When Kathryn, now 24, was a senior in college, she and her boyfriend fought constantly. Some of their fights trod ground familiar to many couples. There was the question of career and money goals, and where to live. Other topics — like how much Kathryn should see her friends or family, and his demands for her to be available 24/7 — were more problematic. He suggested they each go to therapy to work on their issues. Her therapist quickly concluded, “You don’t need therapy, you just need to break up with your boyfriend.” His sessions went differently.
A D1 athlete, he set a “boundary” that his partner needed to prioritize fitness as much as he did, eat “clean,” and look a certain way. “He said that I had gained so much weight the past year that it was almost physically impossible for him to wrap his arms around me and that he could no longer cuddle me, or lay in bed together because I would crush him with my unbearable weight,” Kathryn says. This was hardly an isolated incident; they frequently clashed over her body and her time spent in the gym, even though she was a club sport athlete.
Instead of apologizing when confronted, he would serve a word salad of therapy-adjacent terms that conveniently exonerated him of all responsibility. He’d say, “You’re only mad right now because you’re letting your childhood trauma trigger you.” Except Kathryn had never told him anything like that.
The rise of this kind of “therapy speak,” a term often used to describe the use of Psych 101 lingo inappropriately in regular conversation, has been well documented, but it can be especially corrosive in relationships. You say he doesn’t listen, he says he’s unable to perform emotional labor. You ask why he hasn’t responded to your texts, he says you’re triggering his avoidant attachment style.
At its core, it’s language designed to give the deliverer the upper hand. “I think he just thought he sounded smart saying it,” says Kathryn. After a second therapist advised her to break up with him, she ended it.
Amid a widespread mental health crisis and an era of loosening gender norms, more people are embracing therapy than ever before – including men, who have historically shied away from the practice. In the dating world, seeking professional mental health treatment is no longer something to hide. To the contrary, it’s something many are actively looking for in a partner. (Hinge has even added therapy-themed prompts: “A boundary of mine is …” or “My therapist would say I … .”) Many people could benefit from exploring their psyches, men included, but others are discovering that “being in therapy” isn’t always the automatic green flag it’s assumed to be when dating. This raises an awkward question: can therapy ever do more harm than good?
Any time things got hard, it was like this third person in our relationship was saying, “No, that’s you being your authentic self.” It seemed like an excuse to be a jerk.
Earlier this month, texts that actor Jonah Hill reportedly sent to his then-girlfriend Sarah Brady in 2021 went viral. In one, he outlined his “boundaries for romantic partnership,” which included her refraining from “surfing with men, boundaryless inappropriate friendships with men, to model, to post pictures of yourself in a bathing suit, to post sexual pictures, friendships with women who are in unstable places and from your wild recent past beyond getting a lunch or coffee or something respectful.” (Some might argue that sharing private text messages out of context is also an example of a crossed boundary.)
One could assume Hill has a better understanding of “boundaries” than most – in 2022, he directed a documentary about his therapist. But many experts say that’s not what a boundary actually is: an expression of your needs, along with a consequence if that need isn’t met — not a license to dictate how others behave. “Just because someone says ‘I’m setting a boundary’ doesn’t mean that what comes after it is reasonable by default,” says therapist Stephanie Capecchi, LCSW.
Boundaries aren’t the only problem. Simone*, 36, recalls her first date with her ex, when he explained the concept of gaslighting — then gaslit her for nearly two years. After they moved in together, she opened their nightstand drawer and discovered an unfamiliar stash of sex toys (not in their packaging, presumably used) and a note in his handwriting asking someone out. When she asked if he had cheated on her, he accused her of gaslighting him. “He was like, ‘You’re trying to convince me I cheated on you. Obviously, I got the sex toys for you. That note means nothing, I was just giving that to a friend who needed help hitting on a girl,’” Simone says. She was no stranger to therapy speak — she was even co-hosting a podcast with her former therapist — but still, she says he made her feel crazy.
This kind of jargon is often misused. Halfway through Francesca*’s three-year relationship with her ex, he began therapy to navigate some family issues. After a while, she suspected he was giving his therapist a skewed version of the truth or omitting certain details. When he backed out of attending a wedding with her family because he got Coachella tickets, his therapist apparently approved. “Any time things got hard, it was like this third person in our relationship was saying, ‘No, that’s you being your authentic self,’” Francesca says. “It seemed like an excuse to be a jerk.”
Therapy speak can create the illusion of knowledge and moral superiority, making its users sound level-headed even if they’re wrong. And while there’s never just one concrete version of the truth, if your partner’s perspective is validated by their therapist — an educated, licensed, expensive authority figure — it can be hard to challenge that. According to Francesca’s ex, every issue they had was her fault — after all, he was “doing the work” and she wasn’t in therapy. “He always had the upper hand,” she says.
Millennial men might be particularly susceptible to this problem. In the wake of Brady’s allegations against Hill (who, at 39, is a millennial), a screenshot of a Reddit comment went viral on Twitter. The theory offered suggested that guys “want all the same patriarchal benefits their dads benefited from,” but also “want to feel like modern, progressive ‘ally’ men.” In the end, it results in people who appear to be evolved but can’t shake that ingrained misogynistic core.
In order for therapy to have the biggest impact, you have to be willing to change.
From a young age, boys are unfairly judged for expressing their feelings, Capecchi says. Many men would benefit from flexing that emotional muscle in therapy, but while the number of men in therapy is at a record high, women still go nearly twice as often as men do. This is a critical problem for several reasons, including the fact that men die by suicide four times as often as women do.
It’s endearing, and impressive, when guys try to unwind their conditioning. But it’s not easy work. “In order for therapy to have the biggest impact, you have to be willing to change,” Capecchi says. Sure, someone might dig deep into their issues for 45 minutes every Tuesday, but that doesn’t necessarily mean their therapist is guiding them well or that they’re able to understand, internalize, and act on their takeaways in a beneficial way. (It also doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being honest with their therapist.) On its own, therapy isn’t a shortcut to being a good partner.
For some, the green flag has turned red. After Lexi, 29, ended a relationship derailed by this jargon, she met someone else who’d been seeing a counselor for a long time. “Honestly, it did give me pause when we first met,” she says. “Like, OK, great, you’ve been in therapy — but also, you’ve been in therapy for, like, 20 years. So that’s even scarier.”
People often joke that the world’s problems would all be solved if men just went to therapy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Ariel*, 30, had a four-year relationship with someone she now calls “the most deadbeat, dumb, bad person.” A relentless cheater who never did their laundry, he promised they’d move to California so she could attend law school then “accidentally” got a job in Texas — then, surprise, another in Ohio. They split but kept in touch. On multiple occasions, he said he’d visit, sent her the confirmation email the morning of the flight, and simply did not get on the plane.
Years later, he began therapy and wanted Ariel back, blaming their past issues on “codependency” and “cognitive dissonance.” She says, “Clearly, it had all been fed to him.” He also mentioned a little problem: Someone he'd been exchanging nudes with on Snapchat was extorting him for two thousand dollars and threatening him with legal trouble. As a newly minted law school grad, could Ariel offer any advice? Her tip: “Embrace solitude.” Instead, he asked her for sexy photos, then introduced his parents to his new girlfriend two days later.
“Obviously, people can change, but he was clearly not in therapy to get help. He went to get validation and continued to behave badly,” she says. “Also, he’s been a sh*thead his whole life, so like, three to five months of therapy probably isn’t gonna undo it.”
*This source has requested a pseudonym to protect her privacy.