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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today is a rebroadcast of one of my favorite episodes. I hope you enjoy it.
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. A family therapist and teacher for more then 25 years, Terry is the bestselling author of I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, and most recently, The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Make Love Work. With Sounds True, Terry has created a new audio learning series called Fierce Intimacy: Standing Up to One Another with Love.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Terry and I spoke about the deal breakers that can happen in a relationship and how it’s possible for these deal breakers to not necessarily be a death sentence for relationships. We talked about developing the skill of what Terry calls “relational mindfulness” and how to take care of your partner when you’re processing a difficult issue. We talked about “the golden rule of relational empowerment” and some examples of the golden rule in action.
We talked about what it means to hold a “core negative image” of your partner, what Terry calls a CNI. Yes, you heard that right, core negative image of your partner—and how it’s normal to do so, and the importance of unearthing these CNIs, and how they actually give you the operating instructions that you need on your partner.
And finally we talked about how objective reality has no place in close, personal relationships, what Terry means by “fierce intimacy,” and how the relationship skills that Terry teaches are actually the skills we need right now as a culture to help us evolve as a human race.
Recorded face-to-face, in person in the Sounds True Studio in Boulder. Here’s my conversation with Terry Real.
Welcome, everyone. I’m here with Terry Real in the Sounds True Studio. Terry has been with us recording an audio series on Fierce Intimacy. Terry, I’m so glad to be with you.
Terry Real: I’m delighted to be here, Tami.
TS: In learning more about your work, one of the things I discovered is that couples come to you, couples who self-identify as being in trouble in some way—
TR: In big ways.
TS: Big ways.
TS: For a two-day intensive and at the end of the intensive, they’re either filing for divorce or they’re on track in their relationship. This is the promise.
TR: This is the last stop.
TS: This is the promise of your work. Is it really that, this or that, either divorce or we’re on track?
TR: Well, the couples that come to see me are on the brink of divorce. My beat are couples on the brink of divorce that have had two, three, four, my record so far is eight therapies that haven’t touched them. We do two full days together. And at the end of that time, you’re either your fat is out of the fire or you’re done. I’m not saying that I cure couples in two days. They go back home with a pretty-tailored treatment program. You go to a 12-step, you go to a med consult, you go to a men’s group. They have to follow through with that if it’s going to hold. But I save most of them. They do turn around.
TS: Give me a sense of what happens during those two days.
TR: Well, one of the things that happens is that I break every rule that I learned as a couples therapist.
TS: All right!
TR: It was really out of these interventions and what happens in them and the fact that I do break most of the rules, that I faded back. I was already teaching couples in family therapy and I took a look at what I was doing and created the system that I now teach, called Relational Life Therapy. I start off with the stance. In a heterosexual couple—we’ll call it, keep it simple—his relational stance, her relational stance, and the way they interlock and reinforce each other. So I start with a dysfunctional stance. Can I give you an example?
TS: Please. Yes.
TR: Angry pursuit is a dysfunctional stance. Angry pursuit is never going to get you more of what you want. “Goddammit, get off the couch. Get your fat butt over here and love me now,” is not going to work. So angry pursuit meets angry withdrawal and it turns into a feedback loop, a vicious circle. I teach my students to call this, “the more the more.” The more he angrily pursues, the more she angrily withdraws, and the more she angrily withdraws, the more he angrily pursues. This is Couples Therapy 101.
This is the skeleton. This is my problem. This is my patient. To the degree to which that vicious circle is shifting, my work is doing something. To which it’s not shifting, and that’s not my responsibility, it’s theirs, but to which it’s not shifting, we’re all having a great time. People are having great cathartic experiences. People are talking to their inner children. People are having great insights. But if the stance doesn’t change, then you’re not moving. So that’s my skeleton. That’s my plumb line. Is the stance breaking up? And are each of them moving into something that’s more relational, more adult, more functional?
The next step usually is that I move from the current stance to where it comes from—the family of origin. In the system I work with, we talk about the functional adult part of you. And everybody knows the wounded child part of you, which tends to be very young. In between those two is a part of you we call the adaptive child part of you. James Masterson called it your character defenses, your personality.
