Emily Wester was deeply moved when the man she was dating opened up about his experience with therapy. The two clicked, more dates followed, and eventually the 32-year-old project manager started to feel something for the guy. They eventually entered into a relationship. Years later it turned out that he had a “major cocaine addiction” and had overdone his experience with treatment. “He was referred for six sessions and ended up with only two,” she says.
They continued their relationship but when things deteriorated during lockdown, Wester – who had been self-medicating – convinced her boyfriend to talk to a professional. “It was very obvious he wasn’t giving a lot because he came back to tell me ‘Oh they said I didn’t need therapy at all,'” she says. We’re talking about a man still struggling with cocaine addiction and childhood trauma. No one would say he didn’t need therapy if he honest about what was going on.”
Certainly, you can’t force someone to go into therapy if they’re not ready, and Wester says he doesn’t underestimate how difficult it is for him. But his lack of honesty put him in a situation she could have avoided. “If he had been honest and wasn’t good at pretending to be a certain kind of person, I wouldn’t have gotten into this relationship in the first place.”
It’s this kind of behavior that has been discussed on social media and in group chats for a while now. “I just went on the worst date of my life with a guy who claimed to have ‘played through therapy,'” One blogger wrote. “It’s the guys who tell you they’ve heard from their psychiatrist that they’re doing well and you should watch out for them,” writes another. “What they really mean is that they want you to play their therapist. They haven’t yet figured out how to properly explain that.” writes the third. The list is endless.
We call it “therapeutic baiting,” aka the cultural phenomenon of people (mostly men, let’s face it) exaggerating and misusing their therapy experience as a way to appear sensitive. With this they instantly make our legs shake naturally. In one case the perpetrator exaggerates the amount of treatment he has received and in other cases the man uses certain terms of treatment jargon to impress us. In extreme cases, they lie and never went to therapy in the first place.
Of course #notallmen and all, but the embarrassing @beam_me_up_softboi Instagram account is full of examples of men abusing therapy to control women. For many men, therapy means working on yourself and wanting real change, but for others, it can be a practical way to get a white foot with women. Or as one Twitter user put it: “Straight women have single-handedly caught what we consider to be so-called green flags and men have been devious enough to build their entire persona around them.”
Just like accusing someone that you think is “freak bait”—taking advantage of adding a weird aesthetic without actually being gay—it’s very difficult to hold someone responsible for this behavior.
“Therapy remains an incredibly stigmatized topic among many people,” says Dr. Ramani Durvasula, clinical psychologist and author of Should I Stay or Should I Go, when I ask her how taste therapy became such a thing? “Thanks to social media, it has become more natural to talk about your mental health.” Durvasula emphasizes how great this can be for people who are genuinely open about their mental health, but also points out the problems that can arise when people start using therapy as a virtue signal. Virtue signals refer to displaying or flaunting virtue or positive qualities that you do not or hardly ever possess in reality. “By saying, ‘Hey, look how well I’m doing, see how I handle my issues. ‘ Worse, when used as a heavy perfume to mask the scent of manipulative behavior; while their way of communicating is uncomfortable or annoying.”
It is not very difficult to calculate how we got into this mess. It is increasingly common for women to say we only want to date men who have been in therapy. In recent years, we’ve tipped our hats to “treatment royalty” like Pete Davidson for being so open about the treatment he’s received because of his borderline. In 2020, it was Paul Mescal’s portrayal of a man struggling with mental health in Normal People that once again demonstrated how important therapy can be. As it should be, by the way, if you look at Priory’s research, which shows that 70 percent of men say they’ve experienced symptoms related to mental illness, and 40 percent say they haven’t discussed it with anyone else.
According to Hinge, 83 percent of UK singles would prefer to date someone in therapy, and 81 percent of UK Hinge users say they are more likely to go on a second date with someone who mentioned it on the first date. For women, this makes sense, given the emotional work they often do in relationships with men who haven’t undergone treatment. But just because you were in therapy doesn’t mean that you are now a good person with buckets of self-awareness.
