If you’ve been on social media in the past year, you’re well aware of The Balloon Guy, aka artist Michael Schneider. With a bio like “a smile is like a hug with your mouth,” and countless colorful photos of balloons spelling out sometimes mean, sometimes faux-inspirational phrases, it’s understandable why his balloon banalities have inspired shitposts, songs and rage. But nothing has ignited more vitriol than his post that read, “Fuck nudes, send me a dated invoice from your therapist so I know you’re working on yourself.”
Like many of Schneider’s posts, this wasn’t his original quote. As you can see in tiny, infuriating balloon letters, the statement itself comes from Stephen Szczerba, a comedian and internet personality known for a particular brand of earnestness that also provokes a strong sense of cringe — perhaps for touching a nerve, perhaps for putting the words “nudes” and “therapist” in the same sentence. Regardless, there’s something about Schneider and Szcezerba stipulating therapy as a condition for romantic connection that makes it hard to imagine why anyone would send them nudes.
And as it turns out, neither of these guys were very original in their thinking. The meme reminds marriage and family therapist Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill of a psychiatrist friend “who would not marry the woman he loved until she went through psychoanalysis.” But as conversations about therapy and mental health have become increasingly destigmatized, the traditional idea of premarital counseling has been inverted and sometimes even pushed up to before the first date. And although the sentiment that most people’s relationships would benefit from therapy may be well intended, therapists like O’Neill think the meme is an overcorrection. “I would certainly say that I don’t think having been to therapy should be a requirement for dating,” O’Neill says.
That, however, hasn’t stopped singles like TJ Sopoci, co-host of the podcast Menage-a-Pod, from integrating the “therapy conversation” into his screening process for dates. Sopoci, who started going to therapy off and on after getting divorced in 2017, only began bringing it up recently on dating apps, after his most recent ex said something that stuck with him: “For me to be bought in on you and bought in on us, you have to be bought in on yourself.”
For Sopoci, a big part of that means going to therapy, eating right, getting enough sleep and having some sort of holistic wellness routine in place. Given his divorce, it makes sense that Sopoci would want to get this out of the way sooner rather than later, but that doesn’t mean he’s asking for invoices in lieu of nudes. Instead, Sopoci uses a bit more subtlety. In his dating app profiles, he includes a picture of himself holding a mug that’s inscribed with “Might I suggest therapy?”
“It gets the best responses,” Sopoci tells me. Most of those responses have been positive conversation-starters, but it also weeds out those who are defensive or weird about therapy before he takes them out. Since adding the picture, Sopoci’s dating life has improved, but he can’t take credit for it. The mug was actually a gift from fellow podcaster Amelia Samson, who sells a variety of merch like this on her site. The point is, bringing up therapy doesn’t have to feel like an intrusive interrogation or require you to share your personal trauma out of the gate. After all, you wouldn’t make a big deal about telling someone you exercise. “It’s just a normal piece of your life,” Sopoci says.
Still, therapists themselves maintain that therapy as a blanket dating requirement may not be nearly as important as traits like emotional intelligence, maturity and a general “willingness to see and work on their own issues,” therapist Kimberly Panganiban explains. Similarly, what single people should look for in potential relationships depends on a number of variables — e.g., temperament, upbringing and life experience. As much as therapy can be a part of that equation, “it doesn’t guarantee it,” Panganiban says.
Not to mention, in some cases, the promise of going to therapy in order to have or maintain a relationship can be a form of manipulation. “This may be hard to see initially,” Panganiban warns, because “they may have the right language and say all the right things, but pay attention to their behavior,” she recommends. “It will give you more information about their commitment to being healthy individuals and partners.”
For those who want to engage someone early on in the dating process who may be therapy-hesitant, framing it as an ongoing conversation about “shared values” allows for some wiggle room. It also makes the prospect of going to therapy as a couple one day feel like less of a hail-mary attempt to save a relationship, and more of a preventative check-in akin to a physical. “If these conversations as a couple begin when things are good, the couple will hopefully be more willing to go to therapy if need be at a future point in their relationship,” says therapist Heidi McBain.
In the end, talking about therapy early on has made Sopoci’s dates better — he’s heard from partners that he has other positive attributes, but a willingness to go to therapy is the “cherry on top” — but he suspects that overall, the Balloon Guy meme does more harm than good. “Messages like this can be self-defeating in that they’re trying to destigmatize therapy, but in some ways, they oddly and counterproductively re-stigmatize it,” he says.
So yeah, therapy is great to have, but if you have to stipulate in balloon art, you’re probably full of hot air.