This is a kid in grownup’s clothing. This is the part of you that adapted to what was ever going on. You think that’s an adult, but it’s really not. It’s often immature. It’s the adaptive child part of us that gets us into so much trouble. It’s the adaptive child part of us that fuels these stances. Can I give you another example?
TS: Another example would be great. Yes.
TR: I have a saying, “Show me the thumbprint and I’ll tell you about the thumb.” Let’s say hypothetically, let’s not talk too personally…
TS: Not yet.
TR: Let’s say, hypothetically, I had an intrusive mother. I have an intrusive mother. I adapt to that intrusion by going behind thick walls. The thicker the walls in the adult, you can bet, the bigger the intrusion in childhood. Show me the thumb, I’ll show you the thumbprint. Those walls are now my adaptation. That’s my adaptive child. I go into a marriage and my partner comes at me. I’ll often choose an intrusive partner because we repeat these things. I know all about what it’s like to be intruded upon, I go behind those walls. A kind of, let’s say, aloof distance is now my dysfunctional stance. That’s my adaptive child.
I start with the stance that’s getting you into so much trouble. And then I move into, where did that stance come from? And then we do some inner child work or some family of origin work. Then I teach you how to do it differently. There are three phases to this work. There’s the confrontation, loving confrontation. I call that joining through the truth. This is what you’re doing to blow your foot off. Let’s take a look at it. Then there’s back in the family of origin, inner child work. This is where it comes from. And then it’s teaching you what a better way of doing it looks like.
Let me tell you a story. I won’t say who, but a magazine sent a reporter to me with her husband. Fortunately—because I was on air, so to speak—we turned the marriage around in one session. And I’ll tell you how we did it. The guy she described as being an “ex-dick”. He had been a real jerk for a number of years. She was ready to leave him. He saw the light, did a 180 and for the last year or year and a half, he was an ex-jerk. He was a nice, thoughtful, connected guy. She could not accept the new him. She was still stuck in resentment. So that was her dysfunctional stance. She was parked in resentment.
So once that became clear, the next question was, “OK, who was the resentful one in your family growing up? Where did you learn this from?” They’re either reacting to it or they’re learning to repeat it, or some combination of the two. She says, “My mom.” “OK. Tell me about your mom?” “Well, my mom was resentful breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My mom hated my dad and made it perfectly clear.” I said, “Well, did she enlist you as a co-conspirator against your father? Was it that kind of unholy fusion?” She said, “No. My mother was very selfish, very narcissistic, and she emotionally had nothing to do with me.”
In fact, she told me a story about being a little girl having a nightmare, going to her mother’s bedroom, being frozen in the doorway of the bedroom, and knowing, as terrified as she was, that it wouldn’t be good for her to disturb her mother. She went back to bed alone. Her mother had no connection with her at all. So this is the pivotal moment. I say to her, “I know a way that you can be close to a parent who doesn’t want to be close to you at all. Works every time.” She said, “OK, I’ll bite. What is it?”
I said, “Be like them.” I said, “Resentment is the family business. You are in union with your mother by sharing her vision of what a relationship looks like.”
I said, “If you let this new man in, you’re going to be leaving your mother.”
And she started to cry and she said, “I think it’s time to do that.” I said, “What was your mother’s name?” I’ll say Clara. I said, “Clara and Marcia, Resentment Are Us. You are in the family business. Are you willing to let it go?” She said, “Yes, I think I am.” A lot of grief was unleashed as she let go of that last vestige of unity with her mother and she embraced her husband. That was about eight months ago. So far at least, the resentment hasn’t resurfaced.
So I start with this stance, look at the dysfunctional adaption the person’s doing, take that adaptation back to where it came from, release it, and then teach the person how to do it differently.
TS: Now a couple comes to you and you have the thought, “I don’t think I can help this couple.” What is going on when that’s your assessment?
TR: What are the deal breakers?
TS: Yes. I don’t think I can help this couple.
TR: Well, love is a two-handed game and if one of them doesn’t want to play, we’re done. I can think they’re a perfectly salvageable couple, but if one of them want out, they want out. So that’s the first deal breaker. Sometimes couples therapy’s a drop-off. “You deal with him. Have fun. I’m outta here.” But most people are pretty conscientious and are really struggling with whether to stay or go.
