Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge.. Today my guest is Terry Real. Terry is an internationally recognized family therapist, speaker, and author. He founded the Relational Life Institute, offering workshops for couples, individuals, and parents across the country. He is the bestselling author of several books, including I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression and The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Know to Make Love Work.
With Sounds True, Terry Real will be participating in our new Psychotherapy 2.0 online training summit, which takes place September 7 through the 13. Each of the seven days of Psychotherapy 2.0 include two free 90-minute broadcasts with leading psychotherapist trainers including Bessel van der Kolk, Steven Hayes, Ellyn Bader, Diana Fosha, and Jack Kornfield. The entire series is hosted by a lead trainer in the world of trauma and attachment therapy, Diane Poole Heller. For more information about Psychotherapy 2.0, Sounds True’s new online training summit, please visit us at SoundsTrue.com.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Terry and I talked about relational recovery and the most important skills we need to develop what he calls “a full-throttle relationship.” We talked about the challenges in relationship when one person takes a position that is either one up—what Terry calls “grandiose”—or one down, when we feel ashamed, [as well as] how men and women can meet in a different way on equal footing. We also talked about Terry’s approach to couples therapy, and his view of why most conventional approaches to couples therapy are ineffective, and what the distinguishing features are of the Relational Life Therapy approach. Here’s my conversation with Terry Real:
Terry, I’m so excited that you’re going to be part of Sounds True’s upcoming Psychotherapy 2.0, an online training summit that is really looking at the leading edge of psychotherapy and what can be learned by therapists today that’s perhaps different than the way therapists were trained five, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. What I’m curious to know right here at the outset is: when it comes to couples’ work, what do you think is new in your experience, in your work in the field of psychotherapy? What do we know now that maybe we didn’t know five, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago?
Terry Real: Oh, that’s great, Tami. First of all, thank you for having me on the show. I’m very honored to be here and pleased to talk about my work. Let me tell you some of the things where I break from what I learned.
About 15, 20 years ago, I started doing what I called “relational interventions” for couples on the brink of divorce who hadn’t been helped by any other therapy. That’s the bulk of my clinical practice now; people fly in from around the country and we spend two days together. At the end of two solid days together, we decide if you’re either back on track or you’re getting a divorce. This is the absolute last stop. I got pretty good results; I’m not saying I healed everybody, but I did manage to pull the vast majority of couples off the ledge.
What I realized is that I was breaking most of the rules that I had learned in couples therapy about how to be a couples therapist. So, here are a few things I do differently: One is I’m in it with you; I judiciously self-disclose—and when I say “I,” I mean me and all of the students that I’ve trained over the years in this method that we call “Relational Life Therapy” or RLT. All of our RLT therapists self-disclose; we’re more like 12 Step sponsors than that blank screen. We talk from the authority of our own relational recovery over the years. So, I’ll talk about a fight I might have had with my wife, or I’ll talk about issues with my kids.
See, we lose a great therapeutic tool by being neutral—by hiding behind this professional mask. I can look at somebody and say, “Hey, you know Tom, if you come from a dysfunctional culture, so do I. If you came from a dysfunctional family, so did I. And the skills that I use every day are the same skills that I’m downloading to you. And you know what? I used to be like you—I used to be depressed, or self-medicating, or angry like you, and I’m not anymore, and this is better. What I want to tell you is: if I can do it, you can do it. So let’s get started.” One of the first real differences is we’re emphatically in it with you—we’re neither above you like an expert, nor are we following you like a facilitator. That’s one big difference.
TS: Very good. I think I get that, and that’s helpful. Wonderful.
TR: Yes. One of the things I say, Tami, is I can’t teach somebody how to be relational without being relational with them. So, we’re persons—we’re humans—to our clients.
TS: I think—just to say one comment, I think that’s so helpful too. It gets rid of the cartoon therapist, who’s parroting back what you say—this blank screen that’s just ping-ponging back at you. I think that’s one of the kind of cartoon versions of therapists that’s so frustrating to clients.
TR: It’s really frustrating. Which brings me to my second thing, which is we teach. I teach. I differ from some other—even current—particularly trauma people, who think once you remove the childhood traumas and the obstacles that people will intrinsically know how to be intimate. I believe that we’ve live in a patriarchal, narcissistic, addictive culture that has a lot of anti-relational bias in it. Within that culture, we just don’t give our sons and daughters the skills that they need to have the kind of wonderful relationship we all want these days.
So, I will tell people what to do—that’s the other part of not being neutral. Somebody will say to me, “I can’t believe you did that! That really pissed me off. Blah blah blah,” and I will say, “Can I tell you what you just meant to say?” ‘OK, sure.” “What you just meant to say is when you go behind your wall like that, I really miss you, and I feel kind of helpless about how to re-engage. Isn’t that what you meant to say?” “Yes, that is what I meant to say.” So, I’m not shy about educating people.
We focus on three things: accountability, vulnerability, and empathy. I think part of what’s revolutionary in the work I do is I believe you can teach people. You don’t have to get into psychoanalysis for 15 years. We can teach people how to improve their character by helping them be more connected to themselves and the people around them. So, we’re teachers. We’re coaches.
