Emily was impressed when the guy she was on a date with opened up about having a lot of experience in therapy. They got on well, went out on more dates and the 32-year-old project manager caught feelings. Eventually they became boyfriend and girlfriend. Years into the relationship, she discovered he had a “huge coke addiction” and it became clear that he’d vastly exaggerated his experience with therapy. “He’d been referred to the NHS for six sessions and only went to about two,” says Emily, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons.
They carried on with their relationship, but when things became strained during lockdown, Emily - who was actually in therapy - convinced him to see a professional. “Clearly, he didn’t tell them anything, because he came back and told me, ‘Oh, they said I didn’t need therapy.’” she says. “This is a man still addicted to cocaine, who’s had a lot of childhood trauma. Nobody would have said he didn’t need therapy if he’d actually told them what was going on.”
Of course, you can’t make someone go to therapy if they aren’t ready, and Emily in no way underestimates how difficult it must’ve been for him. But his lack of honesty meant she ended up in a situation she could have avoided. “If he hadn't been so skilled at seeming like one kind of person in the beginning, I wouldn't have ended up in a relationship at all,” she says.
This kind of behaviour has been the talk of group chats and social media for some time now. “I just went on the worst date of my life with a man who said he had ‘completed therapy’”, writes one Twitter user. “It’s the men who tell you their therapist told them they’re fine you want to watch out for,” writes another. “What they really mean is they expect you to be their therapist. They haven’t figured out how to word it properly yet,” writes a third. The list goes on.
We’re calling it ‘therapy-baiting’; aka the cultural phenomenon of people (mainly men, sorry) using their experience of therapy as a pulling method to appear sensitive, therefore sending us into a swooning, fanny flutter-induced haze. In some cases, the perpetrators exaggerate the amount of therapy they have done, and in others they use their knowledge of therapy language in nefarious ways. In extreme cases, they fake having gone all together.
Obviously #notallmen, but the seminal Instagram page @beam_me_up_softboi is now riddled with examples of men using therapy to pick up women. While for many men, therapy means working towards genuine change, for others it means using it in a performative way to appeal to women. Or as one Twitter user puts it: “Straight women have single-handedly been giving away the secrets to what we deem green flags and the men have been smart enough to curate personalities around these.”
Much like accusing someone of ‘queer-baiting’ - profiting off perceived queer aesthetics despite not labelling your own sexuality – calling someone out, or correctly identifying this behaviour, is extremely complicated.
“Therapy remains an incredibly stigmatised space in many areas of the population,” says Dr. Ramani Durvasula, clinical psychologist and author of Should I Stay or Should I Go, when I ask her why therapy-baiting might be happening. “Through social media, it’s become more legitimised as people open up about mental health.” Durvasula emphasises how brilliant it is for those being genuinely open about their mental health, but points out that problems arise when people use therapy as virtue signalling. “To say, ‘Look how evolved I am, look how I take on my issues.’ And even worse, when it’s being used like cologne to mask the smell of manipulative behaviour; when how they communicate is uncomfortable or antagonistic.”
It’s not that hard to work out how we’ve ended up in this mess. It’s become increasingly common for women to say we’d only date someone who's been to therapy. In recent years, we’ve praised “therapised kings” like Pete Davidson for being so open about receiving treatment for his anxiety, depression and struggles with Borderline Personality Disorder. In 2020, Paul Mescal’s candid portrayal of a man struggling with mental health, in Normal People, highlighted the importance of therapy. And rightly so, given that research from the Priory shows 77 percent of men say they’ve experienced symptoms for mental health problems, but 40 percent have never spoken to anyone about it.
According to Hinge, 83 percent of UK singles would prefer to date someone who goes to 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. For women this makes sense, given the emotional labour they often put into relationships with men who haven’t been to therapy. But just because you’ve had therapy, doesn’t mean you’re now a good person with buckets of self-awareness.
