Next stop, love

Therapy was supposed to bring us joy and love. But the language of the heart can be cut off by the cold analyses of the “expert.” It’s time rethink therapy and reembrace your lover, friends and family.

Frank Furedi | December 2004 issue

Every society expresses its beliefs about human nature in distinct ways. Traditionally, it has been myths, rituals and religion that explain how a particular group of people view the possibilities and limitations of human action. In modern Western culture, however, psychological therapy has become the most powerful force determining how we see ourselves and the world.

More than just a clinical procedure, therapy has become a culture in itself. And the main belief of this new culture is that peoples’ emotional state is the source of most problems today. Therapy culture frames the experience of everyday life as a struggle that ordinary people can not survive without professional guidance. It asserts that our usual networks of support—friends, family neighbours—are too feeble to helps us in our hour of need. Indeed, therapy culture suggests those closest to us are often the source of emotional difficulties. This is why we are increasingly discouraged from dealing with problems on their own or in collaboration with friends or family members. We now live in an age of counsellors, facilitators, life trainers, mentors, parenting coaches and analysts. The promotion of professional solutions to routine everyday problems is driven by this new cultural assumption in which we think of ourselves as vulnerable and lacking the resources to cope.

Therapists and counsellors of all kinds continually send a message that the human condition is defined by vulnerability and that people should not tackle difficult emotional issues without expert advice. This is why we have come to depend so greatly on professional “helpers” in our personal lives.

There is of course nothing wrong with professionals. If I need someone to represent me in court, perform heart surgery or assess the structural engineering of my house, I will certainly consult a professional. The problem with the professionalisation of everyday life is that we no longer rely on paid experts simply for technical matters. Professionals are now called in to manage people’s personal relationships and run their private affairs.

Over recent decades, basic relationships between people seem to have grown more complicated. An expectation of failure and instability clouds the institution of marriage, and even of living together. It is now typical for people to approach private relationships with a heightened sense of emotional risk. This is probably the greatest problem with therapy culture: the way it has intensified our insecurities about finding love and experiencing fulfilling and passionate relationships.

Therapy culture transmits strong signals about how we should view ourselves and our attachments to others. We are continually instructed to pay attention to our own needs first so that we will be able to fulfil ourselves. Even happiness is seen as a problem if it is achieved through dependence on others. Indeed, any feelings that distract individuals from the goal of self-fulfilment are often defined as negative emotions. That is why numerous self-help books look upon love, especially of the intense and passionate variety, as a problem. Although love is portrayed as the supreme source of self-fulfilment, we are cautioned that it is potentially harmful because it threatens to subordinate our carefully cultivated sense of self. Anne Wilson Schaef in her best seller, Escape From Intimacy, uses labels such as “sexual addiction”, “romance addiction”, “relationship addiction” to characterize passionate feelings towards others. Numerous advice books have been written to warn us against allowing our emotions to overtake our lives: Women Who Love Too Much, When Parents Love Too Much or For People Who Love Their Cat Too Much.

“Too much love” is said to cause the psychological maladies associated with “co-dependency”. It is claimed that parents who love too much produce dysfunctional children who are over-reliant on the approval of others. It is also alleged that women and men who crave intimacy are not in touch with their own needs and often suffer from sex addiction. These stern warnings directed against the human desire for intimacy reveal one of the most unattractive features of therapy culture: its intense aversion to relationships built upon mutual dependence.

Initially, the concept of a person as a “codependent” came from the study of alcoholics, where it was observed that family members create psychological conditions, often unconsciously, that enable an alcoholic to continue drinking. But today, codependence has become a diagnosis that can be applied to virtually any relationship.

The stigmatisation of intimate feelings is connected to an emotional script that regards all feelings not directed at fulfilling personal needs with mistrust. Consequently, individuals who are emotionally engaged in causes external to themselves—such as making spouses happy, caring for sick parents or working hard for a cause—are often viewed as dominated by negative emotions. It has even been suggested that people who have deep religious faith may be suffering from spiritual addiction.

Literally any manifestation of love, friendship and loyalty can be labelled a form of addictive behaviour. Acts formerly regarded as altruistic are now sometimes diagnosed as codependent—a case of “compulsive helping” where a person disregards their own needs and feelings to focus instead on helping another person. Putting others first, or at least not placing one’s individual needs before those of a relationship, could be another symptom of addiction. The desires of many of us for intense relationships are seen as a disease.

