Dr. Jenn Berman, best known from VH1’s reality show “Couples Therapy,” is living proof that when you put your mind to something, you can accomplish anything.
She does more than just help celebrity couples in crisis; the native New Yorker is also a compassionate, attentive therapist who assists domestic abuse victims. Despite her sedulous schedule, the passionate animal rights activist finds time to work with troubled adolescents and juggles it all while caring for her own children.
She graciously squeezed in time from her jam-packed schedule in Los Angeles recently to share with Millennium Magazine her thoughts and insights on a plethora of subjects near and dear to her heart.
MM: Tell me about your role on “Couples Therapy.”
JB: I am the lead therapist and the way the show works is that we have five celebrity couples that are in a house who are with me for about three weeks with intensive group therapy, couples therapy, individual and family therapy. They are monitored around the clock, which is fantastic for me as a therapist. In addition to me, I have a therapist who does groups with me. I have three different therapists; that way there is always a therapist there at all times if someone has a crisis, they can talk to them if I’m not available.
MM: What should we expect in the upcoming season?
JB: I can tell you that this has been without a doubt our most intense season to date. We dealt with some very significant issues, both with the couples and between each other. Also this was a very volatile season when it came to personality clashes with cast members. That just added a whole other layer of tension and intensity to this season.
MM: Describe the backgrounds that the couples come from.
JB: Over the past three seasons we’ve had married couples and we’ve had long-term couples. Like this season we had Flavor Flav and Liz Trujillo; they’ve been together for nine years, but they’re engaged and not married. We’ve had couples that were newer couples. In season one Angelina and Chris were a newer couple, but a very volatile couple nonetheless.
MM: Some people question the authenticity of the couples. Is the show scripted?
JB: I love when people have the guts to ask me, because there are so many people who make assumptions. One of the things that really struck me when I auditioned for this show, [was that] the executive creator Dr.Damian Sullivan, who also created “Celebrity Rehab,” said two things to me that really set the tone. The first thing he said was, “I would never interrupt you doing therapy; I have too much respect for the therapeutic process.” That’s a promise that he has always kept through every season. To me, that says a lot about what the priorities are of the producers on the show; that their philosophy is that therapy comes first and entertainment comes second. It’s very unique and a lot of people don’t believe it, but these are very heartfelt producers.
The other thing he said to me was — did you ever see the movie “Broadcast News” — there’s a scene where Holly Hunter is a producer and she’s out in the field and the camera guy says to the soldier, “put on your boot” and she says, “no, don’t stop what you were going to do; we’re just here to film what happened. We’re not here to create the news.” That is the philosophy of Irwin Productions, they don’t create things, they just film what happens.
MM: Reality TV has rapidly become more than entertainment, it’s also a way for audiences to seek out knowledge and information. Do you think that’s a good thing?
JB: I think it depends on the show. I think the couples that come on my show, because of exactly what you are saying, are always surprised of how unscripted it is. We had one season where two women who had both been on reality shows [before] and had been told to do certain things [on the previous shows] went into the restroom. One said to the other, “I think we need to create more drama” and the other one said to her, “I don’t think that’s actually what they want us to do; I think they really just want us to do therapy.” They had their mics on, but no cameras [were rolling at the time]. They forgot that they were being monitored. For me that was a really proud moment.
When you talk about reality shows that provide information, I feel like ours is one of the ones that really does that. I get so many Tweets and Facebook messages from people saying, “your show has changed my life, it’s changed my relationship. I really communicate differently, my boyfriend watches the show and it’s been the only thing that’s allowed us to really talk about our relationship and talk about difficult issues.” And to me, that’s why I do this, because when I’m in my office alone with a client, I can help one person. When I have the opportunity to do a show like this, I have the chance to help a lot of people.
MM: How has your previous experience working with children translated to the show?
JB: There are couples that have had kids, like Flava Flav and Liz have a child this season; last season Nick and Shane had a child. I actually got to do some work with them. You didn’t end up seeing it in the final episodes, but they brought their daughter in and I got to observe them with her and give them parenting tips; which was a great experience. The show is more for adults, but in my private practice I do work with kids. I do have parenting books and a children’s book (SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years, Rockin’ Babies, The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids, all available on Amazon.com).
MM: Do you consider the issues that celebrity couples experience relatable to other couples who do not share the spotlight?
JB: Absolutely. I think that one of the reasons why the show has been so successful is that people relate to it. I think the core issues that celebrities face in their relationships are the same as what everyone [else] faces. There is an extra added layer because of the celebrity stuff; but it’s about communication. It’s about trust, money, power, how to negotiate in a relationship and sex; that’s what everyone relates to. When celebrities have this additional layer of dealing with the press, especially these predominantly male performers who have these fans who are throwing their panties at them, infidelity is a big issue and trust and temptation. At the core, the main issues are the same.
MM: What do you feel are the most notable issues that are easiest to overcome and work through, given the right circumstances?
JB: Communication. It’s something that I can give really concrete tools. And if someone is not resistant and really wants to learn how to communicate, that is something that is relatively simple. That’s probably one of the easier things, but the problem is that people aren’t always that open to it. People say, “yeah I want to learn how to communicate,” but when faced with a different way of approaching their partner, some people really struggle and get resistant.
MM: Do you think essentially airing so much dirty laundry puts more pressure on the couples who appear on the show?