As Durvasola points out, “Treatment doesn’t cure people so much as it gives them the tools to cope. It’s not like you go to the doctor for bronchitis and they give you antibiotics.” There are a lot of selfish people who have undergone treatment and have yet to address their problems. “We often think, ‘They’re in therapy, so they’re moving in the right direction,’” says Durvasola. “If you stay long enough, things will get better.” “You plant seeds and you think flowers will bloom, but it’s totally different with people. If they don’t do their best, you’re waiting for changes that may not come.” In other words, putting therapy on your dating checklist won’t suddenly help you find the man of your dreams.
Jane Carlow, a 38-year-old travel journalist from London, knows this from personal experience. She thought her date was going well when he told her he was in therapy and working on opening up – despite being from a family that doesn’t talk about feelings. She is touched, down to his reaction to her remark that she has lost contact with her verbally abusive grandfather. Her appointment told her, “From my experience in therapy, it’s best not to give them power, not to let them win.” He told her that she “looked very hurt by the situation” and that he could see – despite her protests – that she was in deep trouble. He suggested she go back to therapy.
“He told me what to do about a four-decade-old situation he knew nothing about,” says Carlo. It became clear that he was using the therapy to feed his own superiority complex. As history progressed, this pattern was repeated over and over again. He told her that she was burdened by a previous relationship, and that the way she handled her career was wrong.
“He tried to portray me as a battered and damaged woman, and I don’t accept that,” she says. He even went so far that a woman at the table next to us leaned over and said to Carlo, “If you want me to take a little walk with you, you’ve got an escape route.” I got up and left while the guy was practically in the middle of his sentence.
This wasn’t the first time that Carlo’s history had used therapy language to undermine her. Over the past year, she can recall several similar conversations from men using their expertise in therapy to belittle her.
Then there are those who use therapy to justify their bad behavior. Jess, the 32-year-old public relations executive (who like the others in this article wishes to remain anonymous) has had this experience several times. One man spent much of his first date discussing his experience with therapy and meditation. A few weeks after they saw each other, he became distant and ignored her calls and told her he was struggling with his mental health and therefore wasn’t sure if he could ever see her again. Perhaps this is true. Or maybe this is the new cutest excuse for when you don’t feel for someone.
The problem is that if you’re a nice person, you’re probably a little uncomfortable with questioning people’s use of the remedy – which is why it’s such a useful tool for avoiding accountability. “Recognition is still a very weak thing,” Durvasola explains. “We don’t want to talk to someone about anything to do with therapy, because that would be disrespectful.”
However, there are a number of things that indicate someone is using therapy in a manipulative way. The first, says Durvasola, is that you are a miniaturist. “They can say things like, ‘Oh, you don’t understand this, you didn’t go to therapy.’ You may feel like you are being ‘treated’ where instead of talking about themselves, they keep turning the conversation back to you. Many people don’t pay attention when they are dating,” Ramani explains. After the date they’ll say, “They were so interested in me!” But in return you don’t learn anything about it — watch out for that pattern. They are still spoiled, arrogant and disrespectful.”
Rarely is this behavior associated with women who engage in this behavior online, but women can also use therapy. Bartender Matt (28) from Manchester dated a woman for a few weeks who said she was in therapy, but felt she was using therapy language to get her way. “I got so angry when I didn’t respond to text messages and wasn’t very nice. It seemed like everything was my problem, and when I backed out, I was just ‘swerving’ or ‘expecting.’ It was exhausting,” Matt explains.
“Call me nostalgic, but I haven’t had as many bad dates as this year,” Carlo sighs at the end of our phone conversation. She jokes that she’d rather go back to the way things were, when men were worse at talking about their emotions. “But seriously, if you’re in therapy to improve yourself, try using the resources you’re given to listen and be more self-aware,” Carlo says.