In my romantic life, I have gravitated toward such ill-advised prospects as a narcissistic surgeon (redundant, I know), a tortured musician (again), a man whose deference to his adoptive parents belied a sadistic streak and a self-loathing Jewish guy with a WASP moniker and a yen for Latinas, which I'm not. But that was before psychotherapy transformed me into the Incredibly Shrunken Woman.
Nowadays, a man's emotional stability is to me what net worth and penis size are to other women. When friends set me up on blind dates, I don't ask: "Is he tall?" or "Does he have hair?" I ask: "How sane is he?" Therapeutic experience is not a prerequisite, but it is certainly a plus. It's good to know that a professional has minimized messy internal disturbances for me before I enter the frame. I brake for guys who are, like my jeans, preshrunk.
I wasn't always this way. A few years ago, a datable acquaintance inadvertently frightened me when he boasted that he'd been "promoted" by his shrink from three days a week to two. "Why does he need so much work?" I shuddered. What a fool I was! No doubt his years of therapy had rendered him as refined and layered as a French pastry. In touch with both his aggression and his nurturing instincts, this quirky gem was probably the sort of lefty, literate brute-in-a-suit who could cook you a fancy omelet and then push you up against a wall after having deftly elicited your implied consent. We could have raised empowered children together -- the kind of kids who would, as teenagers, tell us off with cogent, nonthreatening "I feel" arguments. And I let him go! (Actually, it was the other way around. Depressive by nature, he felt I was "too cheerful" for him. But let's give his future the benefit of the doubt, as he was still in session twice a week.)
Today, I would be more than receptive to a hardcore therapy junkie. If a man told me that his shrink helped him individuate from his overbearing mother, or that he had realized, three years into analysis, that his erstwhile Lothario complex was merely symptomatic of his fears of abandonment, I'd instantly fall halfway in love.
The converse is true, too. If a man's craziness-to-catharsis (C:C) ratio (or trauma-to-transference ratio, or abuse-to-analysis ratio -- call it what you wish) seems too great, I proceed with extreme caution, if at all. I don't have a problem with baggage per se. After all, you've got baggage as soon as you've got one failed relationship. And yes, I also understand that some people can emerge from dysfunction and even trauma intact, without the help of professional assistance. But I won't lie: When a new beau tells me about some remarkable pain or creepiness for which he has performed scant damage control, I start calculating the C:C ratio and considering what it would mean for me to get involved with him.
This is not easy. After all, who's the better bet, the guy whose dad died when he was little and who endured the bitterness of his widowed, painkiller-addicted, male-bashing mother, but who at least had years of therapy as a teen, or the guy who suffered "only" his parents' nasty divorce and subsequent badmouthing (dysfunction underestimated because of its prevalence), but who never got therapy and still clings to a brutal vision of marriage?
Some might consider the C:C ratio bunk, or a snobbish, elitist way to assess romantic prospects. But I'm just playing the odds. "There are people who are naturally resilient and don't need therapy," concedes Geraldine K. Piorkowski, Ph.D., clinical associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois in Chicago and author of "Too Close for Comfort: Exploring the Risks of Intimacy." However, she adds, "if someone with a traumatic background hasn't had help, the chances of their being able to pursue life reasonably in terms of forming close relationships is very small. If the trauma didn't involve interpersonal betrayal or desertion -- if it had to do with hurricanes or natural disasters -- that's something someone can put into perspective on one's own. But if it's interpersonal trauma, that becomes the imprint in your brain of what you can expect from relationships, and so you're always on the defensive and don't get too close."
Here in Manhattan, where therapy is a veritable rite of passage, people have very strong opinions about not only their own therapy but that of their partners. Therapy devotees and therapy detractors may find themselves as much at ideological odds as people in interfaith or interracial relationships. I have a male friend who, at 27, has had "more therapy than Freud and Jung combined ever gave." Naturally, he's rather extreme on the subject of his partners' therapeutic risumis: He's not interested in women who've never had therapy.
"How in touch can a woman be with herself if she doesn't believe in self-analysis?" he asks. "Probably not very. People who really want to improve their relationships with others or with themselves get into therapy. And those who shun it, I shun."
His stance is far more militant than the perspective of even those who profit literally from therapy. "This business that everybody ought to be in therapy to be emancipated is just nonsense," scoffs Willard Gaylin, M.D., author of "Talk Is Not Enough: How Psychotherapy Really Works" and clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. "It's like saying that everybody ought to have their gallbladder out. I don't believe that therapy is a form of adult education. My wife has never gone, and she's swell."
