Has the Internet’s Fixation on Relationship Psychology Actually Made Us Any Better At Dating?

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How every crappy ex became an avoidantly attached gaslighting narcissist. 

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If you enjoy watching couples like Annie and Mau on Showtime’s Couples Therapy, which concluded its third season last week, you can not only watch the show, you can join the chorus of viewers on Reddit who have diagnosed Mau with narcissistic personality disorder. If that’s not enough, you can go to YouTube to watch an actual professional, Dr. Kirk Honda, analyze the show’s therapeutic approach and offer theories on Annie and Mau’s relationship—below the video you can also comment on how Mau’s funneling of all emotional needs into sex is similar to some of your own ex-partners.

Couples Therapy is just one piece of popular media that lets us peer into the romantic relationships of others and, either jokingly or seriously, appoint ourselves as experts. There are books like Attached, podcasts like Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin, and the many reality TV shows centered on dating and relationships, like Love Is Blind and The Ultimatum, to feed the need for relationships to observe and the terminology to analyze them.  

The popularity of Couples Therapy’s resident psychologist Orna Guralnik or concepts like attachment theory seem to have given us more tools than ever to deal with the complicated ins-and-outs of dating and romantic partnerships. But have they made us any better at those things, or just reduced complex theories into internet catchphrases?

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“I’m a big proponent of getting psychoeducation out there,” says Rachel Wright, MA, LMFT. “But I think that where it can turn—and I’ve seen this happen a lot recently—is concepts take off with a life of their own. And something that is an entire semester of a class becomes a one-minute TikTok video. After that can be helpful in some ways, and also really dangerous in other ways.”

On the one hand, the mainstreaming of terms like “gaslighting” can, for example, give internet users the ability to recognize and leave abusive relationships. But it can also flatten complex theories into self-diagnosed labels that fit our narrative. (Take the TikTok users pathologizing the hurtful but ultimately mundane behavior of “West Elm Caleb” earlier this year) 

“With ‘gaslighting’ and ‘narcissism,’ the way the internet understands it—it’s this extremely concise and crowdsourced understanding way of diagnosing your past partners, or your current partner that you’re upset with. That feels very satisfying to people,” says Dr. Honda, who attempts to offer more nuanced understandings of such concepts in his videos analyzing popular shows like 90 Day Fiancé and Love Is Blind

The psychological terminology that takes off with a mainstream audience does so in part because it offers us a sense of belonging—which is attractive in and of itself, whether it helps us find love or not. “It’s the same reason why they love quizzes, like ‘Which butterfly are you?’” says Wright. “That feels really good, psychologically, to feel seen by something. Even if this something is a carousel on Instagram.”

Some professionals with an online presence hope to offer more nuanced understandings of relationship dynamics in chaotic times. But clinicians like Wright and Honda emphasize that their attempts to educate are just that—education, not actual therapy.

“If you know what you want, and you’re not getting what you want, then there’s a reason for the disconnect. And it’s really hard to figure out that disconnect without someone holding up a mirror, or being able to hear a pattern and reflect it with empathy and care and compassion,” she says. As for how we can actually improve our romantic lives?  “I’m sorry for the shitty answer, but go to therapy.”

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