Here are a couple deal breakers. One is, I talk in relational life work about what I call “preconditions for intimacy.” It’s one of the reasons why I think RLT, the therapy I do, produces quick change, because we pay attention to things that other therapists skip over.
There are three preconditions which you have to look at before you can pretend to get closer to each other. One is untreated psychiatric conditions, right? OCD, ADD, depression, anxiety. You can’t get closer to each other while that’s going on untreated. The second are serious patterns of self-medication—drinking, drugs, gambling, risk-taking. The third are acting out disorders, either sexual or aggressive. Domestic violence is a contraindication for couples therapy. I don’t ask people to tell the truth to power if there’s a real danger in doing so.
You can’t get closer to each other while there’s a third leg of a triangle, unless you have an open marriage. But even then, it’s funny. People still transgress in open marriages. Whatever the rules are, people have a way of going beyond whatever the rules are. So those are three preconditions. If I’ve got somebody who’s either got an untreated psychiatric disorder, a serious self-medication problem, or sexual or aggressive acting out, and they dig in their heels and don’t want to do anything about it, that may be it.
TS: OK, but those are pretty extreme. The three that you’ve stated.
TR: I have one more extreme one.
TR: Which is not uncommon, by the way. If one of the two partners never loved the other one to begin with. If they married because they were pregnant, or to please Mom, or because it looked good on paper but their heart was never in it, I actually want them to let go of the other partner and let them find somebody who can love them. So that’s another deal breaker.
TS: But outside of those four deal breakers, a couple comes to you and no matter how angry they are or the string of affairs that have happened but it’s over now, you believe that potentially it’s workable.
TR: Absolutely workable. I’m in the people-transformation business. People come to couples therapy and they think it’s about behavioral change or learning communication skills. That’s not what it’s about. If partner A brings in partner B, what partner A wants is characterological change in partner B. They want partner B to be a different human being, and most couples therapy shies away from that, but I try and deliver that. I try and render partner B a more relational, connected person.
If you’re grandiose, you come down. If you’re shame-based, you come up. If you’re avoidant, you engage. If you’re boundaryless, you grow a boundary. You learn how to be a connected, mature person on my watch. And anybody can do it. You know, I often get asked by therapists, “Well, what about narcissist personality disorders or borderline personality disorder? Can you work with them?”
Here’s my story. True story. I worked with a couple, no offense to doctors, but they were two doctors. They were at worst mildly neurotic. They were very healthy people, but they had what I call “doctor-it is” and they weren’t going to let me teach them nothing. They didn’t go very far.
I had another couple. This is absolutely true. They were both what you would call bad borderline personality disorders, both of them. I’m talking, yelling, screaming. He goes off and goes to a motel. She follows him and she’s banging on the door. The cops come and drag her away. Borderline. Suicide attempts, everything. But she got pregnant.
They both come from bad trauma, like most Borderlines do, and she got pregnant. She was determined that she was not going to submit her kid to what she lived with and she was determined to do the work and so was he. I want to tell you, these people cleaned up in a matter of six months. They’re different people now. In fact, this is true, she went on and became a therapist, and she’s now an RLT therapist and a pretty good one.
So I don’t care what your diagnosis is. I don’t care how immature you are to start. I don’t care how much trauma. I don’t care how much you’ve hurt each other. All I care about is, do you want to do the work? If you want to do the work, we can do it.
TS: In your book, The New Rules of Marriage, you actually make this comparison in the beginning of the book that becoming relationally fit has parallels to becoming physically fit. If you work out, if you do it, you’ll become physically fit. I thought, for most people, they think… I think most people think, that happiness in relationship is a lot more mysterious than becoming physically fit.
To become physically fit, this is something I’m going to do on my own. And I know that if I’m not physically fit, it’s because I haven’t been to the gym. I’ve been eating ice cream. Whatever. I take responsibility. I know inside, I’m not physically fit. I haven’t been doing it. But relational happiness, this is going to take a miracle outside of my own energy and effort because there’s this other person involved. And this other person’s really difficult.