I think the third thing is that we take sides. When I first learned couples therapy, the cardinal rule was, “Thou shalt not take sides.” In particular, you would never side with the woman against the man. If you lost your “neutrality,” you had to go to your supervisor and talk about your mother for a while. Then you’d regain your neutrality and come back. We don’t believe that all problems are 50/50. You can have, let’s say, a woman married to a guy who is an untreated, alcoholic, bipolar rager, and I’m going to tell you the problem is 99/1. Her responsibility in this is that she’s there. So, we take sides and we call it like we see it: “Mrs. Jones, you’re a nut, and Mr. Jones, you’re an even bigger nut, and here’s why.”
The last thing I want to say that’s really different from what I learned and important is that for 50-plus years, the fields of psychotherapy and self-help and the human growth potential movement have all focused on coming up from the one-down position of shame. That’s beautiful work, that’s blessed work. But, I also believe that in order to lead men and women into intimacy, you also have to know how to come down from the one-up of grandiosity, superiority, entitlement, looking down your nose at somebody. We’ve done a terrible job of helping people do that.
I think that’s one of my contributions—really working with issues of grandiosity and helping people come down. That’s particularly useful, I believe, with men, because I think—this is a broad generalization, but I think that generally speaking, men in our culture tend to lead in the one-up grandiose position, and have covert issues of shame. Whereas women tend to lead from the one-down shame position, and have covert issues of grandiosity. We could talk about women’s grandiosity if you want, but men’s grandiosity literally hits you over the head.
I think that I need to arm the grandiose client, man or woman, on how to recognize what’s going on, how to lean into what’s going on, and how to come down off of their high horse and really enter into connection and relationship.
TS: Now Terry, I want to unpack this a little bit, because this last point, especially, is not something I’ve heard before. So, I really want to understand it.
So ,someone’s listening and they’re like, “Do I have a grandiosity problem? Does my partner have a grandiosity problem? How would I know? How would I identify this in a relationship, either in myself or in my partner?”
TR: Well, normally when we talk about self-esteem issues, we talk about shame. We talk about somebody in the one-down, inferior position. After 50 years, we’re pretty acquainted with what that [looks like]: feeling defective, feeling unlovable, feeling like there’s something wrong with you, feeling less than [and] not as good as. The grandiose position is the other side of that coin. It’s feeling superior, feeling entitled, feeling above the rules, feeling contemptuous of the people around you or of one person around you, feeling better than. It really is just the flip side of the inferiority of shame.
TS: OK. A couple comes to you and you’re identifying, “Aha, we have a shame or a grandiosity issue at play here.” How do you see that, and how do you point it out?
TR: Well, to understand how to work with grandiosity, I think it helps to fade back a bit and just say a few words about the difference between grandiosity and shame because it will determine how you work with it. The guilty secret about grandiosity is that it doesn’t feel bad. Shame feels bad; you’re in pain, you want to get out of it. Grandiosity actually feels pretty good in the moment. It feels good to feel superior. It feels good to haul off and tell your boss to shove it. It feels good to make out with your secretary at the water cooler. All these are acts of superiority and grandiosity—being above the rules. It may feel good in the moment, even though they create a lot of trouble for you.
The second thing, which is related, is that grandiosity impairs judgment. It impairs your sensitivity to the impact you’re having on others and it impairs your awareness of the negative consequences of your behavior.
So, for example, a psychiatrist here in Boston, George Vaillant, once said there are two kinds of people in the world: there’s a guy who walks into an elevator, gets claustrophobic, and turns green; there’s a guy who walks in an elevator, lights up a big, fat stogie, and everyone around them turns green. That’s the difference between shame and grandiosity. Shame-based people have pain, grandiose-based people have troubles. The pain is really between them and their environment—the people around the grandiose person are in pain.
So, one thing is that I like to work with grandiose people in the context of their relationships. I want the other guys in the elevators in my room with me. So, I’m talking about partners—wives, husbands, and even kids. The other thing is that I want to empower the partner of the grandiose person to stand up to that person. This is called “leverage.” What I teach my students is: if you’re working with a grandiose person but they don’t feel particularly bad and their judgment is impaired, they’re not in a lot of pain about what’s going on with them. You have to answer the same question that’s on their mind, which is: why should they put up with you?
That’s leverage. Leverage means you have something in your back pocket that they want like a happier, sexier wife, for example. You stand between them and negative consequences they don’t want, like sleeping on the couch for the next three months.
The other great source of leverage in your opening gambit with a grandiose client is the kids. “You know what, Bill? What kind of father did you have? What kind of father do you want to be? It must really kill you to realize that in this family, you have become your father. What’s your relationship with your father? What kind of relationship do you want your kids to have with you? We have a saying: ‘Pass it back or pass it on.’ If we don’t wrestle this together, the people who are going to be most damaged by that are your children. Is that what you want to see happen here?”
So, it’s all about motivating—opening up the eyes of the grandiose person so they see what they’re doing and they don’t feel good about it anymore; they feel motivated to change. That’s the first order of business, and that’s the one, frankly, that most therapists skip over. Once you have the grandiose person saying, “OK, I guess I’m grandiose. OK, I can look down my nose at my wife; I can be contemptuous of her. OK, I can skate above the rules,” then the next step is to create some distance between that person and his or her grandiosity. “This is not you—this is a part of you. There’s some daylight between you and these dead traits that we can work with. You can hold them at arm’s length, and you have some choice about whether you want to go with them or whether you want to lean in and try something different.” So, first it’s about empowering the spouse, and then it’s about empowering the grandiose person.
