How the language of therapy took over dating

In a time when emotional maturity is highly desirable, almost everyone is 'doing the work'

By Dani Blum

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Published: Fri 17 Feb 2023, 10:03 PM

Last updated: Sat 18 Feb 2023, 9:03 AM

When Lauren Scott was bored, dating became a remedy. It could be draining, droning and repetitive. At restaurants and picnics and miniature golf courses and ice cream parlours, she churned out answers about her cybersecurity classes and her taste in music. Still, it was something to do. Scott, a 23-year-old graduate student in Tampa, Florida, slogged through roughly 34 first dates last year, sometimes stacking three in a week.

One, in particular, seemed like it could lead somewhere. The guy texted her incessantly. He said he missed her. He claimed that he told his family about her. But, after a night spent making pizza and half-watching a movie on Scott’s couch, he stopped replying to her text messages.

Scott vented about this on a phone call with her mother, who offered a diagnosis: The guy, she said, had “love bombed” her daughter.

Scott laughed. “I was like, how do you even know that word?” she said. Her mother heard the term, a description of narcissistic abuse, on the radio.

Dating comes with its own dictionary, a collection of buzzwords including “breadcrumbing,” “zombie-ing” and, of course, “ghosting”. But in recent years, psychology terms such as “love bombing,” “gaslighting” and “trauma bonding” have also wedged their way into the lexicon. Hinge, a popular dating app, still lets users post sunglass-clad selfies and proclaim their love for espresso martinis. But now they can also respond to prompts like “Therapy recently taught me___,” “A boundary of mine is___” and “My therapist would say I___.”

Becca Love, a 40-year-old clothing designer and dance teacher in Montreal, often asks dating app matches, “What does connection look like to you?” Around the third date, they initiate discussions about their prospective partner’s “attachment style”, a tidy summation of childhood trauma.

This terminology isn’t unusual. Therapy-related words and phrases have trickled into workplaces, surfaced at schools and galvanised people online. But the proliferation of these terms among daters represents a distinct shift. “In the ’50s, or even the ’80s, it would be hard to imagine that saying ‘I see my therapist regularly’ would have status,” said Eli Finkel, a psychology professor at Northwestern University and author of “The All-or-Nothing Marriage.” But now, he said, taking care of one’s mental health carries social currency in some spheres.

Even before dating app matches meet in person, “You’re asking, ‘What’s your job, where are you from, what’s your love language?’” said Ianthe Humphries, a 24-year-old marketer in New York. But some sceptics think that the more people deploy these terms, the less they may actually mean. And therapeutic lingo may be just another tool daters use to try to distinguish themselves to prospective matches.

“This is part of the competitive advantage,” said Paul Eastwick, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, who researches romantic relationships. “Instead of being like, ‘I’m 5-11, and I can bench press some large amount,’ it’s like, ‘I have grappled with the challenges of my childhood, and I’ve thought deeply about my issues,’” he said.

‘Selling mental health’

For the past 12 years, Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and chief science adviser for Match.com, has led a study researching the behaviour and attitudes of single people in the United States. The study, Singles in America, which is conducted by Match, surveys about 5,000 Americans (not Match members) every year. In 2022, Fisher was stunned by one finding. She asked participants to rank what they were looking for in a prospective partner, expecting the usual answers: attractiveness, trustworthiness, humour and similar interests. This time, however, another characteristic made the top five list. Respondents wanted matches with emotional maturity, the ability to process and grapple with one’s feelings.

“I’m a baby boomer,” Fisher said. “In the ’60s and ’70s, this is not what we were trying to sell. We were trying to sell intelligence and being fun and being creative and being career oriented. Now they’re selling mental health.”

Selling has always been a part of courtship. People broadcast their assets — looks, humour, charm — in a de facto competition, one that was heightened, or at least clarified, by the arrival of dating apps. In the 2010s, when they began to take off, users flattened their interests to appeal to as many matches as possible, said Jess Carbino, a former sociologist for Tinder and Bumble. Many opted for generic, inoffensive tidbits, she said, calling them the “‘I love SoulCycle, brunch and my aunt’s dog’ profiles.”

