Is Your Friend or Partner Trying to Be Your Therapist?

Help! My partner is majoring in psychology.

“How do psychology degrees impact personal relationships?” my student recently asked.

I’ve asked everyone I know with a psychology degree (or two or three) and here’s the consensus: They don’t.

But there is a reason my student, in a psychology class, asked that. It’s a reasonable question.

My answer is, “It depends.” It depends on how the person uses the degree (or degrees).

The most obvious influence would be on one’s career. If a person is “doing psychology” as a career, then of course that might influence their personal relationships. My hope is that it would enhance those relationships. Emotional intelligence, understanding human behavior, communication skills, and about eight thousand other benefits of an education, and practice, in psychology are gifts to relationships. After all, psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behavior.

My fear is that a psychology degree could be “misused” and hurt personal relationships. Maybe a better term is “misapplied.” The first thing every psychology professor tells introductory students is not to diagnose yourself or others. You’re not qualified! Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.

My student asked this question because, as students often discover, the world changes when you learn psychology. You might not understand everything other people do and think, but you certainly have more possible explanations than you used to. I love watching students light up, having sudden insight into themselves and others. Their enthusiasm and curiosity is one of the main benefits of being in the classroom year after year.

Yet with the excitement and enthusiasm comes risk. Of course your relationships could suffer when your partner points out that you might have a diagnosable mental health condition. Obviously no friend would want to learn they’ve been violating someone’s boundaries. Most parents aren’t thrilled to hear from an adult child that their parenting wasn’t stellar. And so on and so on…

But maybe this isn’t all a bad thing? It could be that “knowing psychology,” at any level, allows people to eliminate harmful or unhelpful relationships from their lives, advocating for themselves and their own needs and well-being.

And if someone brings psychology into a relationship, the potential for positive impact is enormous. Most of my students haven’t been exposed to the concept of ethical communication, for example. There’s no doubt that will make its way into their relationships, from personal relationships to work relationships and beyond. I hope it will be used as a tool to enhance them. Similar concepts, like empathy and emotional intelligence, elicit strong student reactions, and enthusiasm, as well.

And when it comes to class material impacting relationships, in my experience nothing, I mean nothing, evokes so many, “I talked to my partner about that last night!” comments as sexuality and gender. Explorations of issues like hypermasculinity, especially, result in endless, “I talked to my boyfriend about it last night and it was such a good conversation!” responses every semester.

When I teach about relationships, we first start by defining them. Especially when it comes to close relationships, it never fails that students are shocked to discover just how many relationships they are in. So from a fundamental level, psychology brings us a deeper awareness so that we can relate to the world and those around us with intent. After all, you have to know you’re in a relationship to have a good one.

So, despite my colleagues’ assertions that psychology degrees don’t impact personal relationships, I think they’ll agree that learning psychological material does. But have no fear, if your friend or partner tries to be your therapist, they’re doing it wrong. That’s not consistent with a psychological education.

My colleagues said that psychology degrees don’t impact personal relationships because they’ve been trained how to use them correctly. Any ethical clinician (in psychology and related fields) does their best to keep work at work. Of course they respond appropriately as mandated reporters of issues like abuse and suicidality, but it’s a conflict of interest to treat someone you know, so no good clinician would conduct clinical care in their personal relationships.

I’m glad students are using psychology in the real world, including their relationships. In fact, one student recently exclaimed, “All parents should learn psychology!” I agree, if only that were an accessible option. Psychological information, knowledge about the human mind and behavior, has endless potential to promote healthy relationships – all types of relationships. Sure, there’s always the chance that someone will misuse or misapply psychology in their relationships, but those people are doing it wrong.