And while few middle-class New Yorkers can say there are no therapy patients in their social circles, many stubbornly cling to DIY problem solving and wish their partners would do the same.
"Part of me is a rabid anti-therapy person," says Doug, a physician who was, until recently, involved with a man who was not only undergoing psychotherapy but taking a battery of psychotropic drugs.
Interestingly, Doug was more understanding of his boyfriend's medications (which he viewed as necessary weapons against a real, biochemical problem) than of the psychotherapy, which he felt was often his boyfriend's "crutch." He explains, "People often abuse therapy as a substitute for self-improvement. It's like, 'Help me feel less guilty about this' rather than 'Help me be a better person.' When someone treats me badly, and it takes a therapist to make them realize it, there's bound to be a problem. It shouldn't require someone else's insight for them to realize I've been hurt."
What's more, Doug continues, "there's often some sort of excuse lined up, such as 'I understand now why I did that to you,' which is then followed by psychobabble. So whenever my boyfriend hurts me, he can simply say, 'You know I have a problem with intimacy.' I have no such excuse lined up, so I have to fall back on the old 'I'm a schmuck. There's no excuse. I'm sorry. I understand that, next time, I'm out on the street.' Which is usually just as it should be."
I know just what Doug's talking about -- the therapeutic couch potato who's too lazy to use his or her new self-awareness to actually make changes. And by the same token, I believe that any shrink who hypothesizes about why you have a particular problem, without getting you to a place where you can at least minimize the problem, is a lazy one. If you're using therapy to pass the buck, you might as well save yourself the $100-plus per session.
Gwen's ex-boyfriend was proactive with his therapy -- except that he tried using it to make her feel like the nut case. "He'd come home from therapy and say, 'Oh, we talked about you a lot today.' According to him, he and his shrink came up with the brilliant theory that the reason I wanted more attention from him was that my brother always got more attention from my parents, since he was retarded."
She shakes her head. "That's how he spent his time in therapy: convincing himself that I was the problem instead of working on his own issues. The truth is, he didn't want to reduce the drama in his life. He just wanted to charm and seduce the shrink, who was just another extra audience to him." I guess if you're such a narcissist that you think that all the world's your stage, then you're going to think of yourself as, rather than a patient, someone who's giving the shrink a backstage pass to your life.
In fact, sometimes therapy itself becomes a bigger source of contention in a romantic relationship than whatever the partners were feuding about before. When you enter therapy, Piorkowski explains, the other partner "feels like you've unbalanced the relationship. You have two people on one side and one on the other, and that's very threatening to the person not in therapy."
And this is not just due to the noninvolved partner's insecurity: Often, Piorkowski observes, patients "use what's going on in therapy against their partners." One of the most common ways in which they do this is by using "My therapist says" as a trump card in an argument. "That's a cheap shot, 'My therapist says.' People do it when they feel they need additional leverage and need to rely on some authority to lend weight to their position," Piorkowski says. Gaylin is even more vehement: "There's nothing more obnoxious, and it's guaranteed to antagonize your partner."
It's also likely to make your partner believe you're getting more dependent, rather than independent -- a putative goal of therapy. "Any argument from my significant other that begins 'My therapist says' is by definition a weak one," Doug says. "It ranks up there with 'My mother thinks.' I never want to hear, 'My therapist thinks you should be more supportive.' Believe me, kiddo, as insightful as your therapist may be, until he or she spends a whole night in bed with us, they have no idea what I actually deal with."
And even if the shrink does have a clue, how comfortable is that for the partner who's not in therapy? "It's awful knowing that there's someone sitting under your bed at night," Gaylin says.
"My boyfriend told his shrink things I'd never let him share with his friends," Doug says. "I understand the necessity of that in therapy, but this is why it's especially important to keep 'My shrink says' statements out of the relationship. It's the equivalent of hearing: 'My friend Suzy thinks it's OK that your penis is so small because we can find other ways for you to satisfy me.' Thanks, Suzy. You've been a big help."
Aside from feeling that their privacy is being violated, the partners of new patients are "often concerned, if they've been having difficulties, that the relationship will end, that the patient will get the strength to leave them," Piorkowski says. "And that does happen sometimes, so the fear that the person may change, and that the change may result in the person leaving, is not groundless."
Indeed, couples therapist Andrew Christensen, Ph.D., professor of psychology at UCLA and coauthor of "Reconcilable Differences," has seen people drag their husbands or wives kicking and screaming into therapy, only to discover that their newly self-actualized spouses ultimately decide a divorce would make them happiest. "That's the scary extreme," he says, "but I've certainly seen it happen."
