving to a new city together.)
It purports to help couples “build skills, connection and empathy so they can make their relationships healthy and last,” with a four-week course that includes two live sessions with a therapist at the start and finish of a customized curriculum of four remote, self-guided sessions, for $400 total (which comes out to mildly demonic $66.66 each).
Andrew and I have been together for 14 years and married for 10. There wasn’t a big problem, per se, with our marriage. But the pandemic, dominated for us by parenting two children under 4 in a New York City apartment while trying to keep two careers afloat, has taken its toll.
While we are enormously privileged on so many fronts, our son, Gabriel, was born on March 4, 2020, a week before the world shut down. Like so many, I was shellshocked; it felt like we were living some horrible science fiction plotline.
A month later, Gabriel was admitted to Mount Sinai for emergency abdominal surgery (he is fine). More mundanely, we have weathered career changes and challenges; child care crises; too many Covid-19 exposures and toddler nose swabs to count; and just the overall wear and tear of living with small humans who have constant demands during a once-in-a-generation pandemic.
We had been to couples therapy a few times before we had children, and it definitely helped us get through some rough patches. Now, though, spoiled by everything else we’ve been able to conveniently do from home, I wasn’t keen on leaving the house (or even bed) to do it this time.
Session 1: Hi, Guide
During our first session, Andrew and I sat awkwardly on our couch, wedging ourselves into the screen at bizarre, unflattering angles. Each couple is assigned a “guide” or therapist — Ours currently employs seven of them — and ours was Ms. Earnshaw, who is also the head of relationships at Ours.
Before the first session, each couple fills out a survey that only their guide sees (sample question: “What was the first thing you remember being attracted to in your partner?”). This is something of a warm-up and confidence-building exercise.
Which we probably needed. “There’s a lot about feelings in here,” Andrew said when I asked him what he thought.
We took Ms. Earnshaw through the broad contours of our relationship: We met at a party in 2008 to celebrate the paperback release of my first book, a career guide for young women. I was impressed that this good-looking guy showed up alone to an event that wasn’t exactly aimed at 28-year-old men.
We were basically inseparable for the next decade and during those pre-kid years (we had our daughter, Leah, in 2018). We really grew up together, traveled the world, found our career footing, then lost it and found it again.
While we were going down memory lane with Ms. Earnshaw, I looked over at Andrew and asked: “Remember 2013?” I continued: “That was the year my father was in killed in a motorcycle accident in India, our apartment in Washington, D.C., was broken into, our car was totaled by a hotel valet, and we had mice.”
“You forgot about the carbon monoxide leak,” Andrew said.
“Wow, that’s a lot of traumatic events to encounter early on in a marriage. It could have torn some people apart,” Ms. Earnshaw said, observing that our dumpster fire of a year was a testament to our resilience as a couple.
With her encouraging words ringing in my ears, we fired up our first Ours session.
Session 2: How We Became Us
Andrew and I had just returned from a glorious four-day, kid-free getaway in the South of France, the perfect head space to conjure positive feelings and memories, which is a key part of the “Becoming Us” module.
Still, when we were prompted to have a six-second kiss at the beginning of the session, it was a hard pass.
“When it’s timed, I feel like a zoo animal,” Andrew said. I agreed.
Tap to the next screen.
The “best self” prompts continued with an exercise asking us to visualize ourselves at our best. Andrew’s image was in 2014 when we swam with dolphins in New Zealand. “It’s us conquering the world and doing something exciting,” Andrew said.
“Didn’t you throw up after that?” I asked.
What was most useful to us was the vocabulary the session introduced — terms like “couple bubble” and “thirds.” It’s hard to change what you can’t name, and one of the merits of Ours is that it gives couples the straightforward terminology for many of the scenarios that are at once ubiquitous and hard to define.
The “couple bubble” is what you form to create a protective barrier from the external world, and “thirds” are “the people you love very much but who might make unreasonable demands of you or your partner. Think: children, parents, in-laws and close friends.
Then we created a list of agreements for our couple bubble, including no criticizing each other in front of thirds — only defending each other in front of thirds.
All of this sounds great in theory, but does it work after the vacation high wears off and real life sets in? A few days after our session, I gave our daughter Lucky Charms for breakfast, something that Andrew had asked me not to because he considered the sugar-laden cereal “dessert.”
Andrew pulled me aside and said quietly: “You are undermining me.” I recalled incidents in the past where the fallout might have been more public, but we had family visiting and one of our agreements was to not criticize each other in front of “thirds.”
It seemed like a micro-step in the right direction.
Session 3: The Therapy Sweet Spot … Childhood!
How does Ours hold up when you’ve been woken up every night for the last week, you are staring down 10 days without child care, and you’ve just reprimanded your spouse for not putting a diaper on correctly?
That’s the life backdrop for how we went into the “Family of Origin” session, where a couple explores how “our family affects how we show up” in relationships. Here we discovered that Andrew and I, like a lot of couples, are “meta-emotional mismatches” in many ways.
To put it in broad strokes: I grew up in a conflict-averse household where we talked a lot about our feelings. Andrew grew up addressing conflict more directly, but “feelings,” he semi-joked, “what are those?”
Of course, Ours didn’t invent the model of examining the emotional patterns we grew up with — Freud and early psychoanalysis had that covered. The idea is that we don’t want what happened in the past to dictate future behaviors, which often happens in myriad unconscious ways.
