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What Happens When Therapy-Speak Creeps Into a Relationship

The problem with weaponizing diagnostic terms.

Key points

  • We increasingly bring psychological terms, diagnoses, and strategies into our everyday relationships.
  • Psychological terms—or "therapy speak"—can have positive and negative outcomes in our personal lives.
  • Be mindful of weaponizing psychological terms through informal diagnoses.

Many of us now increasingly use psychological terms to describe dynamics in our personal and professional lives. Whether this is from TikTok, YouTube, or Psychology Today subscriptions, most of us know something about the terminology of psychology these days: attachment styles, triggers, the basic elements of our nervous system, trauma, etc.

In my own practice, I have witnessed this often in first sessions with new clients who arrive with a bundle of terms and self-assessments that they can already apply to themselves, their partners, or colleagues. “She’s an avoidant and I’m an anxious type”; “My boss is a classic narcissist”; or “I really get dysregulated around touching because of my past traumas.”

The question we should ask about the incorporation of psychological terms into today's lexicon is whether or not this helps us in our individual or interpersonal psychological work. Does knowledge of key terms help or hinder the therapeutic process? Or can it become an obstacle in your therapeutic journey?

The Case for Therapy-Speak

I often invite my clients to Google "attachment styles" or listen to a podcast about self-esteem issues or shame. Clients can then maybe glean some insights into their own stuck points or interpersonal conflicts, naming and taming some triggering issues. Having knowledge of psychological language in this way can be an extension or form of knowing oneself.

For instance, knowing what your "love language" is can help make sense of why your partner’s advances just don’t seem to go anywhere with you. Knowing that small gifts or gestures really make you feel secure while touching pushes you away is very good knowledge that you and your romantic partner need. This can work even better when it is translated into “I language” that explicitly communicates your want. Telling your partner that although they may think that rubbing your feet is a kind gesture, it really puts you off can sometimes overcome a feeling of rejection on their part when you recoil at their touch.

Psychoeducation can also be useful in specifying or articulating a confused communication pattern in a couple. What looks like stonewalling or rejection to one partner can, in fact, be a gesture of self-regulation, indicating a high level of self-attunement in an apparently withdrawing partner. Being able to name this distinction with the use of psychological language can help us get out of deadlocks and cycles that escalate and seem unending.

This requires a sharp ability, however, to distinguish between two interpersonal phenomena that can often look the same. When is withdrawal about punishing the other and when is it a gesture meant to de-escalate a situation and not give in to attacking or contemptuous impulses?

The Case Against Therapy-Speak

The example of stonewalling vs. self-regulation can also present the case for the dangers of therapeutic creep into our personal lives. Knowledge of key terms, especially when they are red flag terms like "stonewalling," "contempt," or "defensiveness," can often be used as righteous weapons in a highly escalated situation, i.e., “You are stonewalling right now and John Gottman says that you absolutely can’t do that!” or, “You are behaving like a textbook avoidant!”

A little psychoeducation gleaned from online sources can quickly turn into a means by which to diagnose your spouse, usually as a way to circumvent your own responsibility in a conflict situation. While there may indeed be some evidence in your informal diagnosis, most of us are not clinicians and diagnosticians, and diagnoses take time, precision, and expertise.

These terms can feel really insightful in the moment and they may help give language to something we feel about another person. However, to assume its correctness or weaponize a pseudo-assessment in a conflict, in my estimation, doesn’t do much to improve things interpersonally. In most cases, these informal assessments do more to reassure the victimized party that their grievances are warranted than to improve things in a relationship. It can even lead, in the worst cases, to increased resistance to communication and empathy, thus further stalling relational improvement.

My general rule when I encounter this clinically is to recommend keeping this psychological suspicion to oneself (or sharing it with a personal therapist) but acting empathetically with this in mind. For instance, if you suspect that your partner is, indeed, an avoidant type who stonewalls and withdraws, try to find ways to soften and include them, to help them "unzip their snowsuit," and better communicate. Using therapy speak in this context will most likely encourage further withdrawal, more protective barriers, and weaken trust. Your assumption may be correct, but this correctness will not necessarily improve your relationship. Being right in this instance rarely leads to better interpersonal outcomes.

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