In 2020, I am vowing to only date men committed to prioritizing their emotional and mental health. If he doesn’t go to therapy, I’m not interested.
In my last serious relationship, I had both the benefit of exploring my toxic behavior patterns and the burden of being with a partner who refused to do the same. Our relationship started to shift when, during the height of an argument, I grew frustrated when my attempts at “helping” him solve a problem were being ignored. He followed up, like he often did, by screaming at the top of his lungs. Then he said something that snatched the movement from my body: “I’m not your project or something you can control.”
This was my second relationship where what I called “the lack of appreciation for my help” my partner called “controlling.” I realized I was the common denominator here.
What started as an exploration of trying to understand my own harmful behaviors ended in a commitment to therapy. There, I learned to call my attraction to “broken” men something more than a lack of gratitude or control; the illusion of “fixing” them allowed me to ignore all the areas where I was fractured. It allowed me to overlook the ways childhood traumas shaped my current relationship choices. It was classic avoidance.
For months, I remained both in the relationship and in therapy to do the deeper work on myself. I directed my gaze away from scrutinizing his behavior and toward addressing the root of my own. I practiced mindfulness to reduce anxiety, used journaling to record and disrupt unhealthy patterns, and rotated coping mechanisms until I found one that fit. I was slowly forming healthy new habits. The need to control others was replaced by a desire for self-improvement.
Meanwhile, he refused to go to therapy or even examine his own harmful patterns. He saw therapy as a “useless waste of time” that had nothing to do with “real life.” Besides, “nobody” in his family believed in “that stuff” and they all turned out “fine.”
My former partner was not an anomaly. According to the American Psychological Association, research shows “men of all ages and ethnicities are less likely than women to seek help for all sorts of problems — including depression and substance abuse.” Which is particularly alarming considering the data that suggests “men make up over 75 percent of suicide victims in the United States.
O’Brien Wimbish, a clinically trained therapist who specializes in intimacy and infidelity recovery, told Vox, “A lot of men are still operating under an unhealthy belief that addressing their feelings isn’t masculine. They think talking about their emotions — or even identifying an emotion other than rage — can make them what they consider soft. So they shut down, or sometimes become more aggressive, in their interpersonal relationships.”
Wimbish, who has never treated me or my former partner, offered a perspective that was consistent with my experience. During the course of our relationship, my former partner’s propensity for screaming escalated to name-calling, and conflicts reached an all-time high. Or perhaps my tolerance for toxic relationships hit at an all-time low. But eventually, his version of love was no longer enough. I wanted reciprocity.
I ended that relationship aware that constant self-work is a prerequisite for an emotionally healthier life and, if both parties are committed to it, the possibility of a healthy relationship.
To be clear, therapy is not a magic pill. “Committing to therapy does not mean your relationship will be immune to trials,” Wimbish said, “but it certainly helps if both parties are fully invested in doing the work for their individual growth.”
Therapy is also not cheap. Mental health providers in many cities can charge $75-$150 for a 45-minute session. Rates in New York City can be upward of $200 per hour. Therapists like Wimbish mitigate this by offering a sliding scale for payments. Sometimes, when the cost is still too high for me, I scale back and reserve sessions for particularly stressful seasons. And if a sliding payment scale is still a financial burden, research suggests regular practices of things like mindful meditation and creating a positive social support system can be forms of self-work. Wimbish added, “establishing an accountability system centered around a self-improvement goal can increase success and sustainability.”
There’s also the fact that therapy doesn’t work if you don’t apply it once the session is over. As Wimbish said, “You will not get the full benefits of therapy sessions without doing the homework assigned. It requires a personal commitment outside of my office.” If therapy has taught me anything, it’s taught me that the real work starts when you go home and use a new coping skill in response to stress or anxiety, instead of engaging in a familiar unhealthy habit.
These days, I have refined my approach to dating. Now, during that early stage when a man mentions how long he’s been single, instead of inquiring about the details of the breakup, I ask how he managed the healing process. I recently met a guy who wasn’t alarmed by the question. Without pause, he identified a couple of healthy coping strategies provided by his therapist. This on its own does not mean he will be the best partner for me. Rather, it suggests that he recognizes self-work as an individual process, one that he isn’t socialized to be ashamed of. Which is a healthy start.
Shanita Hubbard is a former therapist, current adjunct sociology professor, and the author of the upcoming book Miseducating: A Woman’s Guide to Hip-Hop.