What You Can Learn from the Couples Therapy Scenes In Season 3 of 'You'
If you love soapy, psychological thrillers, there's a chance that You is currently a part of your Netflix queue. There's no question that Penn Badgley (who plays series lead Joe Goldberg) is a great actor — not to mention he's pretty easy on the eyes and has mastered the art of playing a savvy stalker-slash-killer. (See: What the Netflix Series 'You' Can Teach You About Toxic Relationships)
For background, You — which dropped its third season earlier this month — chronicles a charming but intensely obsessive young man who often goes to extreme measures to insert himself into the lives of women by which he is transfixed. (FYI, spoilers ahead! ⚠️) For instance, during the show's first season, Joe lives in New York City and manages a book store, where he sees and becomes preoccupied with an aspiring writer, Guinevere Beck. The two develop a relationship, but it ultimately meets an untimely end. In Season 2, Joe flees New York to start a new life in Los Angeles, trying to leave his old ways behind. Upon starting his new job, in which he works in the books section of a store, Joe finds a new woman to obsess over: Love Quinn. Joe quickly learns that he isn't the only person in his new relationship that is capable of killing for love — Love is too and has. Love, it turns out, murdered Joe's ex-girlfriend Candace. Joe almost almost killed her in return, until she admitted she was pregnant with his child. Joe then realizes he has a new person to protect and care for — his unborn child — and so it's in the child's best interest for him to be with Love. (Related: The Potential Red Flags In a Relationship You Need to Know About)
Season 3 opens with Joe, Love, and baby Henry adjusting to their new surroundings in suburbia, but things take a bloody twist when Love kills their neighbor, Natalie, whom she believed had come onto Joe. While standing over Natalie's dead body, Love says to Joe, "I think we need to go to couples therapy."
For years, I've said that the best time to go to couples therapy isn't during or after a crisis (although those are important, too), but instead when things are really good. That's not quite the case in You, but the ensuing scenes of the two at couples therapy make for some really great learning moments. While you probably won't be taking any direct advice from these characters, there is a lot to take in from their time at couples therapy.
What the Show Gets Majorly Wrong
Love: "We had a fight."
Therapist: "Obviously. You wouldn't be here if you hadn't."
What's Wrong: First off, a therapist responding to a client with "obviously," is not okay. It can be perceived as condescending and rude, and that's the antithesis of what the relationship between therapist and client relationship is about. Second, fighting is not the only reason a couple goes to therapy. In fact, in my experience, one argument is not what tips the scales. It's a culmination of so many different factors, which can include everything from direct conflict, sexual challenges, communication barriers, or simply wanting an intentional space to work on a relationship. Plus, there is a level of assumption in the comment, as if the therapist already knows why her clients are there — which doesn't necessarily create a safe environment to open up in. (Related: How to Find the Best Therapist for You)
Love: "I caught him cheating."
What's Wrong: This statement is simply not true and only about 1/16 of the whole story. While it makes sense why the couple doesn't want to confess to a murder, this offers up a very different situation than what is actually happening. And as Joe says: "The difference is I almost did a bad thing, and she actually did a terrible thing, but I can't say that she did, so I'm the villain." What you can take and learn from this to be as honest as you can be in therapy — but not sharing the entire truth doesn't serve anyone in a therapeutic container. The therapist isn't a mindreader, and can only go off of what they see and hear. So, when you tell the therapist a fraction of the whole story, you only end up doing a fraction of the potential work. (Related: Kristen Bell Reveals How She and Dax Shepard Make the Most of Therapy)
What the Show Gets Right
Love: "So we don't know where to go from here."
Therapist: "You don't know where to go from here. He may not know either. But, when you speak in 'we,' you leave no room for his individual experience or yours. The 'we' is codependency masquerading as love."
Love: "I'm sorry."
Therapist: "Don't be. If you don't know how to communicate healthfully, it's because it was never modeled for you."
