I’ll never forget the speech given to me at my graduate school orientation as I was starting the journey to become a marriage and family therapist. “Get ready to say goodbye to your full-time job, goodbye to your social life, and goodbye to your boyfriend or girlfriend.” I was taken aback by the last part. Would grad school end my relationship? Turns out, yup!
To be fair, most graduate students are in their 20s. Their relationships would probably end anyway, part of the natural process of emerging adulthood. But there’s something else that we obtain in grad school that helps us make decisions about our relationships, and it isn’t discussed on the class syllabi. We gain insight.
The insight that we gain about ourselves and other people as we become therapists comes with pros and cons on the dating scene. It’s like we have this ability to hack getting to know people, whether or not they’re aware how much information they might be giving. Oldest of 5? Most likely responsible, probably parentified as a kid.
We know all the right questions to ask on the first few dates in order to get a good snapshot of our suitors. I mean, it’s pretty similar to an intake. We’re keen on body language and verbal cues. We have empathy and know how to actively listen, which makes our dates feel validated and connected with us. Most importantly, after what we learn about ourselves in grad school, we know what we want in a partner and we know what to look for. For example, if we tend to take on the pursuer role, we know that we need to stop chasing withdrawers.
On the other hand, the insight that we gain could work against us. We develop biases that may lead to writing people off without giving them a chance. Parents divorced? Shoot, that makes it more likely this guy would get divorced. His mom is an addict? He may have issues trusting women. He comes from a totally different cultural background? We may have to work hard for family acceptance.
In turn, the people we date could have biases about dating a therapist. This can be especially true if you’re a Marriage and Family Therapist. I mean, that can be a lot of pressure, to date someone whose career is around something so personal. Some people react to learning what we do with praise, and try to start their “free counseling sessions” on the first date. They see you as the savior who is there to fix them and their family. They’re already envisioning your picture-perfect relationship.
One time, I asked a guy, “I remember you mentioned that you have a step-father. Are your parents divorced?” He went into explaining his parents’ divorce, started to cry, and then said, “Wow, you’re already working your magic!” Not magic, dude.
They may even start volunteering information about people close to them for your professional opinion. I once spent a whole dinner listening to a guy describe his ex. He was looking for confirmation that she was a narcissist. Suffice to say it wasn’t the getting-to-know-you conversation that typically happens on a first date. I did, however, learn something about him through that!
More people than I expected are turned off by the idea of dating a therapist. It makes sense to me now. They may be scared of high expectations that come along with dating a relationship expert. They may be afraid of our judgment, being “diagnosed,” or being criticized for doing anything wrong. It’s up to us to decide whether we want to work to gain their trust, or seek out someone without those fears.
Should we just date other therapists?
Even therapists have biases when it comes to dating therapists. Some see dating another mental health practitioner as too much pressure. You could relate to each other on such a level that you would find yourself taking work home with you. It might be nice to have a partner to consult about cases and discuss ethics with, but that wouldn’t be so nice if you worry about your partner judging your work. Still, some therapists believe that it is a match made in heaven. You could understand each other fully, and instill healthy boundaries regarding work talk.
What’s most important to me about dating as a therapist is that though we have this insight about people and relationships, we still need to use our hearts. No relationship is perfect and no human is perfect, so it’s not worth trying to find that.
The best comparison I can think of is when I get a new client and I read their intake, it creates this image of them in my head. I gear up to address this troubled person with a heartbreaking history, and when I finally meet them, they couldn’t be more pleasant and ready to evolve into their best self. So when we are swiping on our dating apps, we need to keep in mind that we are merely just looking at their “intakes.” The real person is much more. Given the opportunity, they might find that you are much more than a therapist, too.
Ed. note: While we’re on the subject, this episode of the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide podcast features Millen Umoh, LMFT, talking about her own experiences dating as a therapist. It’s well worth the listen. [We sponsored some later episodes of the MTSG podcast, but we’re just linking to this one because we like it.]