The Therapy Revolution

 Changing your ability to love, one session at a time

By Dr. Pepper Schwartz March 7, 2024

The undisturbed chair in a therapist office.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

There’s a revolution going on, but it crept up on me rather than boldly announcing itself. It just hit me that an extraordinary number of people have now normalized therapy for emotional dysfunction, support, or discovery before and during dating.

It’s not that therapy hasn’t been gaining ground ever since Freud and fellow travelers started using mental rather than medical interventions for emotional challenges in the 19th century. But at first it was confined and embraced by the educated and/or monied classes. Even then, it was generally closeted, and considered by many to be an embarrassing and even stigmatizing need.

Not anymore.

I am writing this while I am interviewing single individuals about whether they are ready for marriage. A very large number of them, both men and women, volunteer that the reason they know they are ready for marriage is that they have had extensive therapy focused on themselves and on relationships. Surveys validate this trend, most notably one by Hinge. In November, 2022, 91% of their clients said they preferred to date someone who was, or had been, in therapy. A survey conducted by Dr. Helen Fisher for Match.com asked what the top fi ve things were that people were looking for in a mate. The new entry to that top fi ve was “ability to process feelings.”

The telltale phrases that often begin a person’s reveal of their past or present therapy are, “I have done the work,” or “I have been working on myself and now I am a much better version of myself.” A few months ago, The New York Times noticed these same phrases among millennials, and frankly, everyone younger than them. In fact, age and the spread of counseling/therapy are perfectly correlated: The older you are, the less you report using it. The American Psychological Association found that people born in 1997 or later were most comfortable talking about their therapy and getting some kind of mental health counseling. But men and women in all age groups have shown an increase in getting counseling compared to a couple years ago.

Some researchers feel using various therapeutic modalities have grown because of telemedicine and more moderate pricing. I don’t doubt that’s true. But using therapy is not only about access, it’s about culture. Younger people have demonstrated how normalizing and even extolling therapy can be a part of generational change. But there are different perspectives on counseling depending on other personal characteristics, such as race. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did a survey and found 30% of non-Hispanic white people have had therapy. That compares to only 10.8% of non-Hispanic Asians, and 4.8% of people identifying as Black. And while the number of people using therapy in each racial and ethnic group had increased yearly, stigma, ability to pay, or other inhibitors are differentially distributed. Part of that reason might be the racial composition of therapists. In a 2019 study, 76% of therapists identified as white.

Personally, in my interviews with a diverse group of singles looking for love, I found it refreshing and encouraging to find so many young people eager to have some kind of counseling guidance. Because here’s the thing: Today’s dating and mating rituals are demanding, sometimes depressing, and a high percentage of them are predictably disappointing. And yet, it is through this crucible that everyone must pass to fi nd someone who will love them and who they can love in return.

To my mind, some form of counseling or therapy is helpful in preparation for meeting someone, in maintenance of a relationship, in repair when relationships stall or shatter, and in support when you have to start the whole dance over again.

Q: My girlfriend is very beautiful and always has been. But she’s not always been thin and now she is (she took one of those drugs). The problem is that she is so pleased with the new her and is wearing more revealing clothes than I personally feel comfortable with. I could see her nipples through her top the other day, and her skirts often don’t cover her crotch when she sits down. I don’t know what all this is for, but it’s certainly not for me. She waves me off when I tell her I would like a more conservative look. How can I persuade her to tone it down?

A: You may not be able to. She is feeling beautiful and desirable in a new way. You may have thought she was all that before, but obviously she didn’t think so or she wouldn’t have taken medication to lose weight. So, she wants to luxuriate in this “new” body and be admired. The good news is this may just be a phase. As she gets more comfortable in her body and self-confidence, she may get less flashy (and fleshy) and wear less-revealing clothes. In the meantime, since she knows how you feel, you might try a different tactic. Compliment her whenever she wears something you like (that is less revealing) and just hold on to your opinion when she is over the top. If she asks you how she looks, just tell her she is beautiful (because you honestly think she is) but stop there and don’t compliment her on how she is dressed unless she asks. Then, if she does, you can tell her that she is beautiful, but you prefer to see some mystery in her dress because you find that sexier.

Whatever you do, don’t insult her by saying she looks like a sex worker (or something of that kind) because that will set up a defensive reaction and lead her to think that in order to defend her autonomy she has to dress provocatively. And, in all fairness to her, it’s not like she’s alone in her fashion presentations. There is a trend these days of wearing less and less, and even very young women go out on the town with about as much material on them as a bikini provides. The cultural encouragement is to show everything you own, and so you may be fighting a losing battle. But stay tuned: At some point the pendulum will swing the other way and more coverage could be in style.

Q: I am what they call a “Christmas Catholic.” I do not go to services except for holidays or when my parents really want me to go to church with them. That said, they are highly observant, and they do worry about me. I am writing because I am worried that because I have fallen in love with someone who is not Catholic (she is a non-denominational Christian,) that this will be hard on them. I love my parents very much and am not sure how to handle telling them after I ask her to marry me. Do you have advice for me?

A: A lot of people fall in love with someone of a different religion, but the success of that relationship depends on how well thought out their future plans, tolerances, and flexibility really are. Quite frankly, I worry about this issue with you because you obviously care so much about your parents’ reaction, which I think you know (as evidenced from your email) is not going to be as positive as you would like it to be.

They may support you in whatever choice you make, but if their religion is very important to them, they are certainly going to wish your wife were Catholic. My guess is that they might even be more emphatic about how your children would be raised.

To me, the most important thing to know is how much you have reflected on this situation and what decisions you and your intended fiancee have discussed about how the two of you would proceed. Have you talked about whether or not you would be comfortable with each other’s spiritual needs and practices? Have you decided about how your children’s religious education (or lack thereof) would be handled? Do you feel her family and your family could get along, whatever path you choose? And if you think it would not be easy, are you OK with forging your own religious path no matter how your parents (or her parents) would feel about it?

I think you should have answers to these questions before you decide to get married. I know some people just skirt them and decide to figure them out when they need to, but I don’t think that’s the best way to proceed. Religious differences can buckle the best love affairs, because sometimes you don’t know how much you need consistency with the way you have been raised until your partner contests your previous beliefs or habits. This often doesn’t happen until children enter the picture, or deciding to have children becomes a real, not theoretical, topic.

If you and your intended are truly on the same page about how religion will or will not be practiced with each other or with an eventual family, then just have a secure and deeply felt answer when you tell your parents about your future marriage. If they are upset, just be firm that this is the woman you love, the future you envision, and that you hope they will come to love her as much as you do. If you are afraid to give them this kind of response, then I would suggest that you do some deep thinking on whether or not the two of you are quite ready to be married.

About the Heartbeat: Ask Dr. Pepper Schwartz Column

Welcome to my world!

I spend a lot of time thinking about intimate relationships.

If you’ve read any of my previous work as a professor at the University of Washington, or watched me on television, you know that I care about what keeps people together, what drives them apart and what gives them pleasure. I am curious about trends, but also unique behaviors. I look at people above the clavicle and below the waist. It’s all interesting and important to me.

I know it is to you, too. I want to hear what you’re thinking. Please ask me questions or give your point of view at Pepper@seattlemag.com and I will respond, if appropriate, online and perhaps in print.

Let’s have some meaningful conversations – and some fun while we’re at it!

So, what’s on my mind today?


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