TS: I’m curious how, as a practitioner, did you start identifying this pattern? What were you witnessing in these couples that came to you?
TR: Yes. Well, not to be too flip, but I’d like to say I first learned how to do family therapy when I was about three years old, with my own dysfunctional family. I had a grandiose father. I had a covertly shame-based, overtly grandiose father who was violent, psychologically and to some degree physically as well. I really learned how to become a therapist in order to figure out my father and what to do with him, because I knew in my guts that if I didn’t find a way to make sense out of him, that I was doomed to repeat him in some way—which I think is true.
One of the things I say is: family pathology, grandiosity, [and] violence rolls from generation to generation like a fire. It takes down everything until one person in one generation has the courage to turn and face the flames. That person brings peace to those who came before and spares the children in generations to come after. That person transforms the legacy.
Particularly when I had my own children, I was determined that by hook or crook I was going to be that person. I really went into the field of therapy to heal myself, and in some ways, to try and heal my dad. That’s the first—that’s where it first came to me. I knew that what was going down in the world of therapy was not going to touch my dad’s superiority, my dad’s lashing out, my dad’s entitlement, my dad’s being above the rules.
I needed a way—I started working with men primarily, along this issue of grandiosity. Now I work with both, but I started off with guys. I needed a way to confront them with love. I needed a way to—see, in the field, there were feminist therapies, domestic violence therapies that held the guys’ feet to the fire, but they weren’t very empathic or loving to them. And there was the whole rest of the field of psychotherapy that was full of empathy and love and all that reflection, but they acted like they had never heard of male privilege in their lives. I needed to tell the truth to these men and let them feel like I was loving them and holding them both in the same time. That’s actually become one of the real hallmarks of my work and our work, which is telling the truth with love. Most people don’t know how to do it, and frankly most therapists don’t do it; they lean on the love part and they’re a little shy on the truth part.
So, what evolved for me was a technique I call “joining through the truth:” telling the truth to grandiose men and women in a way that not only didn’t put them off, but left them feeling like you were rooting for them and you were on their side. “Look, you know what? You didn’t ask for this. This is a legacy from childhood. It’s ruining your life. It’s damaging your family. You’re a decent guy. I’ve been with men who are not decent to the bone; they’re cold, but you’re not. You’re warm. You listen to me, you laugh at my jokes. I feel connected. You’re a nice guy.
“I’ll tell you what’s so sad—O philanderer or rager or drinker, whatever you are. I’ll tell you what’s so sad: I’m talking to a nice guy who has behaved indecently for the last 20 years. Will you let me extricate you from all this nonsense?” Now, who’s going to say no to that?
So, the essence was separating the grandiose traits from the decent person underneath and forming an alliance with that decent guy or gal underneath to stand up to this and change the legacy they inherited.
TS: Now, you’ve mentioned a couple of times, Terry, that your work with grandiosity began with men, but now you also work with women who express these grandiose tendencies. Without getting too stereotyping of, “Men are like this, women are like that,” because I don’t even want to ask the question in a way that makes it sounds like we live in this complete binary world—but what are you seeing in your work with women?
TR: Well, first of all, a lot of women do not primarily ride in the grandiose position; a lot of women need real help coming up from that one-down position—not to be cliché, but to find your voice in the relationship.
Let me say something about that, because what happens is—over the course of the last 50 years and the women’s movement and all that empowerment, one of the things I ask folks as I travel around the country is this: what’s the one value that’s shared by mainstream patriarchal culture and virtually all of the counterculture movements and growth movements? Spirituality, psychotherapy, 12 Step—you know what it is? It’s the value of the individual.
What happens to people in general and women in particular is they move from being disempowered to what I call being “personally empowered.” I somewhat teasingly say, that move is, “I was weak, now I’m strong, go screw yourself.” “I was weak, now I’m strong, now I’m going to open up, open my throat, and speak any old way that I want to, and really let you have it.” You get a lot of support in the culture, particularly for women, of individual personal empowerment. “You go girl! Don’t put up with it!”
The next step, I believe, is what I call relational empowerment. That means, “I was weak, now I’m strong, I’m going to bring my full voice into this relationship. I’m going to stand toe to toe with you with love, and I’m going to help you succeed. I want you to succeed. I love you.” Relational empowerment has a completely different vocabulary, and particularly a different energy—a much more loving energy than individual empowerment.
The work for women is a lot about moving out of disempowerment for sure, but also moving down from the one-up of that individual empowerment—softening the voice, cherishing the relationship, cherishing the husband even as you stand up to him. Can I give you a clinical example of what that sounds like?
TS: Sure. Yes.
TR: You know what? I’m not going to do a clinical example; I’ll do one from my own life. This is how I learned this. This came to me in one moment in my life. I was with my friend Allen. We had had a fight—I don’t need to go into details of the fight, but my wife and kids and I were over at his house for a barbecue, and I let him have it. He turned to me and he was visibly shaking—I mean, this was intense emotion on both sides.
