Editor’s Note: Every Wednesday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My same-sex partner and I have been seeing the same therapist both individually and as a couple. Over the past year, we both feel that she has fundamentally changed our lives.

While seeing her nearly weekly, we’ve both grown pretty attached to her—she’s funny, kind, and around our age—and we have often joked, outside of therapy, about how we wish she could be our friend rather than our therapist.

One day, regrettably, we were feeling a bit nosy and decided to see if we could find our therapist on Facebook. We ended up falling down a rabbit hole and discovered something concerning; our therapist’s father is a prominent public figure in our state who has taken many hardline stances against the LGBTQ community. We were shocked by this.

I was born in a conservative small town and raised in a conservative family, so I realize that people are capable of thinking independently from their parents, but her father has photos with her on his main website—the same one on which he decries the evils of gay marriage.

At this point, we don’t know what to do. Is it appropriate to confront our therapist about her father’s beliefs? Is it okay to ask if she too thinks homosexuality is a sin and a mental illness? Do we ignore this and move on, hoping she would not provide therapy to LGBTQ individuals if she did? Or do we find a new therapist?

Rachel
Des Moines, Iowa


Dear Rachel,

As I read your letter, I pictured you and your partner, casually typing your beloved therapist’s name into Facebook, getting carried away by curiosity, clicking on link after link like rats pushing a lever for pellets, and then—BOOM!—your jaws dropping as you stare at a photo of her smiling with her homophobic father. I pictured it all too well because several years ago, I, too, Googled my therapist.

In my case, I didn’t discover anything upsetting, but I did find information about my therapist’s family that, while unremarkable in any other context, left me wishing I could un-know it. As innocuous as it seemed, my newfound knowledge haunted me and clouded our sessions. I worried, for instance, that talking about my close relationship with my aging father would make my therapist feel bad because, according to Google, his father had died suddenly at a young age. It wasn’t that I stopped talking about my father in therapy, but I began editing myself, careful not to rub it in with an especially moving anecdote. As a therapist, I know that patients Google me, too, not because they necessarily tell me, but because eventually—inevitably—they slip up. (An offhand: “Well, you know what it’s like to deal with a fifth grader”—despite my never having mentioned my son or his age.)

Most of us wonder who our therapists are outside of the therapy room, usually because we like them so much. Sometimes, of course, people Google their therapists if something feels off—to see if their credentials check out, or if other patients have posted similar concerns. More often, though, our curiosity is a reflection of how important our therapist has become to us, and in some cases, it’s a way to feel connected to the therapist between sessions. The problem is, of course, that we want therapy to be a space where we feel free to talk about absolutely anything. And no matter what we discover—a bombshell like yours, or something more mundane—the fallout of a Google binge becomes a secret that takes that freedom away.

Carl Jung called secrets “psychic poison” for good reason. When I finally confessed my Google-stalking to my therapist, all the air returned to the room. My verbal shackles were removed, and we talked about what was behind my desire to type his name into my search engine. But more important, the way I handled the situation before fessing up taught me something interesting about how I handle discomfort—something far more interesting than anything I learned about my therapist online.

And I think the same might prove true for you.

What people do in therapy is pretty much what they do in their outside lives. In other words, if a patient tends to feel dissatisfied with people in her life, it’s likely that she’ll eventually feel dissatisfied with me. If she tries to please people, she’ll probably try to please me too. And if she avoids people when she feels hurt by them, I’ll be on the lookout for signs that I’ve said something that may have hurt her, too (she cancels her next session, or clams up, or comes late).

So I lingered over that last part of your letter. That despite how much you like your therapist, one solution you present is to flee—to find a new therapist, presumably without ever discussing with her why you were leaving. Another is to “ignore this and move on”—continuing the therapy and avoiding your internal conflict. I wonder if these strategies for dealing with uncomfortable situations feel familiar. If someone hurts you, disappoints you, betrays you—do you tend to keep it to yourself, or run away?

Therapy is about relationships—including that with the therapist—and one of the rare aspects of this setting is that things that normally might be shoved under the rug get swept into the light. Anything that comes up between you and your therapist—and things will come up—becomes not a catastrophe but simply grist for the mill. Your therapist wants to hear about what you found and your reactions to it—confusion, disgust, fear, sadness, anger. She welcomes this conversation—no matter how awkward it might be, even for her—because therapy can’t be effective with this secret whirring in the background.

That doesn’t mean she’ll answer every question. I doubt that she believes homosexuality is a sin, or she wouldn’t have accepted you into her practice. But given her upbringing, her views might be complicated. She may be all for same-sex marriage, but would she wrestle with her feelings if her own child were gay? Maybe she wouldn’t give it a second thought—but maybe she would. And here’s the thing: Either way, it doesn’t matter. A therapist’s and patient’s world views don’t have to be perfectly aligned. She may have mixed feelings about her father and what he stands for, just as you might about your own conservative parents—but that’s for her therapy, not yours. What’s relevant here is how she feels about you and your partner, and how much she genuinely wants to help you—and has.

It’s a profound experience to have a rigorously honest conversation with somebody you care deeply about and still know in your bones that no matter how difficult the topic, this person won’t leave you stranded—emotionally or otherwise. Whatever the outcome of your confession, the process of talking it through with her will teach you something about how you tolerate differences, how you trust, how you deal with vulnerability, and what patterns surface when you feel strongly attached to someone—all issues that you and your partner will have to navigate together, too, and may already be doing in your couples sessions.

Later on, when you’re no longer seeing this therapist, you’ll likely remember this confession and its aftermath as a turning point in your understanding of how you relate to yourself and others. It’s wonderful that you’ve found a therapist who you believe has changed your life. Fessing up will give you the opportunity to change it even more.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.