How Therapy-Speak Took Over Dating
To Ms. Chavis, people repeat the language they learn from social media, where people, especially women, swap tips on how to recognize the signs of potential manipulation. Sometimes, these come from actual therapists; often, the advice is given by anyone with a front-facing camera.
Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis and a member of the American Psychiatric Association’s Council on Communications, isn’t surprised that psychological language has trickled into everyday conversation. “In some ways, it’s always been the case that people are using the terms in ways that a clinician wouldn’t,” she said. Speaking about mental illness, in general, can help destigmatize conditions like anxiety and depression, she said, and good can come from being vulnerable with a new partner.
There are, however, clear downsides to learning a therapy term via TikTok video or meme, namely that nonprofessionals can get it wrong. The term “trauma bonded,” in particular, is tossed around to signify connecting with someone over shared struggles; the clinical definition of the term refers to a specific pattern of abuse.
This language can also provide a convenient excuse to write someone off. “I find a lot of the times, it gives people leverage,” said Edward Nyamenkum, a 29-year-old art director in Montreal. “It makes people feel OK when they ghost someone, like, ‘They’re obviously toxic,’ without giving them a chance.”
And when people misuse these words, deploying a weighty term like “gaslighting” to describe more banal, everyday turmoils that come with dating, those who actually experience abuse have less of a voice, Dr. Bandinelli said. This “explosion of diagnostic language,” as she called it, provides blanket, simple language for what are often complex and specific conundrums that come with modern dating.
“There’s this sense that using jargon that’s pseudoscientific somehow makes our argument stronger,” Dr. Bandinelli said. If someone acts like a jerk, she said, that may be just be one person’s opinion. “But if you’re ‘gaslighting me’ or ‘love bombing me,’ that makes it objective,” she said.
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