JB: I think it’s a high-pressure situation, but not for the reasons necessarily that people would expect. Yes, the cameras add an element to that — and being that vulnerable on national television is a pretty brave thing to do — but I think what makes the experience the most stressful is that for three weeks of intensive patient therapy, you’re out of your element. You’re not in your own home, you don’t have your own support system, you don’t have your own luxuries, such as your television and your computer. They’re in a house doing intensive therapy and that’s challenging. I think most people don’t realize how stressful that is. It does take away all the distraction causing the couples to focus on themselves and each other. They probably spend more time together [while taping the show] than they ever have.
MM: Along with the show, you juggle your own practice, writing books, creating Smartphone applications, hosting a radio show and now you own your own clothing, line Retail Therapy. How do you manage it all?
JB: I love what I do. It excites me every day to wake up to get to do what I do; and to do it in all these different formats is really amazing. Like with the radio show, I get to reach out to people who wouldn’t normally have access to me, either financially or geography wise. I’m just really driven to help people and I’m driven by my passion for psychology. I also don’t sleep a lot. There is a running joke amongst my friends and colleagues that I’m gradually edging out sleep from my life. I love what I do and that gives me a lot of energy.
MM: That kind of passion doesn’t come out of thin air, what happened to make you fall in love with helping people?
JB: That’s a really good question; no one’s ever asked me that before. I think that [it’s what happens naturally] when you find what you’re meant to do. For me it’s very much a calling. I originally started out as a therapist volunteering as a rape and battering hotline counselor for the Los Angeles Commission on Assault Against Women. We had to go through this training and I had done this story as journalism major in college about date rape on college campuses. I come from a real activist background, so once I realized what a huge problem it was, I felt like I had to do something. The moment they had me start taking calls, I knew this was what I was meant to do; it just felt right. It’s like fish finding water and it was incredibly gratifying. I just ate it up from there.
MM: You seem to be able to cover every topic: from relationship issues to eating disorders, depression, anxiety, self-esteem, even sexual abuse. Which one of those topics do you feel the most confident about approaching?
JB: All therapists are trained in everything, but there are certain things people are drawn to. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on eating disorders and my No More Diet app is based on that, which is near and dear to my heart. It’s an issue which I feel there is a lot of misinformation out there. So many women struggle with their weight and body image, even if they don’t have a full-blown eating disorder. To me that’s something that’s very heartfelt, but also I love doing relationship stuff. To me, it’s fascinating to see how one’s childhood affects the way they relate to people. I’m an obsessive researcher, when something excites me, I love reading about it and researching it. I love collecting information.
MM: A lot of people do not believe in therapy or trust therapists. How can people get more comfortable?
JB: A lot of people don’t realize that when they’re looking for therapists is that you’re the consumer. People think, “oh, whoever my doctor recommends that’s the therapist I have to stick with.” I would recommend interviewing a lot of therapists, call and talk to people on the phone and see who you connect with. Go and meet with at least three different people because there are a lot of great therapists out there. You are not going to always have the right chemistry. Not everyone’s approach is going to be right for you.
Another thing is understanding that therapists are trained and we cannot talk about anything that happens during a session with other people; that violates the ethics of our profession. Your therapist is not going to have a session with you and then go and chat about you with their husband or a friend or anyone else. It’s our job to keep all of that confidential.
MM: How does that issue of confidentiality translate on the reality show?
JB: That is a very interesting experience for me because I’m used to my office and everything is shown and taped on the show. That definitely takes away a lot of confidentiality, but at the same time there are still things that are explored and discussed on the show that does not end up being [aired]. My producers have chosen not to air some things that might make for great ratings or be really salacious because it wasn’t in the best interest of the participants.
MM: Have you ever been in therapy yourself?
JB: I have had many years of therapy and that is how I originally became interested in therapy. I was actually named after my father’s therapist, so I come from a very pro-therapy family; my parents are songwriters from New York.
When you are in school getting your degree it’s actually required that you’re in therapy to do your masters and your doctorate. In order to sit down for the licensing exam, you have to do 3,000 hours under supervision. Some of those hours can be when you are the client.
MM: I hear that you are a passionate animal rights activist, what charities do you work with?
JB: I do a lot of work with PETA. I’m a vegan, I’ve been vegan for three and a half years and I’ve been a vegetarian since I was ten. One of my favorite protests is the post Thanksgiving anti-fur [event] in Beverly Hills. I go with my kids and my whole family; even my mom comes. My whole family is vegan. [For us] it’s all about the health benefits. I did a video for PETA about raising a Vegan family (www.PETA.com/DrJennBergman) and I’m also a huge fan of [the animal rights organization] Mercy for Animals. I was just on their host committee for farm animals. I aspire to do a “go naked” campaign for PETA; it’s the only place I would [publicly] take off my clothes!
MM: Will you ever return to New York to live?
JB: I love L.A., it’s my home, my kids are here, but I would love to be bi-coastal if I could pull that off with my family. I love New York. I could definitely one day see having a place there.
MM: Where do you suggest that a New Yorker visit in L.A. to feel right at home?
JB: As a vegan I would say go to Crossroads (www.crossroadskitchen.com), the food is spectacular: it is very star-studded and I think it gives you a really good taste of L.A. literally and figuratively.