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Tony Soprano therapy
Tony Soprano in therapyCourtesy HBO

Why do we only want to date men who’ve been to therapy?

The internet is full of memes about swiping left on men who haven’t been to therapy – but could this be doing more harm than good?

What’s a relationship dealbreaker for you? Maybe they’re irresponsible with money, or they vote Tory, or they really want kids but you don’t. Or, maybe, they haven’t been to therapy.

If you’ve been on the internet recently, it’s likely you’ve seen people rail against men’s apparent aversion to therapy. There’s that “men will literally do X instead of going to therapy” meme, where the blank is usually filled in with something ultra-specific like “learn everything about ancient Rome” or “invent Facebook”. On TikTok, one trend sees users whisper phrases like “go to therapy” into their boyfriends’ phones in order to manipulate their targeted ads. This goes beyond a social media trend too: Hinge recently found that a colossal 91 per cent of Hinge users would prefer to date someone who goes to therapy.

It makes sense. Repressed emotions and unresolved trauma can come out in ugly ways, and if a partner has already bared their soul to a therapist, it’s less likely they’ll start screaming and crying when you politely ask them to stop leaving their wet towels on the floor. It’s not just about the benefits of therapy itself, either – if someone is open about their experience of therapy, their openness can signify other desirable qualities such as emotional intelligence, honesty, and maturity.

Plus, as anyone who dates men knows, it’s often easy to fall into a ‘caregiving’ role if your partner isn’t in tune with their own emotions. Eva, 27, tells me that she’s often ended up acting as her partner’s therapist in past relationships. She’s bisexual, but in her experience, it’s usually been men who expect her to deal with their psychological problems. “I have found that men, in particular, tend to use women as their therapists,” she says. “We’re their partners, not their therapists or mothers or maids.”

“I have done a lot of work on myself to get where I am today, and I’m not willing to do somebody else’s work for them as well,” she continues. “I’ve had so many bad experiences that I’m at a point now where I’m just not dating men who’ve not been to therapy.” Given Eva’s poor past experiences, it’s unsurprising that she’s set this boundary for herself. Many other people who date men have doubtless been in similar situations where they’ve taken on the lion’s share of the emotional labour that goes into a relationship.

It’s indisputably a good thing that we’re growing increasingly aware of inequality in our relationships – but is this broader trend of blacklisting potential partners who’ve not had therapy potentially doing more harm than good? A man who’s been to therapy might be a ‘green flag’, sure – but is it fair to say it’s a ‘red flag’ if a man hasn’t? Charlotte Fox Weber, psychotherapist and author of What We Want, isn’t convinced. “There’s often a fantasy that someone who has been in therapy is self-aware, reflective, considerate, responsible. It’s an ideal that isn’t always the reality,” she says. “People who have had decades of therapy can still behave badly. And people who have never had therapy can still be self-aware and reflective. Therapy should help people, but like any treatment, it’s no guarantee.”

What’s also missing from a lot of these online conversations is the fact that therapy is a privilege. If you’re in the UK and want to access therapy via the NHS, waiting lists are notoriously long – 1.6 million people are currently waiting for mental health care. And if you decide to go private or live outside the UK, it’ll cost you. One session with a psychotherapist can cost upwards of £30 a session, with some specialists charging up to £150. “The reality [is] that therapy is still less available and less affordable than what we need,” Weber says. Evidently, if you don’t have a lot of disposable income (or leisure time), it’s not as simple as ‘going to therapy’.

There’s also a danger of pathologising behaviours that aren’t necessarily symptomatic of mental illness. “While language can connect us and help us make sense of situations, it can also be reductive and create new barriers and misunderstandings,” Weber explains. “If we overuse terms and weaponise labels, we all get freaked out and want to prove our blamelessness. Psychotherapy terms should lead to insight, not horrifying judgement.”

And on the internet, therapy speak and this kind of pathologising dating talk usually does lead to horrifying judgement. A man who occasionally forgets to buy milk? A narcissist. A man who brings you flowers after one week of dating? A love bomber. A man who only texts you twice a day? A textbook example of an anxious-avoidant attachment style. These kinds of behaviours can be annoying and troubling, sure, but they’re not always indicative of some past ‘trauma’ that’s simmering away beneath the surface, threatening to boil over at any moment. Perhaps people – especially women – can be forgiven for thinking so, especially given the ubiquity of misogyny and depressingly high rates of domestic violence, but to tar all men with the same brush isn’t necessarily a healthy or productive way of approaching romance.

“I do think the rise of mainstream ‘self-care’ culture can be linked to self-aggrandising attitudes, that idealise ourselves and problematise everyone else” – Sophie K Rosa

Eva herself is conscious of overusing ‘therapy speak’ when talking about relationships: “I’m hesitant to use the term ‘emotional labour’ because when you’re in a relationship it’s important to be there for your partner, listen to their problems, and support them,” she says. It’s certainly true that the growing demand for men to ‘go to therapy’ often skirts around the fact that, in a good relationship, interdependence is fine and even healthy.

'Therapy speak' might be really useful in some ways – especially if it helps us to understand and heal from something difficult we have experienced – but I think it's important we don't put people in punishing boxes that might inhibit their chances of changing,” says Sophie K Rosa, a trainee therapist and author of the forthcoming book Radical Intimacy.

“There is an increasingly popular mindset that validates the quantification of other people's characters as to their benefit – or lack thereof – to our lives, and validates ‘cutting people out’ based on this calculation,” they continue. “I think this can be a real blocker to the mutually transformative potential of intimacy.” We should keep in mind, too, that therapy isn’t some sort of miracle-working process where you enter as a disgusting tangle of emotions and emerge at the end as an entirely rational, perfectly-adjusted person. In most cases, the ‘real’ work starts once you’re out in the real world, and in some cases therapy can even make things worse.

In any case, this is quite a bleak way of regarding humanity: people aren’t projects to be worked on and completed. We’re innately messy and irrational and confusing beings. Not all of our flaws can be traced back to some unexamined childhood trauma – sometimes people are just occasionally mean or weird or selfish (yourself included). As Rosa says: “I do think the rise of mainstream ‘self-care’ culture can be linked to self-aggrandising attitudes, that idealise ourselves and problematise everyone else.”

We are all flawed and have foibles,” Weber adds. “I think we want emotionally healthy relationships and we can see that choice and responsibility comes into that, but it’s helpful to also realise that emotional health is always a work in progress. We’ve become demanding in our expectations of ideals. Shifting our rigid demands to flexible preferences opens up fresh and life-enhancing possibilities.”

Moreover, this demand for men to go to therapy fails to dig into the reasons why men are like this in the first place. They’ve been conditioned since birth to be brave and tough and invulnerable, and undoing this will take a lot more than cracking jokes at their expense for a few likes on the TL. Sure, in theory, men who need therapy should go, but the reality is that therapy is often inaccessible, and on top of this men are constantly grappling with cultural and societal pressure to present themselves as superhumanly stoic anyway.

There’s truth in the memes – only 36 per cent of referrals to NHS talking therapies are for men, and research shows that psychotherapy is still not meeting men’s needs. But this isn’t particularly funny. The lack of access to appropriate mental health care for men is partly why male suicide rates are so high, after all, and we’d all do well to remember that before tweeting some shit like “men will literally try to colonise Mars instead of going to therapy”.