Be His Girlfriend, Not His Therapist

Listen up, ladies: There’s a fine line between helping your guy with his problems and replacing his therapist. If you’ve got a pattern of dating men who need to be “fixed,” we’ll help you break the cycle.

By Lynn Harris

ris D., now 40, of Denver, CO, was a film assistant, not a social worker. Well, except in her relationships. “I played ‘therapist’ to so many boyfriends and would-be boyfriends,” she sighs, recalling one fateful Halloween that served as just one example: “I was dressed as a cop, and a friend of a friend literally handcuffed himself to me, which led to a smooch-fest — only to have him tell me he had a girlfriend, didn’t know what he was doing, etc. I brought the smooching to a halt,
Kissing Counselors may be a bit more common today than they were a few decades ago.
scolded him — and then proceeded to give him guidance on his relationship,” she says. “I counseled so many fledgling-bird boyfriends — on their past relationships, their job searches, and so on — that my friends literally called me The Kissing Counselor.”

What is a “Kissing Counselor,” exactly?
We hear a lot about men who feel doomed to remain the friend-but-not-boyfriend; he’s the Nice Guy, the “backup boyfriend” — the guy a woman comes to rely on for everything but an actual romantic relationship. Well, not-boyfriends, meet the “Kissing Counselors” — women who wind up being more of a life coach than a lover to the men they are dating (or whom they’d like to date). You folks have a lot in common. “I see this quite a bit with women,” says New York-based relationship counselor Sherry Amatenstein, MSW, coauthor of The Complete Marriage Counselor: Relationship-saving Advice from America’s Top 50+ Couples Therapists and author of Love Lessons from Bad Breakups and The Q&A Dating Book. “They feel that the way to someone’s heart is to help them and be there for them.” That’s nice as a worldview, she says, but as a dating strategy, it doesn’t get you the balanced, mature, mutually fulfilling relationship you deserve.

And here’s a romantic history note: Kissing Counselors may be a bit more common today than they were a few decades ago. Why? Because it’s become so much more acceptable in our society for women to date younger men than it was before. (In fact, U.S. Census data shows an increase in the number of Mariah Carey/Nick Cannon-style marriages from 1960 through 2007, though those numbers still remain a small fraction of marriages overall.) While age does not necessarily equal maturity — for men or for women — dating a younger man could make it more likely that you’ll be the one helping him tweak his resume or helping him with issues that, 10 years later, he’d have worked through long ago on his own.

In much the same way, as women get older, they may also be more likely to date men their age who are not 100 percent over their divorces — like Yvonne, 39, of San Francisco, CA. “I recently met a guy who was in the middle of an ugly divorce. He was cute and funny and talked a good game about personal growth. But he had huge amounts of rage at his ex and tons of self-loathing for not being able to keep his marriage together, which his actual therapist didn’t seem to be making a dent in. He spent way more time than I should have tolerated whining about how betrayed he felt, and he needed constant reassurance that I found him attractive. Good times!”

Why it’s so appealing
But for some women, the “therapist” role does hold some real, even compelling, appeal: “I used to always want to be the ‘fixer.’ It comes from somewhere nice — I like helping people,” says Jennifer K., 35, of Los
Go on five dates with men who seem as together as you are.
Angeles, CA. “But after picking guy after guy who needed so much advice, support and guidance with his life choices, I came to realize that men who wanted or needed to be ‘fixed’ made me feel more powerful and put-together by comparison. I remember sitting in a bar hearing myself give a boyfriend advice and encouragement on starting a restaurant and suddenly thinking, ‘I have become a career counselor. I should be getting paid. NO MORE.’ In a relationship, I need mutual support, give and take. If I want to ‘help people,’ I can do volunteer work.”

There’s definitely power in being “the helper,” says Amatenstein. Part of it is the way women are socialized: to take care of others first, and to put themselves last. And part of it is the satisfying experience of feeling needed. But taking the spotlight off of you is also a handy way to hide your vulnerabilities and insecurities, Amatenstein points out. “People like to listen to and go out of their way for others because it takes away from having to talk about themselves and risk focusing on things they feel they’re not good at.”

How to do more kissing and less counseling
1. Just say no. Amatenstein recalls a woman who was dating someone that was somewhat recently separated who leaned on her a lot as he “processed” his emotions. “She was finally like, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m not your shrink,’” Amatenstein says. “If you want to go out with me, that’s great, but treat me like a date.”

2. Skip the fixer-uppers. Here’s a challenge: Go on five dates with men who seem as together as you are. At first you might feel vulnerable, since you don’t have your Freud-like role to fall back on. But you will also start to get glimpses of how great it’d feel to be with someone whose perspective you’d respect and seek out, too.

3. Start talking — about yourself. Amatenstein suggests, “Ask yourself: Am I doing this in other areas of my life? When was the last time I sat down and really unloaded the stuff that is going on for me?” Find someone you trust, start talking, and see how it feels. You’ll probably find that you actually like pairing a little take with your give — and you’ll start opening yourself up to men who really do want to give back.

For the other side of this story, read Stop Being Her Backup Boyfriend!.

Lynn Harris ( is co-creator, with Chris Kalb (, of the award-winning website A longtime journalist, Lynn has written about dating, gender, and culture high and low for Glamour, Marie Claire, The New York Times,,, and many others. She is currently the communications strategist for Breakthrough, a transnational organization that creates pop culture to promote human rights. Submit your dating questions for Ask Lynn via
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