After one of our posts went viral on Instagram, we figured it was best to expound on the thread that Sandra from Twitter, below, so thoughtfully started. Why is it, exactly, that your partner shouldn’t be your therapist?
The idea here is tempting. You can save money on therapy, allow yourself to be vulnerable and thus more open with the one you love… It all sounds good, right?
Well, the true answer to that question depends on who is asking– and who your partner is. Generally speaking, using your partner as your therapist boils down to three different considerations. And unfortunately, none of them usually end well for a couple unless you consciously work to maintain reciprocity. (Which can easily be done– you just have to be aware of it.)
Here’s what you should consider before moving away from therapy in favor of talking to your partner instead (or failing to start therapy when it could be helpful for you).
1. Therapists Can Help You Rewire Default Patterns in a Way That Partners Can’t
This first point is perhaps the most important one. Therapists can help you rewire your default patterns in a way that partners can’t. The reason why many people think their partner can be their therapist is because venting to them feels good. This makes sense: you trust, confide in, and potentially love this person (depending on how romantically entangled you are). Thus, talking to them about your feelings is always a good thing. I encourage you to do it!
However, don’t get it twisted: talking to your partner is helpful for mental health, but it is not the same as therapy.
As we wrote in our Comprehensive Guide to Anxiety Relief and our piece on What To Do If You Can’t Afford Therapy, it’s important to embrace the people around you and let them help you figure out your own feelings.
However, therapy costs money for a reason. Therapists work hard to analyze your patterns. They actively help you figure out what coping strategies will keep you feeling your best. As casual and effortless as the conversation may seem at the time, your therapist is consciously, objectively assessing your wellbeing. They are working to guide you to a form of self-actualization that will help free you from concern.
By contrast, for many everyday stressors, you can use your partner to help yourself. Sometimes it’s just helpful to have someone listen or get a second opinion on whatever is bothering you.
But for instances where there is real trauma– sexual assault, familial neglect, bullying, confidence issues, a lack of purpose, or depression, for example– a good Cognitive Behavioral Therapist can help you quickly and efficiency recognize your own unhelpful thought patterns and learn new coping techniques.
A good therapist, moreover, can be a revelation.
Ultimately, working exclusively with a partner for this kind of relief over long periods of time can be inefficient. It can lead to stasis and stagnation. This is because your partner will likely try their best to make you feel better, not to unearth the root of the problem. This latter is ultimately the most helpful in the long run.
Further still, venting to your partner, when not supplemented with therapy can lead to disappointment, compassion fatigue, and frustration. This is especially true when you’re dealing with real trauma. If you hit a plateau that your partner can’t dig you out of, you may start holding it against them.
Or worse, you may think something is wrong with your relationship, when in all likelihood, it is fine. (It may just become strained from the burden of mental baggage. This, incidentally, is why going to therapy individually can help a relationship grow collectively.)
Some common examples? Family resentment, old grudges, work slights, and anything dealing with ex’s, which your current partner might not like hearing about. These are all examples of deep-seeded problems that can wreak havoc on your relationship– especially if you expect your partner to solve the problem.
2. Over Time, Leaning Heavily on a Partner’s Emotional Availability Can Strain Your Relationship
On to our second point. Leaning heavily on a partner’s emotional support system can strain your relationship. We each only have a certain amount of mental bandwidth to dole out during our day. Between work, trying to maintain your health, and taking care of children (where applicable), the general hustle of life can be a tenuous balancing act. Cooking, cleaning, running errands, self care. The list goes on. Adding “part time personal therapist” to your partner’s resume can be overwhelming.
Ask yourself: How would I feel if my partner leaned on me as much as I lean on them?
Your emotional work has to be reciprocal to nourish the relationship. If this other person doesn’t feel equally heard, equally supported, and equally replenished by your attention and careful listening, they may start feeling resentful. This can be unconscious, too! If you are consuming too much of their precious mental bandwidth, compassion fatigue can build up below the surface.
Again, this does not apply to the occasional “deep” or heartfelt conversation. What I’m talking about here are regular, one-sided conversations. These can take the form of daily rants or constant digital communication, for example. Even if your partner says they don’t mind, remember to ask them periodically how they are feeling– and be sure to listen intently.
3. You Don’t Want to End Up in an Intimacy Feedback Loop
Finally, unless your partner is trained in mindfulness or Psychology, they will likely start to make assessments about you, what you are telling them, and what is best for you. They know you and care about you, after all, so they’ll naturally gravitate towards solutions and comfort rather than theory.
However, the science here is important. The goal of therapy is to help you come to terms with your own thoughts, not to spoon feed you answers. This is essential for building resilience. If your partner always tells you what you want to hear, you won’t get better, even if it feels good in the moment.
If you feel frustrated with therapy– or as if your therapist isn’t giving you actionable tools and strategies to cope with whatever you’re dealing with– the answer is not to stop going. You probably just need a new therapist.
When shopping around for therapists, be sure to ask them about their approach. If you want to make actionable change, ask them to help you. It can even be as simple as condensing the request to single question, like “I’m looking for someone who will help me make a plan to stop obsessing over ______,” etc, etc.
Be clear, and be specific. This is a therapist’s job, so they won’t be upset or phased by the question. Ultimately, you want to find someone who is a good fit for you– like your partner, but professional. You should “click” from the get-go.
Therapists are also really good at shaking it up. If you feel stuck in the office format, ask your therapist if they’d be willing to go for a walk outside. Many people find it easier to open up when walking side by side, as opposed to making direct eye contact across the room. That’s the reason why so-called Running Therapy took off in Los Angeles.
Otherwise, the conventional therapy model– Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, for example– can work wonders for a fraught mood. Therapy is cool, therapy is effective, therapy is for everyone, and therapy works. The love and support of your partner is just the cherry on top.
Related: Read our article on What To Do If You Can’t Afford Therapy.