And here’s what he said to me. I won’t forget it. He said, “Terry, the first and most important thing I want to tell you is that I love you. You’re one of my best friends, and you’re going to be one of my best friends ‘til the day we die. That has nothing to do with what I’m about to say. Now, the rest of what I want to say is this: I’ve invited you to my home; these are my kids, this is my wife, that’s my barbecue. You come into my home and you bring that kind of energy—that angry, self-righteous energy—onto my porch. I want to tell you I spent my whole life divesting of that energy. I grew up with it. I don’t have it, and my family doesn’t have it. Now, I can’t control you, Terry—you have the right to do what you want, but I want you to know that every time you bring that energy into my world, I’m going to tell you how very much I don’t like it. And let me tell you brother, I don’t like it.” That’s relational empowerment. Loves me, cherishes me, and stands up to me all in the same breath. That’s what I want to teach women.
TS: I want to tease out one phrase, Terry, that you said in the very beginning of our conversation. You said that you share with your clients about your own “relational recovery.” I thought, “Huh. That’s interesting—relational recovery.” People talk about other kinds of addictions and recovering from an addiction—tell me what you mean by that phrase, that you’ve gone through relational recovery?
TR: Well, I believe that we live in a patriarchal culture that the traditional walls for men and women, while they’re changing, are far from changed—and that those traditional walls preclude intimacy. Marriage was never built for intimacy; marriage was built for real estate and for investment, and for help with labor and stability. This idea that we’re going to be lifelong lovers—heart-to-heart talks and great sex at 50, 60, and beyond—this is a brand-new idea. The old roles and the old rules just don’t deliver on that ambition.
So, both men and women, I believe, are knocked out of real connection and intimacy with themselves and others. If you read the literature on women’s psychology—Jean Baker Miller, Carol Gilligan, the Stone Center—young women are knocked out of real, honest connection at the edge of adolescence, at the edge of womanhood. They stop telling the truth and instead they move into too much amelioration, adaptation, and accommodation to what’s going on. It’s what Carol Gilligan calls “the tyranny of the nice and kind.” They lose their voice—that’s changing, but it still needs work.
Boys are knocked out of authentic connection—you want to take a guess at what age?
TS: Um, let’s say five or six?
TR: You’ve got it. A little younger: three or four. Three, four, five, or six. By the time boys have entered kindergarten, they’ve already internalized the code. What research tells us is they’re no less emotional than girls at that age—or sensitive—but they’re less expressive. They’ve learned to keep their mouths shut; they’ve learned to wall it off.
So, boys learn to separate from their vulnerable selves and adopt the masculine code at three, four, five years old. And what is that code? The essence of what it means to be a man in the traditional setup is to be invulnerable. The more invulnerable you are, the more manly you are. The more vulnerable you are, the more girly you are. The problem is that being invulnerable leaves no room for real intimacy. We connect through our vulnerabilities.
So now, what’s happening across the board, I believe, is that women all over the West are asking for levels of vulnerability and emotional intimacy from their men that boys and men have not been raised to deliver. Now, that’s different depending on how young we’re talking about—Millennials are different, thank goodness. But the rest of us are still suffering under the old code, and one of the things I say is that leading men and women into real intimacy is synonymous with leading men out of patriarchy.
The political is personal; every single couple that I see is foundering on the rocks of the old code in one form or another, and need to be freed up of it—me included. I grew up with a grandiose—overtly grandiose, covertly shame-filled father. I grew up with a mother who stood by and did not protect my brother and me. I call that “the unholy triad of patriarchy”—irresponsible man, unhappy woman, boy [who’s] sensitive in the middle feeling both of their pain. That was me. I was depressed. I self-medicated with alcohol and drugs and women. I acted out. I was narcissistic. I was not that easy to get along with. I had to break all of those structures down and reconfigure them in order to be happy inside my skin and to have a happy family—which, knock wood, thank you, spit three times, I have. But I earned it; no one gave it to me. Again, if I can do it, you can do it.
TS: One of the things, Terry, I’ve heard from people I know—from friends of mine—is, “You know, Tami, you’re such a proponent of therapy, but when it comes to solving relationship issues, couples’ issues—God, in my experience, therapy just doesn’t work. I’ve been to therapists before, me and my partner, blah blah blah—it just doesn’t work. You’re lucky: you have a happy marriage, good on you, you’ve found the right partner. But, just stop suggesting therapy, please.” I’m curious what you think about that viewpoint, which I think a lot of people hold.
TR: Yes. Well, this is where I can start to sound grandiose and narcissistic. But the truth is, I run around the country doing workshops and lectures for therapists, and I say that there’s some serious design flaws in couples therapy. This, “Uh huh, uh huh; tell me more about it; gee, I’m sorry you feel like that,”—the traditional therapy we’ve all been trained in—just doesn’t do anything for a couple that’s either too distant or fighting. It just isn’t active enough.
So in the therapy that I do, I get in, I lovingly confront the issues, I name things. I had a guy in my office just before this call who was raised by two alcoholics. He was raised by a raging dad; he doesn’t rage, he’s passive-aggressive. He expresses his anger by shutting down and going away. But he does it to his wife, he does it to his kids, he’s done it for 30 years. The kids are now grown; they don’t want to have anything to do with him. He’s been in denial for decades.
I look at this guy, and the first thing I say to him is, “She’s right about you. You give little. You’ve been really selfish for 30 years, and you’ve been difficult to live with. Now the bill is due, and your family doesn’t want much to do with you. I can understand how you developed that way, coming from where you come from. But, if you grow up in a miserable childhood, in order to get from that miserable childhood to the happy, healthy relationship you deserve demands a lot of personal work. That means help; that means therapy from the outside.”