To that end, we were asked to talk about patterns we would like to continue from our families of origin (addressing conflict head-on and being open to discussing feelings) and those we would like to break (quick to anger).
Did Andrew and I suddenly become more emotionally matched? Definitely not. But after this session I found that I had more empathy for him — which is the intention of Ours — and the Diaper Disaster because it was clear that we both come by our mishegoss honestly. It’s all part of our emotional DNA.
Session 4: Wherein We (Are Forced to) Talk About Sex
When one of the first exercises in this session asked us to sit back and back and do coupled breathing, I really wasn’t sure if this was for me. But after we moved past that — as in, skipped the exercise — Ours was back in its groove, giving language, structure and a framework for a topic that can be awkward, uncomfortable and fraught.
I appreciated that one of the first myths the session dispelled is that desire is this one-dimensional impulse.
Desire, as presented by Ours, is something more nuanced, and people typically fall into one of two categories: spontaneous and responsive. Spontaneous means you are mentally aroused first and then physically. Responsive types are those who may need to be free of distraction to get in the mood and respond more to physical touch.
Then we moved on to questions like: “What is one thing your partner can do to foster an environment around your desire type?”
“Be awake,” Andrew said.
When the discussion turned to sex drive and accelerators (turn-ons) and brakes (turnoffs), Andrew correctly identified my accelerator: luxury hotels.
Next up we were asked to create a sex plan. “How about the kids stop coming into our bed in the middle of the night?” I suggested.
Confession: We did not create a sex plan. There was something too contrived and methodical about it. The session made me think of Ms. Perel’s book “Mating in Captivity,” which addresses the phenomenon of all these seemingly happy, well-adjusted couples who don’t have sex because all the mystery and otherness, her fundamental tenets of desire, are lacking.
This was the only session that made me wonder if there such a thing as too much communication. As it turns out, I didn’t want a full sex and intimacy road map to my partner. What I wanted, and which unfortunately was beyond the capabilities of Ours, was for my children to stay in their beds.
Session 5: Our Most Stressful Topic (Money)
This is when Ours asks couples to dive into the belly of the beast and pick an area where they have a particularly pronounced difference. We were then supposed to use the Ours template to navigate the difference.
For us, money was the obvious choice as our difference. Andrew and I can look at the same set of numbers and he’ll see financial ruin and I see a bigger apartment. The Ours method isn’t about solving the problem, but aims instead to develop more of an understanding about how the other person views the issue, mimicking, in some ways, the kind of conversation you would have with a friend.
This session made me think of an article I read last year called “Why Are We So Awful to Our Spouses?” that quoted a married woman with a young child in the thick of balancing parenting, work and life: “If I treated my friends the way I treated my husband, I am not sure I’d have all that many friends.”
To cultivate more of the friend conversation vibe, it helps to ask questions that come from a place of genuine curiosity and open-mindedness. The ones Ours poses are: How does your philosophy relate to your childhood? If we were able to live by your philosophy, what would that do for your life? In an ideal world, how would we solve this issue? If we don’t live by your philosophy, what is your biggest fear or disaster scenario?
One of the questions that Ours is trying to get couples to answer is: What is fundamentally at stake here for each person? For Andrew, it was about rainy-day scenarios like having to burn through our retirement savings, or going into debt, that inspire for him a sense of doomsday. His views on money are also deeply rooted in a childhood spent watching his father’s strong ethos surrounding managing money.
Even though I have very strong feelings about money, I had trouble articulating them in a coherent way. The best I could do is that my philosophy stemmed more from my non-philosophy, imparted to me by my mother: It will all work out.
While life was good, I wanted to live it, something that was reinforced by my father’s sudden death nine years ago, and the last two years, when it has often felt like we were forced to dim our existence.
This was the most difficult session. It took us twice as long to finish. After it was done, I felt a bit deflated and defeated. Andrew would probably never speak my love language of, “You only live once, so you might as well spring for it,” and I would probably never say “Let’s put more into our 401(k) this year.” (And for the record, Andrew claims that I exaggerate how far apart we are on the issue of money.)
Session 6: The Exit Interview
In our last session, which was a live virtual meeting with Ms. Earnshaw, she reminded us that our different philosophy about money wasn’t the point. “What mattered,” she said, “was reflecting on the process” of whatever conflict we were facing, and asking ourselves, “‘How can we do this better the next time?’”
Would we be breaking out the Ours conflict resolution model questions every time we had a disagreement? Almost definitely not. But the structure of the programs makes you feel more accountable to each other. It’s one thing to say to your partner, “Don’t criticize me in front of your mother,” but it makes it feel more real, and enforceable, if you have to write it down.
These four weeks also helped us cultivate more empathy, a kind of relationship super-glue that breaks down resentment and antipathy — feelings that any therapist will tell you can, over time, erode a marriage. (I should also note that this method of navigating a difference is totally exhausting — after one session, I went straight to sleep, which is another perk of doing couples counseling in bed.)
While Ours isn’t something I would recommend to couples in true crisis, it did feel useful for couples, like us, who may needed a reminder that being married entails a lot more than just being able to coexist while looking at your phone on opposite sides of the bed. At least, with the sessions, the professional therapist and the iPad, you’re looking at something together. And sometimes even each other.