Both the Atlantic’s critique of polyamory and my defense of it shared the same villain - “therapy culture”, the idea that you should prioritize “finding your true self” and make drastic changes if your current role doesn’t seem “authentically you”.

A friend recently suggested a defense of this framework, which surprised me enough that I now relay it to you.

(I don’t think any of this is too related to specific therapies for specific mental health problems, like exposure therapy for panic disorder - but real-world therapy is at least as likely to be the generic “therapy culture” type as the specific types, so I think it’s fair to use the phrase “therapy culture” to describe this. None of this applies to the more specific and targeted stuff.)

Consider alexithymia. This is the psych term for people who aren’t in touch with their emotions. They have the emotions, they just aren’t in touch with them. An alexithymic may, without conscious deception, say “I’m not angry!” even while yelling at you and slamming doors. Or they might say “I feel fine” while withdrawing from the world and being obviously depressed.

Less discussed - so much so I don’t know if there’s a Greek word for it - is something like alexithymia of preferences. Here I think back to a friend’s claim that until they were a teenager, they didn’t know they had food preferences. If someone asked them their favorite food, they would name a food which that was popular, or healthy, or the sort of thing their demographic should like:

You know how sometimes you pretend to like something because it’s high-status, and if you do it well enough you actually believe you like the thing? Unless I pay a lot of attention, all my preferences end up being not “what I actually enjoy” but like “what is high status” or “what will keep people from getting angry at me”.

They didn’t realize they were doing this - or they didn’t realize that other people were doing something different, or at least there was something they weren’t realizing. Probably not coincidentally, that friend was very thin and frequently skipped meals. At some point during teenagerhood, they realized they could like some foods more than other foods, and started eating a healthier amount.

Imagine someone with generalized preference alexithymia. Presumably they don’t really get that one person can be a better partner for them than another, so they marry the quarterback or the cheerleader or whoever else it’s high status to marry. But then they never spend much time with their spouse, and their marriage feels kind of dead. They go to therapy. Their therapist helps them get the same kind of insight my friend got as a teenager - “Oh! Wait! I have preferences!” Then they realize their spouse is the kind of person who they don’t prefer, and being married to them is like having to eat your least favorite food forever. Maybe they’ve learned something big and obvious about themselves, like that they’re gay. But maybe they’re straight and they’ve just learned the normal sorts of hard-to-quantify preferences that come up during love.

I think I previously made fun of therapy culture because the people who go through it always sound so smug about it - “I’ve advanced beyond the rest of you squares and discovered my True Self; you probably can’t imagine a spiritual journey like mine”. But nobody necessarily knows where they are relative to anyone else on the spectrum of more vs. less advanced psychological development. Maybe “finding your true self” just means “being able to access your preferences, the same way non-alexithymics do as a matter of course”.

This doesn’t fully exculpate therapy culture, because preferences aren’t always sitting there in the back of the brain, waiting to be discovered. It’s easy to convince people they have preferences they don’t, especially if you’re an authority figure like a therapist. Maybe many of the people who go to therapy to find their True Self are non-alexithymics who are already in touch with as True a Self as they’re going to get, and the therapy tricks them into thinking there’s an even Truer Self lurking somewhere that they’ve got to find. But that’s the same kind of complaint as “sometimes people without ADHD take Adderall”, not “Adderall is a scam”.

Weirdly, the original complaint a lot of people happened with the polyamory memoir that started this discussion (disclaimer: I haven’t read the memoir, I’m just repeating other people’s opinions) was that the writer clearly didn’t enjoy being poly, but didn’t seem to realize this. Maybe she needed more therapy, not less! Or, at least, better therapy.