Gaylin insists, "Therapy can only help a good relationship. It will damage a bad relationship only by opening the patient's eyes to it." But Christensen believes that while it's rare, even relationships with potential can unravel under the influence of one partner's therapy. "It's very difficult, when you're hearing only one side of the couple's story, not to implicitly or explicitly support the view that your client is the victim of the partner's bad behavior. That's the one way in which individual therapy can undermine the couple's relationship."
Which is why it's safer, he adds, if one partner's problem is primarily a relationship problem, for the couple to go into joint counseling. Unfortunately, most people I know who've tried joint counseling didn't do so until it was too late. I suspect that when one person has already reached the breaking point, and he or she definitely wants out, it's hard to get that person to regard therapy as anything but due diligence; such people just go through the motions so they can tell themselves they've tried their darnedest.
And if a relationship dies after just one partner gets therapy, is it because the relationship was flawed or because the therapist was unskilled or working under the influence of a personal agenda? "My ex-girlfriend's therapy undid our relationship," says David, 35. "Sandy gave all of her intimacy to her therapist and had none left over for me. Her shrink never even met me, and yet she was giving Sandy advice about me." (I firmly believe that a good, truly professional therapist almost never gives a patient direct advice but, rather, very pointed questions or, at most, various avenues to explore.)
"She told Sandy to give me lists of demands which were essentially ultimatums. She also convinced Sandy that in some ways I was an extension of her parents -- with whom she had major issues -- so Sandy began viewing me in that negative light. Before Sandy got into therapy, we were having fun, but later, whenever we had something to talk about, suddenly we were 'verbalizing' and 'validating' and dissecting. My mother is a shrink and, for me, the jargon of therapy is a war language: I remember my mom using it against my dad. I finally went with Sandy to meet the therapist. In a very confrontational way, using the jargon, I told the shrink that I felt that she was antagonistic toward men, that she had her own anger issues to work out, that she was fabricating problems for Sandy and that, if she kept it up, Sandy would be left alone. And that's eventually what happened."
Even when therapy ultimately benefits a relationship, the partners may face some short-term stress. Patients ideally get in touch with their feelings during therapy, but this can be bewildering to their partners. Patients "become aware of how deeply angry they are with some people around them, and all of a sudden they'll start letting it out," Gaylin explains, "and the person relating to them won't understand where it's coming from or what's happened. The patient has to explain that therapy is a rocky road and he or she is getting used to some new things, some of which are their own emotions." Likewise, Piorkowski explains, "in therapy a person often becomes more assertive about talking about what he or she needs and wants, and if they're in a relationship with someone who's domineering or intense, the partner may not be able to tolerate that."
Gaylin points out another potential annoyance to the noninvolved partner: "The patient may compare his partner to the therapist: The all-knowing, understanding, forgiving therapist [whose attitude is] 'I've only got ears for you, dear; you're the most fascinating creature.' If my therapist is prepared to hear me go on for weeks, kvetching about how my mother preferentially treats my sister, how come you, my partner, aren't prepared to do that? And the answer is that your therapist doesn't do that for his or her partner!"
Another potential pitfall of therapy? "You become so tuned in to your own needs and so self-absorbed with your own feelings that you lose sight of your partner," Piorkowski warns. In most cases, she adds, the patient outgrows this, but it's not always the case. Jack, 27, dated a woman who was in and out of therapy her entire life. It was bad enough that she'd cast aspersions on his customary easygoing, nonanalytical nature as "simplistic" and "repressed" and a sign that he needed therapy very badly.
But on the rare occasions that he actually was able to express some dismay at something she'd done, she would refuse to discuss the issue, saying that his "inappropriate" pain was just further proof that he needed help. "But of course," Jack recalls, "any time I hurt her, we had to analyze her feelings ad nauseam." And of course, all relationships need breathers from a partner's analysis in order to thrive. So any therapy devotee better keep in mind that the best therapy is work, and it's best not to become a workaholic and take it home all the time.
"Therapy is such a strange and unusual social experience. One person devotes himself to you, and it's nonreciprocal. It's a very unreal relationship," notes Christensen. "It can't be easily generalized to the real world and it can be very seductive. I can start wanting my partner to be more like my therapist -- giving me that undivided attention. And no partner can be a therapist to you."
So true. But I suspect I'd still be thrilled with a partner who saw one.