But I do believe, frankly, that much therapy is not particularly effective. I wish I could say something different, but there are talented therapists of many different schools. There’s much more active therapy than the tradition. If you look hard enough, you can find somebody. But if push comes to shove, not to be whatever—you can go to my website and there are RLT therapists all over the country now. I have faith in them.
TS: You’ve been talking, Terry, about men and women in relationship, and here we are in the age of marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. I’m curious if you work with gay and lesbian couples, and how you think that affects some of your theoretical work, if you will, and how it’s changing your approach—if at all?
TR: That’s great—these are wonderful questions. I do work with same-sex couples—I haven’t worked much with transgender folks. It just hasn’t been—but I have worked a fair amount with same-sex couples. One of the things I say to my students about same-sex couples is remember two things.
The first to remember is while it’s changing, it hasn’t changed. You are dealing with an oppressed minority, and oppression has consequences. So, when I am working with a gay or lesbian couple, I’m really interested in their coming-out story. How did you first know you were gay or lesbian? What was that like for you? When did you first begin to fantasize? When did you first begin to experiment? Who was the first person you told? Did you feel OK about it? Were you ashamed of it? You’re going to get a narrative if you just open that up. Everybody’s got a story—and a deep, heartfelt story. So, you have to understand that this is breaking open for the first time in history. People were killed for being gay or lesbian, and still are in countries around the world.
The second thing to remember is that you’re dealing—are you ready?—you’re dealing with a same-sex couple: two men or two women. Without going into a lot of stereotypes or generalities, there are often differences between men and women. Straight people sometimes have a fantasy that because you’re gay or lesbian, that you’ve broken out of patriarchy; you’ve broken out of all those strictures. But it’s just not true. Two men look a lot like two men, and two women look a lot like two women. Look at the difference between gay sex and lesbian sex: you don’t see women going to bathhouses. But, gay men act like men. Once you start to get the way that our culture shapes men and women—of course there’s lots and lots of variation and exceptions; don’t pigeonhole people. But, there are forces that come to play and they’re more operative in a same-sex couple, not less operative.
TS: You talk about something, Terry, that I read in a blog post that you wrote, called “a full-throttle marriage”—that it’s possible for us to have a full-throttle marriage. I thought, “OK, that’s a great phrase.” I think most couples are looking for a marriage that they can feel positive about. “Great, I feel positive about my marriage! I’m in a very small percentage of people. Full-throttle marriage? I don’t know. That’s a myth.”
So, first of all, tell me what you mean about having a full-throttle marriage, and then I would love to know: what are the most important skills, so that I can have one?
TR: Oh, marvelous. Terrific. Well, by “full-throttle marriage,” I mean “connected and alive.” When you ask people why they have affairs, universally—with all of the different things they say and all of the different explanations—they’ll say, “It made me feel alive.”
What happens in so many marriages is deadness starts to creep in. I believe that the reason why we settle with each other in these ways is because we stop taking each other on. We stop telling the real truth to each other; we don’t know how. It doesn’t go well when we try, often.
So, we back it up. We say, “I can live with this.” We make compromises that are beyond what we really want, we start building up resentment, and all of that shuts down passion and shuts down generosity. You know, if I’m angry at you because you’ve been pissy with me for the last two days but I don’t say a word about it, you come to me and want to make love and, you know, I’ve got a headache. It just comes out sideways.
So, I talk about what I call “fierce intimacy.” Fierce intimacy. It’s that same thing that I developed with clients: telling the truth to somebody in a way that makes them feel you’re on their side and you love them [and] at the same time you’re standing up to what’s dysfunctional and you’re putting your foot down and saying, “These are the things I want and need from you.” The relational question is, “What can I give you to help you give them to me?” It’s about rolling up your sleeves, working with the person you’ve really got instead of the person you really dream of and deserve—working with the imperfect character you’re stuck with, and leaning into that person and finding a way to deal with each other so that if something’s awry, you can get back on track rather than just let it sit and fester. To me, that’s the most important single skill.
TS: How much do you think of having this full-throttle marriage, if you will—or just a really terrific marriage—is “skill-based,” versus, “I got lucky and met my soulmate?” Is it more like, “Hey, look, I needed to develop”—you used an interesting phrase in your own life—[you] “earned” the life that you have for your family and your wife? How much is about a learning process, a skill-building process?
TR: All of it. All of it. What I would say is “Oh, I’m lucky I found my soulmate; now let’s not screw it up over the next 30 years.” Picking a good partner is great, and that early passion in the relationship is great. When I have a couple and one of them says to me, usually in private, “You know, the truth is, I never really loved this person anyway. I got married for my parents, or it looked good on paper, or I was pregnant.” That’s trouble. But, most people start off with an authentic, passionate connection. The skills come in to keep that authentic, passionate connection. And yes, there is a relational technology: how to speak, how to listen, how to bring a partner who is in disrepair with you back into harmony with you.
There are some basic skills that most people in our culture simply haven’t mastered. That would have been fine 50 years ago when a nice, companionable marriage would have been enough. But if you want—what we want now is we want a lifelong lover relationship with each other, and if that’s what you want, then yes, there’s a repertoire of skills for you to master in order to meet that new, sophisticated ambition. If your ambition is going to be historically brand-new, then the skills you use to implement it better be a stark renewal along with it.
