3 Marriage Counselors on the Misuse of ‘Therapy-Speak’

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Relationships are hard. They require, among other things, compromise and compassion and patience, often more than we are able to provide. It’s perhaps unsurprising then that they’ve been particularly susceptible to “therapy-speak,” the now-widespread use of clinical terminology to describe certain behaviors or experiences, like “trauma” or “gaslight” or “boundaries.” But with its rise in standard use has come more and more instances of misuse — sometimes benign, sometimes dangerous.

Last week, Jonah Hill’s ex-partner Sarah Brady shared what appeared to be text messages from the actor in which he employed such language — establishing “boundaries” for himself that limited Brady’s friendships and self-expression — for what Brady now describes as emotional abuse. “It’s been a year of healing and growth with the help of loved ones and doctors to get back to living my life without guilt, shame, and self-judgment,” she posted alongside the screenshots. At the time, the two were seeing a couples counselor who, Brady says, endorsed Hill’s behavior.

But while couples counselors do equip clients with useful terms and structures, Hill’s application of this rhetoric — and the internet’s response to it — reflects a larger, growing unease around the lawless deployment of clinical language. The Cut spoke with three couples counselors about the proliferation of therapy-speak, who might be more inclined to weaponize it, and what they’ve observed among their clients.

As seeking out therapy has become more accepted, psychobabble and things like that have become more popular on social media. In couples therapy, it does show up a lot, unfortunately. It can come across sometimes as this misogynistic way of putting women in a box. “She’s crazy, she’s too needy.” There needs to be someone to blame; there’s someone at fault here. There’s a kind of explain-it-away thing of using buzzwords like “narcissistic” or “boundaries” or “gaslighting,” “self-care.”

It’s all good and well to have your self-care and your boundaries. But if you’re not truly feeling your feelings and you’re not taking in how this may impact your partner, it becomes a very transactional way of being in a relationship and it becomes very controlling and manipulative. It’s this posture of, “I know more, I’m more in control, I understand more. I’m further along in my development, I’m more mature, I’m more informed, I’m more empathetic and understanding.” It’s usually someone who feels deeply insecure. They don’t want to sit with their own weaknesses, their own lack.

What comes up a lot in my practice is around people wanting to have children, for example, or wanting to move ahead to the next step and get married. And if the other partner is not really onboard and can’t say that, can’t be vulnerable and honest and say, “This is why I’m not onboard, and this is why,” they can use this therapy jargon to put their partner in their place and make them start to doubt their own abilities.

That can sound like shaming (“You wouldn’t make a good parent,” “You are so emotional,” etc.) or “You still have ‘work to do’ to let go of your baggage in order for me to marry you.” In some of these cases, these concepts can be true and valid. What we sometimes see in the therapy room is that the partner who is using the therapy-speak is actually not ready for the next step in the relationship and starts wielding words that are not intended to create more closeness, transparency, and vulnerability, but more intended to control and shut down the idea of advancing the relationship. I see that quite often.

These dynamics in couples therapy have been happening for years and years and years, this way of manipulation and control and one-upmanship. I think now we just call it therapy-speak.

Melissa Divaris Thompson, licensed couples counselor

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

But now they’re all throwing around these words like “codependent,” “emotional capacity,” or “boundaries.” At times, it’s used to legitimize or get an upper hand in a conversation. Using certain language like, “I have no capacity for further emotional relationship,” for example, rather than saying, “I don’t want to be friends with you,” or “I don’t want to be in a relationship with you,” I think it’s a cop-out. It gives you this air of superiority and expertise in using this language and it doesn’t actually communicate what’s really being felt. And it leaves the other person really not understanding what is happening.

What comes up a lot, for example, is the word “codependency.” What it means is that couples are insulated and very dependent on each other. I would rather get the description of the relationship. “We are together a lot and we 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 are you talking about? Because you’re being very general and I don’t know what you mean by that.” People who use these words, they use them because they don’t want to be specific. They don’t want to be personal.

Irina Firstein, licensed individual and couples therapist

There are pros and cons: There are ways that using therapy language in daily life and in relationships could be quite helpful. There may be ways that people are using 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 it end up being an opportunity for connection between people versus an opportunity for disconnection between people?

If someone says, “I’m triggered,” that’s a big one; now that’s maybe more evocative, right? That’s helping me understand a little bit more of what that experience is like for you. And if I understand more about what your experience is like, that’s good for connection, because we know empathy and compassion are necessary in relationships. Certainly it can create disconnection, because if people aren’t mental-health professionals, they can be using the terms in ways that are not totally apt. An example like “trauma,” right? I might be thinking about trauma in one way. You might be thinking about trauma in a different way. If we’re not mental-health professionals, are we really missing each other because we’re not using terms the way that professionals might?

It could also be a tool to pathologize. Rather than me saying to you, “I feel hurt by what just happened,” I might say, “I think you have borderline personality disorder.” In that way, I’m pathologizing you. I’m not talking about my own experience, I’m talking about yours. I’m using diagnostic language that, particularly when it comes to something like BPD, is heavily stigmatized.

Someone might say, “I was feeling so hurt.” I want to understand more about that. Just like I want to understand when someone is saying, “I felt gaslit in that moment.” Our task is always to pull a thread and try to get underneath what someone might be describing. I think I understand what people are saying when they get frustrated at therapy-speak being co-opted or misused. I also think that more language, more different ways to describe experiences is good, generally.

But I think that one way that sometimes power and control manifests in a relationship is defining the experience of another. And I think that potentially therapy can be utilized in that way.

— Molly Bobek, licensed individual and couples therapist

3 Marriage Counselors on the Misuse of ‘Therapy-Speak’