3 Marriage counselors on the improper use of therapeutic language

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Relationships are difficult. They require, among other things, compromise, compassion and patience, often more than we are able to provide. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, they have been particularly amenable to therapeutic language, the now widespread use of clinical terminology to describe certain behaviors or experiences, such as trauma or gaslight or boundaries. But with its increase in standard use there have been more and more instances of sometimes benign, sometimes dangerous misuse.

Last week, Jonah Hills’ ex-partner Sarah Brady shared what appeared to be text messages from the actor in which he used such boundary-setting language for himself that restricted Brady’s friendships and self-expression for what Brady now describes as emotional abuse. It’s been a year of healing and growing with the help of loved ones and doctors to get back to living my life without guilt, shame and self-criticism, he posted along with the screenshots. At the time, the two were seeing a couples counselor who, Brady says, approved of Hills’ behavior.

But while couples counselors provide clients with useful terms and structures, Hills’ application of this rhetoric and the Internet’s response to it reflects a wider and growing unease around the illegal employment of clinical language. The Cut spoke to three couples counselors about the proliferation of therapeutic talk, who may be more inclined to use it as a weapon, and what they’ve observed among their clients.

As therapy research has become more accepted, psych talk and stuff like that has become more popular on social media. In couples therapy, unfortunately, it often occurs. This can sometimes feel like this misogynistic way of putting women in a box. She’s crazy, she’s too needy. There must be someone to blame; there is someone at fault here. There’s sort of an explicable thing to using buzzwords like narcissistic or boundaries or gaslighting, self-care.

It’s okay to have your self-care and your boundaries. But if you don’t really feel your feelings and don’t understand how this might impact your partner, it becomes a very transactional way of being in a relationship and becomes very controlling and manipulative. It’s this position of, I know more, I’m in more control, I understand more. I am further along in my development, I am more mature, more knowledgeable, more empathetic and understanding. It is usually someone who feels deeply insecure. They don’t want to sit with their own weaknesses, their own shortcomings.

What comes up a lot in my practice is about people who want to have children, for example, or who want to go to the next step and get married. And if the other partner really disagrees and can’t tell, can’t be vulnerable and honest and say, «This is why I disagree, and this is why,» they can use this therapeutic jargon. to put their partner in their place and make them start to doubt their own abilities.

It may seem shameful (you wouldn’t be a good parent, you’re so emotional, etc.) or you still have work to do to let go of your baggage for me to marry you. In some of these cases, these concepts may be true and valid. What we sometimes see in the therapy room is that the partner who is using therapy language is actually not ready for the next step in the relationship and starts using words that are not meant to create more closeness, transparency and vulnerability, but more intended to check and close the idea of ​​moving the relationship forward. I see it quite often.

These dynamics in couples therapy have been going on for years and years and years, this way of manipulation and control and superiority. I think now we just call it talk-therapy.

Melissa Divaris Thompsonlicensed couples counselor

In my practice, I have more couples therapy than individual therapy. Before, I could tell someone had had therapy before because of the insight he would share. They would know many things about themselves. There would be a lot of awareness of models, behaviors, feelings. People sometimes internalize things their therapists say, certain expressions, and then use them in conversations or in some difficult situations.

But now they’re all throwing these words around as codependent, emotional capacity, or boundaries. Sometimes, it is used to legitimize or gain the upper hand in a conversation. Using some language like, I have no capacity for further emotional relationship, for example, rather than saying, I don’t want to be your friend, or I don’t want to be in a relationship with you, I think that’s a cop-out. It gives you this air of superiority and competence using this language and doesn’t really convey what it’s really feeling. And it leaves the other person really clueless about what’s going on.

What comes up a lot, for example, is the word codependency. This means that couples are isolated and very dependent on each other. I’d rather get the description of the relationship. We get together a lot and don’t see other people as much as we probably should.

I have to say, can you please elaborate on this? Can you tell me what exactly you are talking about? Because you are very generic and I don’t know what you mean by that. People who use these words use them because they don’t want to be specific. They don’t want to be personal.

Irina PrimoinLicensed individual and couples therapist

There are pros and cons: There are ways that using therapeutic language in daily life and relationships could be very helpful. There may be ways people use it in ways that are less helpful, less effective for communication, less effective for intimacy and connection. But I think the question for me is this: How does that end up being an opportunity for people to connect versus an opportunity for people to disconnect?

If someone says, I’m primed, it matters; now this is perhaps more evocative, right? This helps me understand a little more about what that experience was like for you. And if I understand more about what your experience is like, that’s good for the connection, because we know that empathy and compassion are needed in relationships. It certainly can create a disconnect, because if people aren’t mental health professionals, they may use terms in ways that aren’t entirely appropriate. An example like trauma, right? I might think of trauma one way. You may think about trauma in a different way. If we weren’t mental health professionals, would we really be missing out because we didn’t use the terms like professionals might?

It could also be a tool for pathologizing. Rather than tell you, I feel hurt by what just happened, I could say, I think you have borderline personality disorder. In this way, I am pathologizing you. I’m not talking about my experience, I’m talking about yours. I am using diagnostic language which, particularly when it comes to something like BPD, is heavily stigmatized.

Some might say, I felt so hurt. I want to understand more. Just like I want to understand when someone is saying, I felt gaslighted at that moment. Our job is always to pull a string and try to go underneath what someone might describe. I think I understand what people are saying when they get frustrated that therapeutic talks are being co-opted or misused. I also think that more language, more different ways to describe experiences is good, in general.

But I think one way power and control sometimes manifests itself in a relationship is by defining another’s experience. And I think potentially therapy can be used that way.

Molly Bobek, Licensed Individual and Couples Therapist

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