TS: You mentioned the skill of taking a relationship from a state of disharmony back into harmony. I’m imagining someone who’s listening who’s said, “You know, look. There’s some clear disharmony in my relationship. What skill is Terry pointing to? What do I need to do here? What’s the talent I need?”
TR: Well, the person who’s in disharmony—I mean, this is a short version. I do whole workshops on this, and I wrote a book on this. The short version is: the skill the person who’s in disarray needs is to open up their mouths and speak—and speak in a way that is clean, from the “I” [and] not the “you,” that’s forward looking. “These are the things I would like.” Not just complaining about what’s going on, but helping your partner get a sense of what right would look like; and then having the good heart—the good will—to really wish your partner well. It’s what I call “remembering love.” Remember that the person that you’re speaking to is someone you love and not the enemy. The reason why you’re speaking is to make things better, not to prove a point or control things.
On the other side, the person who’s on the receiving end of a partner who is in disrepair—I talk about what I call “relational jujitsu.” We could do a whole talk just on that, but in the West, what we’re taught is you take the hit full in the chest, and then you hit back, and the last man standing ends. In the East, the way it goes is somebody comes at you with a ferocious energy, you step a quarter of an inch out of a way, give a flip, and they go right by you. That’s what I teach people to do.
So, for example, I say to guys—and this is a bit facetious, but I say to guys, “Hey look, I have a method of disarming an upset, angry woman within seconds 50 percent of the time. Doesn’t work all of the time, but hey, 50 percent’s not bad. Do you know what it is?” Do you want to guess what it is, Tami?
TS: I don’t know.
TR: [Laughs.] Give her what she’s asking for.
TS: That sounds like that’ll work.
TR: Yield. Yield. Surrender. Be generous. Be accountable. Don’t be defensive; let go of your pride; go under the wave, not in the wave, find something in what this person is saying that you can be accountable about, and find something in what they’re asking for that you can give them. Be generous. Be generous of heart.
Now, the person on the other end may be asking for the moon. My wife might say to me, “Terry, you left the milk out of the refrigerator again! You’re just like your dad. You’re a slob. I’ve asked you not to do that in front of the kids. What I want is I want you to go into psychoanalysis about this five days a week for the next at least four years. I want you to say you’re sorry to me and the kids, and I want you to get another milk carton.” My response is, “You’re absolutely right. I did it. This is the sort of thing I can do, I can be sloppy. I can understand why you’re upset about it. You know what? I am going to say I’m sorry to you and the kids, and I’m going to have that milk to you in the next 10 minutes. The psychoanalysis part? Forget it.”
What most people do is they lead with what they disagree with and what they’re not going to give their partner. That is dumb. I teach people to scan for agreement, scan for peace, and make peace with your partner. Find something to agree to, something you can give them, something you can be accountable about, and disarm them. That’s a way of helping an unhappy partner get happier with you.
TS: Terry, I know you’ve done some teaching work with Esther Perel, and her work talks about keeping the sexual fire alive in relationships. I’m wondering, in terms of this quest for fierce intimacy, what you have to add specifically to this question of how we keep our sexual level of full-throttle contact, if you will, alive and engaged.
TR: Well, I agree with Esther’s main point, which is we get too cozy with each other. The oxytocin sets in and we get cuddly and kind of loose. I talk to people about what I call “side-by-side energy” and “nose-to-nose” energy. It’s like a cross: a vertical line (that’s nose-to-nose), and a horizontal line (that’s side-by-side).
Now, nose-to-nose energy is when the couple’s main concern is itself—the relationship. You’re gazing into each others’ eyes, you’re kind of narcissistic—like new relationships. You’re a little obnoxious to be around. Side-by-side energy is about maintaining connection over time. It’s about being responsible and straightforward and skilled, and so forth.
Nose-to-nose energy is exciting; it’s intense, it’s very present in the moment, it’s very erotic. Side-by-side energy is domestic; it’s responsible, it’s stalwart, and it’s boring. All couples—in the West, at least—need to find ways to pull themselves out of that side-by-side back into the nose-to-nose because you can’t have sex from side-by-side. Very mechanical, maybe—but by and large, people have to transition into that encounter with each other to get the erotic juices going. The easiest and most common way is leave the kids and go away for a romantic weekend. But you have to find a way to really connect with each other in the middle of the life you’re in.
So, the first order of business is taking this seriously. I like to talk to men and women about keeping a little erotic energy at play as you go through your day. This happens in affairs; it’s one of the characteristics of an affair. It’s hot, it’s sexy. The little dirty notes and so on and so forth—do that with your spouse. Walk over to your spouse—assuming that your sex life is reasonably OK, nobody’s feeling bullied or anything—walk over to your spouse and give them a nice kiss on the neck, or whisper something in their ear, or tell them how excited you are just thinking about them today. Keep a little bit of that love—if you want to be lovers, be lovers. Act like a lover. Get yourself out of that side-by-side energy and pull yourself into a little romance. That’s one.
Two is: tell the truth to each other. Three is: a little constructive distance or mystery can go a long way. That’s Esther’s hit record, and it’s very European. It’s really quite lovely. So, those three things are what I would say.