While our society still lauds responsibility and loyalty as public virtues, in practice these ideals are compromised by therapy culture’s insistence that we put our needs above all others. Indeed, these ideals are often characterised as symptoms of relationship addiction. The very idea that dependency of any kind in a relationship can be the root cause of emotional addiction represents a deeply pessimistic statement about the possibilities of private life. It is but a small step from there to the bigger conclusion that people cannot be expected to conduct personal relationships without professional support.

Therapy culture’s attempts to liberate us from dependency in our relationships can only have one outcome, which is to subordinate our lives to the dictates of the therapist. As our dependence on informal relationships diminishes, our subservience to professional ones grows. But this erosion of dependence on others does not enhance emotional independence. It merely leads to the replacement of one form of dependence by another. An army of therapists, mentors, facilitators, life-gurus and trainers stand ready to show us how to go about the business of life. Thankfully, informal relations of dependence still play an important role in our lives but they now must compete with the growing dependency on professional help.

What is the true impact of therapeutic culture? Is it really changing how we feel about our possibilities and how we lead our lives? You might be surprised. Love, long seen as the essential purpose of human life, is increasingly denounced as a risky delusion. People are advised not to trust the language of the heart. Numerous experts and self-help books advise people to not to get carried away by love. British author Wendy Langford argues in her book Revolutions of the Heart that romantic love damages women. Even the British government has thought about joining the ranks of those advising women to “cool it” when it comes to relationships. In August 1999, it was reported in the media that the government was considering warning women about the risk of opening joint bank accounts with their spouses, in case the marriage breaks down and leaves them vulnerable. “Be careful, you may get hurt” is a message that reflects the temper of our time. The anxieties that surround relationships have encouraged many adults to avoid, or at least, to postpone making a commitment to others.

Although most people still crave intimate relations and romantic attachments, the equation of these experiences with risk has taken its toll. It is now common for people to approach private relationships with a heightened sense of emotional wariness. Detachment from others appears to offer a measure of protection from pain. At the very least, men and women are advised to carefully manage the escalating levels of perceived risks as an intimate relationship evolves. Thus, “falling” in love is discouraged in favour of a safer process for initiating a relationship. A variety of tactics such as prenuptial agreements are used to manage the risks associated with the frightening experience of love and passion.

Probably the clearest manifestation of therapy culture’s coolness toward passion is the growing trend of couples living apart. According to Swedish sociologist Jan Trost, “living apart together” is a widely recognised phenomenon in Europe. Supporters of this lifestyle advocate it on the grounds that it allows couples to enjoy the benefits of a relationship while maintaining their independence. According to one account, “living apart together” does “not necessarily imply lack of commitment, but instead an acknowledgement of boundaries.”

Sober realism overwhelms the magic of passionate intimacy.People are increasingly advised not to expect romantic and emotional bonds to last for life. The advice is well meant but it has the predictable outcome of turning people off. Without passion and spontaneity, personal relationships will turn into the kind of pragmatic transactions that dominate the market place. No intelligent person would want to commit his or her life to such a banal and unrewarding affair.

There is, of course, nothing new in warning individuals about the unrealistic expectations of romantic attachments. Marriage based on romantic love is a comparatively recent idea, even in Western culture where it originated. What’s new and alarming about therapy culture’s diagnosis is that our desire for passionate love, the exhilaration of intimacy, as well as the painful disappointment of losing an intimate partner, have all been recast as symptoms of a disease. Yet, to many of us, that’s what life is all about. Instead of seeking a treatment for it, we should try living it.

The human desire for passionate love has not been extinguished in modern society. People continue to passionately seek it. The experience of falling in love is still looked upon as a special and wonderful experience. Most young people, thankfully, are not yet scared off from seeking it, no matter how elusive it can seem. But therapy culture has shifted our attitudes toward love, by heightening our fears and inflating our expectations of failure and disappointment. Even worse, it has reduced intimate relationships to a kind of emotional business deal with a permanent opt-out clause. And that is not what we need to sustain human culture

>Frank Furedi is Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent in the UK. His book Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Anxious Age is published by Routledge. He wrote this essay exclusively for Ode.

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