What's Right About This/What You Can Learn: There are multiple wins in this four-line exchange: The outlining of codependency and enmeshment through vetoing the use of the word "we," the importance of language, and the validation of why it's not their fault for not knowing how to communicate in a healthy way. (Related: How to Tell If You're In a Codependent Relationship)
While Joe makes a sarcastic remark via voiceover about it being blame-parents-o'clock, it's not about blame; it's about understanding. When you can understand and accept that perhaps you may not have all the proper communication tools in your bag of tricks, you can learn new skills to get better. By facing their lack of healthy communication skills and then working to develop some, Joe and Love have a chance at actually understanding each other more.
The therapist asks a question, and Love replies first and very quickly, as she had done with all of the previous questions.
Therapist: *cuts off Love* "Actually, I want to hear from Joe first."
Joe's Thought via Voiceover: "Maybe she does sense the inequity here."
What's Right About This/What You Can Learn: Often in romantic relationships, one person can take up more space than the other. Whether that space is physical (with furniture, shoes, clothes, or other belongings) or emotionally (i.e. with their thoughts and feelings) — there needs to be some balance between parties. Because of Love's heightened emotional state, it seems she's eager to answer everything (which isn't inherently wrong); it's just not conducive to a long-term healthy and happy relationship. Ultimately, one person starts to feel smaller or, as though they have to shrink themselves down. This is why Joe replies the way he does when the therapist gives him the floor to share instead of Love.
This can also create a chain of unfortunate events. For instance, if one partner takes up more space and the other is forced to shrink, the partner who tends to take up more space can become frustrated and feel like they are doing everything, whereas their partner may just be trying to survive and exist. A lot can get lost when two people don't communicate. Allowing Joe the space to speak safely not only helped him feel seen, but also helped Love understand Joe and his perspective more.
Love: "You were going to leave me?! Are you insane?!"
Therapist: "Uh-uh. No. Love, you must listen."
Love: "I am listening, every word."
Therapist: "There's a difference between a reaction and a response. The latter is thoughtful, the former impulsive."
What's Right About This/What You Can Learn: While I don't love the therapist's use of the word "must," this is something everyone can probably use a lesson on. I see it all the time in my practice, personal relationships, and all over TV, both in reality and scripted shows. If you're instantly coming up with a response or a reaction to what someone said in any situation (positive, negative, or anywhere in between), you're not listening. Healthy communication is as much about receiving information as it is about giving information. Without active listening and thoughtfully responding, it's almost impossible to get through most conflicts. If you find yourself unable to control your reactions, take a break from the conversation. (Related: Why You Might Feel 'Stuck' In a Relationship — and How to Know When to End It)
Plus, a response such as Love's doesn't leave a space for Joe to feel safe — which takes away an opportunity for a vulnerable, authentic, and candid conversation to take place, as both parties could potentially jump into defense mode. While you may not like to hear everything your partner has to say, to understand and connect deeply with them, you need to learn to be an active listener. This will only help all parties understand one another more and more, and potentially leave less room for misunderstandings.
Therapist: "I want to give you some homework. It will help structure difficult conversations. Slow down, respond instead of react."
What's Right About This/What You Can Learn: Most people aren't taught how to communicate in a healthy way. So often, couples therapy is where this education happens. It's only when you can learn how to utilize healthy communication skills (both in how you share and receive information) that you can have real intimacy and closeness with someone else. Often, couples' therapists will assign "homework" to practice these communication skills with each other and process how that went in session. (See: How to Find the Best Therapist for You)
Therapist: "So far, I've only heard you fight to be right. You need a deeper purpose... And don't say Henry. If children were enough to stay married, we'd have no divorced parents."
What's Right About This/What You Can Learn: Choosing each other every day is absolutely necessary for the long-term health of a romantic relationship. That's why Joe and Love need a purpose as a unit, as a relationship, in addition to their individual purposes or the whys for getting up every day — and it needs to be more than their child. The therapist encourages Joe and Love to fight to understand each other versus fighting to be correct, and that's something that most people can do better in their own relationships. Ask yourself, "What am I fighting for?" and answer from an individual perspective and as a relationship unit.
