Life & Culture

The therapist who needed to talk

When Lori Gottlieb's heart was broken she didn't realise she needed therapy - even though she was a therapist herself


After a devastating break up, writer Lori Gottlieb leaned on friends, searching for answers. She revisited the relationship step-by-step, trying to understand why she’d suddenly veered off the road to lifelong bliss.

What she didn’t consider — at least, not immediately — was seeking professional advice. That’s rather more surprising when you learn that Gottlieb is herself a working therapist, helping patients facing emotional anguish every day.

“It never occurred to me to call a therapist until weeks later when a friend said you really should talk to someone,” she laughs when we speak over Skype, she from home in Los Angeles. Five years later, that sentence is the title of her new memoir, which follows four cases and delves into her experiences on the other side of the couch.

Already a bestseller in the US, the book reveals what the therapist really thinks of her patients; from the tragic — a young woman dying of cancer — to the absurd. The most memorable scenes deal with a Hollywood writer behind a popular series. Rude and combative, seeing Gottlieb in secret, he likens her to a mistress. But eventually, he opens up.

Gottlieb is tight-lipped on his identity; none of her subjects are current patients as she felt this posed an ethical conflict. She chose people with purportedly different “presenting problems” to show that while “we imagine people’s lives to be a certain way, underneath we all struggle with the same universal questions: how can I love and be loved, what do I do with my pain, how do I move forward?”

The book is profoundly personal and shows how therapy gave Gottlieb clarity over the break-up. She and “the Boyfriend” were headed for marriage when out of the blue he decided he didn’t want to be stuck in the Lego stage of parenting (Gottlieb’s son, born before the relationship, was eight; he has just been barmitzvah).

“He starts off as the villain and we soon see that there’s more to this story, and that I didn’t want to see certain things. He wasn’t the only person avoiding the fact we couldn’t be together,” she says. Revisiting it for the book gave her greater perspective, although she challenges the adage that time heals. “People come to therapy and they will talk about something that happened five years before and it’s still extremely fresh because they haven’t looked into it at all, they’re still living through that same rigid story that they told themselves,” she says. “If I was still telling myself that story of ‘he’s a sociopath’, I’d be in a lot more pain.”

Gottlieb, author of The Atlantic’s Dear Therapist column, has written several other advice books, including a relationship guide in 2010, titled Mr Good Enough: The case for choosing a Real Man over holding out for Mr Perfect. Nearly a decade on, she bristles about that book’s controversial reception. Based on the subtitle, critics assumed she was telling women to lower their standards, when her argument was to have higher standards but about the right things, like reliability and kindness. The furore made global headlines, with Gottlieb accused of being anti-women, or desperate.

“It had nothing to do with settling, and a lot of people once they saw that skipped over what the book was about,” she sighs, stressing she still gets letters from those who it has helped. “It was a horrible experience.” This time round, she demanded title approval.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is being developed for television by Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria. It’s far from Gottlieb’s first foray into the industry. In her 20s, she worked on ER and Friends, sitting in on Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox’s auditions. “I was on set with George Clooney before anyone knew how famous this series would make him,” she recalls in the book. Working on a hospital drama piqued an interest, leading Gottlieb to start studying medicine. Soon, however, she realised it wasn’t for her, switching into journalism and then qualifying as a therapist.

“It looks like I had these very discrete careers, but they all have to do with story and the human condition,” she reflects. “I went from telling fictional stories on TV to seeing real stories in medical school, to being able to delve into people’s lives as a journalist and then to help people change their stories as a therapist.”

That storytelling element may be why, she hypothesises, Jews are so often linked to therapy, on both sides of the couch.

“When you go back to the Talmud, I think we like to think about and question things. There’s a curiosity in our heritage,” she says. “As people who have been displaced so many times we tend to wonder about identity. What do those things that happened to our ancestors mean and how does that get passed down through generations?

Having grown up in an involved Jewish family, she and her son belong to Temple Isaiah, a Reform community, where she runs a group called Writers of Isaiah. She is proud of the community for not being “cloistered” and engaging with other religious groups. And as a single parent (her son was conceived by sperm donor, something Mr Good Enough’s critics made hay with) she values both the spiritual side and the “the gift of being part of a community you want to be part of”.

With her son entering his teens, and in the face of antisemitism and the synagogue shootings in the US, Gottlieb is focused on helping him to understand his heritage “and what it means to have those freedoms and the gift of practicing what you want to practice”. She especially values “the touchstones” of the Jewish holidays. “Those rituals and traditions are important to have, and then bring into your own family as an adult.”

Religion, she thinks, can sometimes play a similar role to therapy. “Having community is a real buffer against depression, anxiety, those kind of things,” she says. “People who aren’t part of a community, it doesn’t have to be Jewish, they don’t have people to lean on. In a community you realise other people struggle, other people care. They’re not your therapist, but they’re another buffer.” That said, religion can also be a cause of distress “if it says you have to be someone you’re not”. Having spent a month on book tour she is back seeing her regular roster of patients.

‘Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: life from both sides of the couch’ is published by Scribe UK

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