In recent years, though, the signalling has switched. A growing number of people now broadcast intimate, specific details, including proclamations about their mental health, Carbino said. It’s a technique used both to signal your values and to weed people out, she said — if therapy is essential to you, for example, you might not want to date someone who’s never been.

Referencing therapy can also convey status in a more literal sense, Capri Campeau, a 23-year-old actor and content creator in Los Angeles, explained. It can serve as proof that you have financial means to receive care at a time when providers are in demand and that you can clear out the space and time, said Campeau.

Being transparent about therapy also imbues you with a certain cultural cachet, said Carolina Bandinelli, an associate professor at the University of Warwick in England who studies romance and digital culture. It suggests that you’ve done “the work”. In other words, you’re enlightened, the best version of yourself. “It’s part of this discourse of self-optimisation,” Bandinelli said.

And for men, the lingo of psychoanalysis has an added benefit: It can help dispute stereotypes about men avoiding their emotions, Bandinelli said.

“It seems to be a cheat code men are using,” said Jared Freid, 37, a comedian and podcast host in New York City, who’s combed through thousands of questions and stories from listeners in his 10 years of hosting podcasts about dating. “Men are writing ‘I go to therapy’ on dating apps only because it gets them more women,” he said. “It’s not because they love their therapist.”

Nonprofessionals can get it wrong

Videos and infographics about dating clog Kailah Chavis’ TikTok and Instagram feeds: instructions on how to avoid a love bomber, spot a narcissist or assert boundaries with romantic partners. “I’m always hearing about your ‘inner child,’ ‘healing your inner child,’” said Chavis, a 24-year-old in Los Angeles.

To Chavis, people repeat the language they learn from social media, where people, especially women, swap tips on how to recognise the signs of potential manipulation. Sometimes, these come from actual therapists; often, the advice is given by anyone with a front-facing camera.

Dr Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St Louis and a member of the American Psychiatric Association’s Council on Communications, isn’t surprised that psychological language has trickled into everyday conversation. “In some ways, it’s always been the case that people are using the terms in ways that a clinician wouldn’t,” she said. Speaking about mental illness, in general, can help destigmatise conditions such as anxiety and depression, she said, and good can come from being vulnerable with a new partner.

There are, however, clear downsides to learning a therapy term via TikTok video or meme, namely that nonprofessionals can get it wrong. The term “trauma bonded”, in particular, is tossed around to signify connecting with someone over shared struggles; the clinical definition of the term refers to a specific pattern of abuse.

This language can also provide a convenient excuse to write someone off. “I find a lot of the times, it gives people leverage,” said Edward Nyamenkum, a 29-year-old art director in Montreal. “It makes people feel OK when they ghost someone, like, ‘They’re obviously toxic,’ without giving them a chance.”

And when people misuse these words, deploying a weighty term like “gaslighting” to describe more banal, everyday turmoils that come with dating, those who actually experience abuse have less of a voice, Bandinelli said. This “explosion of diagnostic language,” as she called it, provides blanket, simple language for what are often complex and specific conundrums that come with modern dating.

“There’s this sense that using jargon that’s pseudoscientific somehow makes our argument stronger,” Bandinelli said. If someone acts like a jerk, she said, that may be just be one person’s opinion. “But if you’re ‘gaslighting me’ or ‘love bombing me,’ that makes it objective,” she said.

Campeau, the 23-year-old actor, saw the language of therapy surge while they were dating and has tried to temper the urge to overuse it in their relationship. When Campeau leaves a mound of dishes in the sink, for example, a behaviour that they said reminded their girlfriend of a particularly messy ex, they avoid using words like “triggered”. Instead, they discuss why the dishes can make their girlfriend think about her ex.

“It’s been really helpful for us to try to use language to connect with each other,” Campeau said, “instead of just using words to judge.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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