Emily Wester was very impressed when the guy she was dating opened up and opened up about his experiences with therapy. The two clicked, several dates followed and eventually the 32-year-old project manager even began to feel something for the man. They eventually got into a relationship. Years later, it was revealed that he had a “massive cocaine addiction” and that he had exaggerated his experience in therapy. “He was referred for six sessions and ended up going to only two,” she says.
They continued their relationship, but when things got worse during the lockdown, Wester – who was in therapy herself – persuaded her partner to talk to a professional. “It was very clear that he didn’t give much because he came back to tell me ‘oh, they said I didn’t need therapy at all,'” she says. “We are talking about a man who is still struggling with cocaine addiction and childhood trauma. No one would say he doesn’t need therapy if he was honest about what was going on.”
Of course, you can’t force someone to go to therapy if they’re not ready, and Wester says he doesn’t underestimate how hard it must have been for him. But his lack of honesty put her in a situation she could have avoided. “If he had been honest and not so good at pretending to be a certain kind of person, I wouldn’t have gotten into that relationship in the first place.”
It is this kind of behavior that has been discussed on social media and in group chats for quite some time now. “I just went on the worst date of my life with a man who claimed to have ‘played through therapy,'” wrote one tweeter. “It’s the men who tell you they’ve heard from their psychologist that they’re doing really well that you need to watch out for.” writes another. “What they really mean by that is they want you to play their therapist. They haven’t quite figured out how to explain it properly yet.” writes a third. The list is endless.
We call it “therapy baiting,” aka the cultural phenomenon where people (mostly men, let’s face it) exaggerate and abuse their therapy experience as a way to appear sensitive. With this, of course, they make our legs vibrate immediately. In one case, the culprit exaggerates how much therapy he has received, and in other cases, the man uses certain terms from the therapy 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 Instagram account @beam_me_up_softboi is full of examples of men abusing therapy to control women. For many men, therapy means working with yourself and wanting real change, but for others it can be a performative way to get a white foot with women. Or as one Twitter user put it: “Tall women have single-handedly exposed what we consider to be so-called green flags, and men have been sneaky enough to build their entire persona around them.”
Like accusing someone you think of as “queer-baiting”—taking advantage of donning a queer aesthetic without actually being queer yourself—it’s very difficult to hold someone accountable for this behavior.
“Therapy remains an incredibly stigmatized topic among many people,” says Dr. Ramani Durvasula, clinical psychologist and author of the book Should I Stay or Should I Go, when I ask her how therapy-baiting became a thing. “Thanks to social media, it has become much more normal to talk about one’s mental health.” Durvasula emphasizes how great it is 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 virtue signaling. Virtue signaling is displaying or boasting virtue or positive qualities that you don’t actually or hardly possess. “By saying, ‘hey, look how well-rounded I am, look how I deal with my problems’. And even worse, when it’s used as a heavy perfume to mask the scent of manipulative behavior; while the way they communicate , is downright unpleasant or annoying.”
It is not very difficult to calculate how we got into this mess. It is more and more common for women to say that we only want to date men who have been in therapy. In recent years, we’ve tipped our hats to “treatment kings” like Pete Davidson for being so open about the treatment he received for his BPD. In 2020, it was Paul Mescal’s portrayal of a man struggling with his mental health in Normal People that once again showed the importance of therapy. As it should be, if you look at Priori’s research, which shows that 70 percent of men say they have experienced symptoms associated with mental illness and 40 percent say they have never discussed it with anyone else.
According to Hinge, 83 percent of UK singles would rather 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 labor they often put into relationships with men who have not been through therapy. But just because you’ve been in therapy doesn’t mean you’re now a good person with tons of self-awareness.
As Durvasula points out, “Therapy doesn’t so much cure people as it gives them the tools to cope. It’s not like when you go to the doctor for bronchitis and they give you antibiotics.” There are plenty of selfish people who have been in therapy and still haven’t dealt with their problems. “We often think, ‘They’re in therapy, so they’re moving in the right direction,'” says Durvasula. “‘If only I hang on long enough, things will get better.'” She compares it to a garden. “You plant the seeds and think the flowers will bloom, but it’s not quite the same with people. If they don’t do their best, wait you on 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.
Jen Kaarlo, 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 coming from a family that didn’t talk about feelings. She was impressed, right down to his reaction to her remark that she had lost contact with her verbally abusive grandfather. Her date 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 “sounded very hurt about the situation” and that he could see – despite her protests – that she was in a lot of trouble. He suggested she go back to therapy.
“He told me what to do about a four-decade situation that he knew nothing about,” says Kaarlo. It became clear that he was using therapy to feed his superiority complex. As the date progressed, this pattern repeated itself over and over again. He told her she was too burdened by a previous relationship, that the way she was approaching her professional career was wrong.
“He tried to portray me as a battered, damaged woman,” she says, “and I don’t accept that.” It even went so far that a woman at the table next to us leaned over and said to Kaarlo: “If you want me to walk a bit with you, you have an escape route.” She got up and left while the man was practically in the middle of his sentence.
It wasn’t the first time Kaarlo’s date used therapy language to undermine her. Over the past year, she can recall several similar conversations from men who use their experiences in therapy to belittle her.
Then there are those who use therapy to excuse their bad behavior. Jess, a 32-year-old PR executive (who wishes to remain anonymous, like others in this piece) has been through this many times. One man spent much of their first date discussing his experience with therapy and meditation. A few weeks after they saw each other, he became distant, ignoring her calls and telling her he was struggling with his mental health and therefore wasn’t sure if he could see her again. Perhaps this was true. Or maybe this is the new watertight excuse when you’re just not feeling anyone.
The problem is, if you’re a nice person, chances are you’re a little uncomfortable questioning people’s use of therapy—which is why it’s such a useful tool for avoiding accountability. “It remains a very vulnerable thing to admit,” explains Durvasula. “We don’t want to talk to anyone about anything related to 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 Durvasula, is that you are minimized. “They may say things like ‘oh, you don’t understand, you haven’t been to therapy’.” You may feel like you are being “handled” where instead of talking about themselves, they keep turning the conversation back to you. “A lot of people aren’t paying attention when they’re dating,” explains Ramani. “After the date, they’ll say, ‘They were so interested in me!’ but on the other hand, you don’t learn anything about them – watch out for that pattern.” Another thing you should be aware of is a big difference between actions and words. “They talk about the therapy they are doing, but they are still spoiled, arrogant and disrespectful.”
This behavior is rarely, if ever, associated with women engaging in it online, but women can also use therapy. Bartender Matt (28) from Manchester dated a woman for a few weeks who said she had been in therapy but it felt more like she was using therapy language to get her way. “She got so angry when I didn’t reply to text messages and really just wasn’t very nice. Everything seemed to be my problem and when I pushed back, I ‘bent’ or ‘projected’. It was exhausting,” explains Matt.
“Call me nostalgic, but I’ve never had as many bad dates as this year,” sighs Kaarlo at the end of our phone conversation. She jokes that she would rather go back to the way things used to be, where men were even worse at talking about their feelings. “But seriously,” says Kaarlo, “if you’re in therapy to improve yourself, try to use the resources you’re given to listen and be a little more self-aware.”