TS: I’m curious, Terry: here you are, you’ve talked a little bit about your family life, and your wife. You’re a public figure, if you will, talking about how to make a marriage work really well. I would imagine that would put a lot of pressure on you in your own married life and family life, to really walk the talk. So, I’m curious how that’s going for you—the pressure. Do you feel pressure about that? Then, what part is the hardest for you in terms of walking your talk?
TR: Oh gosh. That’s a really trenchant question. Do you mind if I take a break and go to the bathroom? [Tami laughs.] OK. How do I walk the talk? Well, my wife Belinda is a family therapist like me. She, like me, comes from a terrible trauma background. We have to use these skills or we get into trouble. One [thing] I say to the couples I work with is if Belinda and I don’t use the same skills we’re teaching you, then we look just as ugly as you do. And we do, upon occasion. You know: we’ll yell and scream, and take a time-out, and I’ll sleep in one of the kids’ rooms, and we’re normal human beings.
Couples do fight. There’s a saying: There are two kinds of couples in the world—there are distant couples and fighting couples. I stay hot couples and cool couples. Belinda and I are a hot couple—there’s a lot of passion, and on a bad day, there’s a fair amount of fighting as well. Both of us have learned to manage it. We take time-outs, we take breaks. Either of us will take a walk around the block, have a little chat with our inner children who seem to have grabbed the wheel, and come back when we’re centered in our adult selves again. That happens fairly regularly—that we have to take a time-out and take a break and regroup and come back to our senses.
I don’t feel a lot of pressure, to be honest, being a public figure about this—primarily because to be dead honest, my wife and kids mean more to me than my career does. So, I don’t want to fight with Belinda because the primary thing is it’s really upsetting to me when we do, and I’d rather have a nice evening. That’s my motivator. What kind of evening are we going to have? I could be—one of the things I say is you could be right or you could be married. I could be right and stick to my guns and fight with you all night, or I can do some of that jujitsu and let go of my stiff-necked pride, come to you, and say, “Honey, I don’t want to fight. I’m sorry. What do you need? Let’s get out of this, let’s make up.” I choose Door B, because that’s where I want to be. Thinking about my career—in those moments, that really is a secondary issue.
TS: You mentioned that occasionally you’ll sleep on the couch or in one of the kids’ rooms, something like that. In one of your blog posts—I thought this was really interesting—you were like, “I want to dispel this myth of ‘don’t go to bed angry,’” which is one of the toasts that of course you hear at people’s weddings. They say, “Let me wish for you what my grandparents wished for me: never go to bed angry.” Here you are saying, “Hey, come on, that’s not the most important wish we can bring to a newly married couple.” Can you explain that to me?
TR: Well, Belinda and I go to bed angry every once in a while, on a fairly regular basis over our 30-year marriage. It happens to work for us that we both have a good night’s sleep, wake up, and we’re less entrenched in our position. The break that comes from sleep and waking up together—we look at each other in the morning and go, “I don’t even remember what that fuss was about. How are you doing?” So, I think it’s sometimes very helpful to sleep on it and come back in a new day.
There are all sorts of—this culture doesn’t deal with the blood and guts of real marriage. I talk to people about what I call “normal marital hatred.” I’ve been doing this for 20 years, [and] not one person has ever come up to me and said, “What do you mean by that?” Marriage is hard! The dark night of the soul in your marriage is dark. We don’t acknowledge it in our culture—“Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t ever BE angry.”
There’s a myth—there are three phases in a relationship: harmony, disharmony, and repair. The early stage, the disillusionment, and mature love. In our culture, we’ve frozen in harmony phase, and that’s a good relationship. Just like a good body is a 17-year-old body, or a good sex life is passion seven days a week. We freeze these ideal images and we don’t deal or give people the skills they need to deal with the blood-and-gut, real reality of being an imperfect being rubbing shoulders with another imperfect being. It’s tough.
TS: Fierce intimacy. I like it, Terry. I think you’re saying something here in this conversation that’s been quite eye-opening versus the myth of the frozen, 17-year-old body, harmony version.
Now, I’m really happy, Terry, that you’re going to be part of our Psychotherapy 2.0 online training summit, as I mentioned in the beginning of our conversation. It’s a seven-day training summit online; listeners have two free, 90-minute sessions per day, really with some of the leading trainers of psychotherapists in today’s world, including Bessel van der Kolk, Steven Hayes, Jack Kornfield, Ellyn Bader—this is all being hosted by Diane Poole Heller, who is a leading trainer in the field of trauma and attachment therapy. The title of your presentation as part of the Psychotherapy 2.0 online training summit is “Working with Trauma in Couples Therapy: Healing Inner Child Parts.” I’m wondering if you can give our listeners a sense of what this training session will be like—“Working with Trauma in Couples Therapy.”
TR: Well, the issue is the skills are great—and they really are great, and they need to be part of the mix. But, when somebody’s triggered—when they’re flooded by a child-ego state or child feelings, all bets are off. One of the things I say is one of the most important questions is: which part of you is speaking? Is it the adult, present part of you; or is it some triggered, inner child part of you just grabbed the wheel? Another part of the work—the three parts of the work I do: one is loving confrontation, three is education, and two is trauma work and working with your inner children.
Let me see. Can I tell you a story?