Therapist: "What are you fighting to protect?"
Love: "My family."
Therapist: "Why specifically your family?"
Love: "Because that's what you do."
Therapist: "What do you get from your family?"
Love: "I don't know. Family is supposed to love you unconditionally."
Therapist: "Why is that so important? Why does love have to be unconditional?"
Love: "Because if anyone saw how ugly I can be…"
Joe: "They'll go away for good."
Therapist: "Fair to say one of the things you have in common is fear of abandonment so deep it feels downright kill or be killed — metaphorically speaking. When our patterns line up like this, it's very, very hard to see the other person because it's dangerously close to looking in a mirror."
What's Right About This/What You Can Learn: The therapist helps the Joe and Love realize that their motives stem from similar deep fears of abandonment that manifest as, "whatever it takes to keep the people I love or me safe." The therapist jokes that it often feels like "kill or be killed" — which, in their case, is actually Joe and Love's reality. The reason they feel the desire to kill is for two reasons: 1. To protect an existing relationship and get rid of the person who is a threat. 2. To kill someone you love before they have the opportunity to leave/kill you first.
Although Love and Joe's relationship is an extreme example, it shows how often folks act from a place of fear instead of communicating. Some actions can scream the opposite of what you may really want — genuine love and acceptance while feeling all the feelings. Being reminded that you can feel afraid and still be loved in those feelings is vital for individuals who experience fears of abandonment. (Related: All of the Relationship Attachment Styles, Explained)
Therapist: "There's no unconditional. There's agreeing to show up the best we can. In the best marriages, each partner challenges the other every day to be a better version of themselves."
Love: "Sounds like a lot of fighting."
Therapist: "Sure. But is all fighting bad? Maybe this is two people on the same team fighting for the same thing."
Love: "That sounds good. Having someone on my team."
Joe: "Yeah, yeah, that sounds nice."
What's Right About This/What You Can Learn: It's sometimes vital to be reminded that your partner is on your team. The moment you think otherwise is when things can get complicated, misunderstood, and people can potentially get hurt. No matter how difficult the conversation or situation, remembering that you and your partner(s) are desiring the same thing — to love and be loved — makes it much easier to keep taking steps forward. Sometimes, you need to remember that even if it feels like your partner doesn't understand you (or vice versa), they still want and try to. (Related: What Is Relationship Anarchy and Is It for You?)
The therapist also reminds Joe and Love that fighting doesn't have to be "bad," especially when you are ultimately fighting for the same thing, which is likely peace and understanding or another shared vision — like leaving a legacy, working on your next project together, or even opening up your relationship to ethical non-monogamy. When you can let go of this idea of unconditional love and decide that you're going to show up every day and choose your partner, we can create a foundation full of trust and healthy attachment.
By the end of episode two in You's third season, you already see the positive ripple effects from therapy (as shown through some "primal" love-making, as the therapist suggests). Will you see incredible positive changes after two therapy sessions? Maybe and maybe not. Sometimes, when couples go to therapy, things can seemingly get "worse" before they get "better."
That just means there's some important stuff to talk through together that may feel uncomfortable or scary before you feel a re-connection, or even fully safe opening up with your partner. Much like all healing, healing with a partner and a relationship is not linear. However, prioritizing your relationship and going to couples therapy can create trust in itself, as it did for Joe and Love. While you shouldn't take any of the messages from this show about toxic relationships too seriously, it's nice to see that you can gain something from watching this couple's unique relationship unfold on TV.
Rachel Wright, M.A., L.M.FT., (she/her) is a licensed psychotherapist, sex educator and relationship expert based in New York City. She's an experienced speaker, group facilitator, and writer. She's worked with thousands of humans worldwide to help them scream less and screw more.