As Durvasula points out, “therapy doesn’t cure people so much as give 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 therapy and still haven’t addressed their issues. “We often think, ‘They’re in therapy, so they’re moving in the right direction,’” says Durvasula. “‘If I hang around for long enough, things will move in the right direction.’” She compares it to a garden. “You plant the seeds and think the flowers will come, but it's not quite the same with human beings. If they don’t do the work, you’ll be waiting for changes that may not come.” In other words, putting therapy on your dating checklist will never be a shortcut to finding the man of your dreams.
Jen Kaarlo, a 38-year-old travel writer from London, knows this first hand. 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 who didn’t talk about feelings. She was impressed, until his reaction to her mentioning she was no longer in contact with her verbally abusive grandpa. Her date told her: “From my experience in therapy, it’s best not to give them any power, to not let them win.” He told her she sounded “very wounded about the situation” and - despite her protests - he could see she was deeply troubled. He suggested she go back to therapy.
“He was telling me what to do about a four decade-long situation he knew nothing about,” says Kaarlo. It became clear he was using therapy to feed his superiority complex. As the date progressed, this pattern repeated itself over and over. He told her she was carrying too much weight from a previous relationship, that the way she approached her professional career was wrong.
“He was trying to make out I was this battered, damaged woman,” she says, “and I won’t take any of that.” It got to the point where a woman on the next table leant over and told Kaarlo, “If you want me to walk with you for a bit, you have an escape route.” She stood up and left while the guy was practically mid-sentence.
This wasn’t the first time Kaarlo’s had her date co-opt therapy language in order to undermine her. In the last year, she can recall a number of similar conversations of men using their experiences of therapy to belittle her.
Then there’s the people who use therapy to validate their shitty behaviour. Jess, a 32-year-old PR manager (who’s asked to remain anonymous, like others in this piece) has experienced this many times. One guy spent much of their first date discussing his experience with therapy and meditation. A couple of weeks into seeing each other he became distant, ignored her calls and told her that he was struggling with his mental health, so wasn’t sure if he could see her anymore. Maybe this was true. Or maybe it’s the new fool-proof excuse for not being into someone.
The issue is, if you’re a nice person, chances are you feel a bit uncomfortable interrogating people’s use of therapy - which is why it makes such a useful tool for avoiding accountability. “It remains a very vulnerable thing to admit,” explains Durvasula. “We don’t want to call someone out on anything to do with therapy, because this would be disrespectful.”
There are a number of tell-tale signs, though, that suggest someone is using therapy in a manipulative way. The first, Durvasula says, is that you’re being minimised. “They might say things like, ‘Oh, you wouldn’t understand this, you haven’t been to therapy.’” You might feel yourself being “handled”, where instead of sharing about themselves, they keep turning the conversation back on you. “A lot of people aren’t mindful when they date,” Ramani explains. “After the date they’ll say, ‘They were so interested in me!’ but you’re not learning about them in return - look out for that pattern.” Another thing to look for is a disconnect in actions and words. “They talk about the therapy they’re doing, but they’re still entitled, arrogant and disrespectful.”
This behaviour is rarely, if ever, referenced online in relation to women, but it’s still possible for women to therapy-bait too. Mancunian bartender Matt, 28, saw a woman for a couple of weeks who’d said she’d been to therapy, but it felt more like she was using therapy language to get her own way. “She’d get so angry when I didn’t reply to texts and was actually just not very nice. Everything seemed to be my issue and if I pushed back, I was ‘deflecting’ or ‘projecting’. It was exhausting,” Matt explains.
“Call me nostalgic, but I haven’t had as many bad dates as I have this past year,” sighs Kaarla at the end of our phone call. She jokes that she’d rather go back to how things were before, when men were even worse at talking about their emotions. “But seriously,” says Kaarlo, “if you’re in therapy to better yourself, then try to use the tools you’re given to listen and be a bit more self-aware.”