TR: OK. I’ll give you a flavor of what that’s like, although it can be very experiential. Eyes closed, bring your child into the room, talk to your child, and all that. But it can be also just conversational. So here’s the story:
A couple comes to see me. It’s a typical he-said she-said: he says that she’s irresponsible, selfish, and kind of a flake. She says that he’s a brute. So, I drill down and get examples from each—how is she a flake? Well, she’s late sometimes and she forgets things. OK. How is he a brute? Well, in the last two weeks, he called me the C- word. He physically blocked my exit when I tried to take a time-out, and he spit on my windshield. I say to him, “You spit on her windshield?” He said, “Yes, but you don’t know what she was saying to me before! You don’t expect me to sit there and take it, do you?” I look at him; I let the pause gather some momentum, and then I say to him, “I don’t know, but I suspect you don’t know the difference between standing up for yourself and attacking somebody.” That gave him pause.
I then said, “Who was the angry one in your family growing up? You go through the stance up to the generation up above.” “My father.” “Tell me about it.” “Oh, he was a mess. He was angry all the time. He would come home and you would scatter, because God help you if you got in his way.” “Where was your mother? Why didn’t she protect you?” “She worked a lot and she was a doormat. She was useless in this department. In fact, not only did she not protect me, but I’m the one who protected my little sister.” “What did you do?” “I used to lock her in the basement. Don’t get the wrong idea. It was a finished basement; I had toys and video games. But I kept her out of harm’s way.” I said, “How old was she?” “Three.” “How old were you?” “Five.”
I look at the guy and I say, “You know, I don’t know, but my guess is there’s some five-year-old version of you that felt something like, ‘Hey Dad, if you lay one godforsaken hand on my sister, I’ll kill you.’” He said, “That’s exactly what I felt.” I said, “How did I know that?” He said, “OK, I’ll bite. How did you know that?” I said, “Because you defend yourself like an angry five-year-old. Will you let me work with that five-year-old and teach him how to calm down, teach you how to calm him down, and have you be an adult to your wife and not a child?” And he said, bless his heart, “I think we’d better.” That’s inner child work.
TS: Very powerful. Very hopeful. Yes.
TR: You are responsible for that little person inside of you, and maturity comes when you manage that little person and don’t inflict him or her on your partner to manage.
TS: Powerful. It seems like one of the things that you do in your couples work is that you really combine deep, individual work with work on the relationship. That’s unique; you don’t say, “Oh, you have a trauma, we’re going to take this over here to your individual therapy,” but you do it right there with the couple.
TR: I do. And you know what? It’s so much more powerful that way. It’s so much more intimate. I tell you, you are a wife with let’s say an angry husband who was raised by an angry mother or father. You’ve been mystified for 30 years about why this person is such an S.O.B. In the session, that person is now doubled over in pain crying talking to his little boy or girl that was so savaged. You’re sitting next to that person—I gotta tell you, you’re also crying. You are moved.
How different is that from this guy, because he says, “How was therapy?” “Yes, yes, it was heavy. We did a lot of good work. What’s for lunch?” It’s much more intimate for the couple to be there, and the idea used to be—this is another rule I broke from therapy school—the idea is that people won’t go deep in front of their partners. I think that’s nonsense. Unless the partner is really mean, people will go deeper with the support of their partner sitting next to them. So yes, I don’t peel off character work or trauma work to an individual therapist. I do it in the presence of the partner as part of the couples work. That’s what I’ll be talking about in Psychotherapy 2.0.
TS: I just have one final question for you, Terry. One of the themes undergirding, if you will, our whole conversation, is the cultural context in which we live and in which many of us grew up 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 years ago, and our families. As you named it, the “expectations” of the patriarchy, if you will—expectations of men, expectations of women. What is your hope for the kind of cultural changes that could result from the type of therapeutic work that you do with couples?
TR: That’s beautiful, Tami. You know, I want women to enter into full voice and empowerment with love, and I want men to come down off their perch and open their hearts and listen, and respond with flexibility. I think it’s new territory for both sexes.
I do want to say, I’m a big fan of Millennials. Millennials are doing better than, for example, Baby Boomers, where divorce is really rampant. Millennials have moved a little bit out of the old roles. Millennial men expect two-career families, they expect to work around the house, they expect to share decisions with their partner. They’re less patriarchal, and research is really clear that the more conditional the marriage is, the less happy the marriage is. The more egalitarian the marriage is, the more satisfied both partners are.
So, there’s a new paradigm over the hill. The light is breaking, dawn is coming. I think we’re in an icky transition period where women want more from men than most men have been trained to deliver. But, I think it’s a transition, and I think the answer is not to have women stand down from their demands for real intimacy, but help men stand up and open their hearts and meet it. I feel very optimistic about where we’re headed.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Terry Real. He’s the founder of Relational Life Therapy and the author of the book The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Know to Make Love Work. He’ll also be a presenter in Sounds True’s new Psychotherapy 2.0 online training summit. He’ll be teaching on “Working with Trauma in Couples Therapy.” The entire Psychotherapy 2.0 online training summit takes place over seven days, beginning on September 7 [and] running through September 13. If you’re interested in more information on Psychotherapy 2.0, please visit SoundsTrue.com. Terry, thank you so much! Thank you so much for this conversation, and dare I say . . .
TR: Oh, a total pleasure.
TS: . . . being real! Thank you. Thank you, Terry.
TR: [Laughs.] Great, thank you very much. It’s been a joy.
TS: SoundsTrue.com: Nany voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.