TR: Yes, isn’t that amazing the way the other person is always so difficult and we’re all so nice?
TR: There’s a relational technology. There are skills. In our patriarchal culture, we don’t value relationship. We code relationship as feminine and we do to intimacy what we do to many things feminine: we idealize it in principle, and we devalue it in fact. So in this culture, we don’t teach our sons and daughters how to be relational. There are skills. There’s a skill in learning how to love yourself. There’s a skill in learning good boundaries. There are skills in learning how to stand up for yourself with love and how to respond with generosity instead of defensiveness. These are the skills I teach. I’m sure we’ll be talking about some of them. But these skills can be mastered.
What makes life difficult and mysterious is that a big part of us when we get triggered doesn’t give a damn about skills. One of the main questions that I ask is not, “What are the couple’s stressors?” Because a good couple can handle stress. It’s not even, “What’s the stance?” Although that’s really important. The biggest question is, “Which part of you am I speaking to?” Am I speaking to the adult prefrontal cortex that can think and be deliberate and make choices? Or am I speaking to the triggered adaptive child, the wounded child, which is a knee-jerk reaction, automatic, unthought, compulsive?
One of the great skills the er-skill I call it, the proto-skill, is shifting out of that triggered part of you back into the adult part of you and learning how to do that. I call that “relational mindfulness.” It really is the spiritual practice of relationship. When you’re triggered, when you’re flooded, I call it whoosh, W-H-O-O-S-H, like a wave that comes up over you. When you’re flooded, take a break. Go somewhere. Do some breathing. Do some meditating. Walk around the block. Count to 10. Have a little talk with your adaptive child part.
Do whatever you need to do, but don’t come back into the fray until you’re sane. Once you’re sane, then you can use the skills. There’s a technology to be used that most people just don’t know because in our culture we don’t teach it.
TS: Now, one of the things I learned from your work that I thought was very helpful, because I’m somebody who when I feel triggered, I just want to withdraw. I just want to be alone for a while.
TR: Ah. You’re one of those.
TS: Could you just leave me alone for a little while? But you say that responsible withdrawal involves two actions that I haven’t been very good at, I must admit.
TR: Until today.
TS: That’s OK. Until now. Which is saying, “This is what I’m doing, and I’m going to come back.” And making a commitment. “I’ll be back. Let’s talk about it tomorrow,” or something.
So I think people do know when they’re out of their mind, let’s just call that triggered. I’m not in a place right now for us to navigate this issue. But I don’t think we’re taught there’s an action I’m supposed to take when I feel that way.
TR: No. See, look. OK, you have been until today, what I call a “provocative distance taker.” You just take it. I’m outta here.
TR: I’ll bet the ranch that you get chased a lot. Provocative distance takers get chased because you’re not taking care of your partner. Taking care of your partner is, “Hey, listen. This is not a rupture. It’s a break. So let me reassure you this is why I’m taking the break. There’s an explanation. And this is when I’m coming back.” What happens on a good day, you can’t control it but it optimizes your chances, your partner listens to this and goes, “OK. She’ll be back. I don’t have to go chase after her.” And you actually get the distance.
So that’s a good example of what I mean by operating with more skill. You take care of your partner, you actually get the damn distance. Don’t take care of your partner, and she’s knocking at your door.
TS: How did you discover the core skills that you teach?
TR: Bloodily. [laughs] People have asked me how I became a family therapist and I jokingly always say, “I started about four years old in my dysfunctional family.” I come from a violent, dysfunctional, depressed family and I was pretty messed up for most of my life. I write about it in I Don’t Want to Talk About It. That’s autobiographical in part. There’s this old joke that therapists are people that have to be in therapy 40 hours a week.
I had to learn how to be a therapist to heal myself. And then I had to learn how to be a couples and family therapist to figure out how to have a relationship. A lot of it is what I learned by many mentors, and a lot of it is trial and error in my 34-year marriage to the extraordinary Belinda Berman, who’s been an incredible teacher. Sometimes Belinda and I will look at each other and smile and say, “I just want to thank you for giving this opportunity to work on myself.” [laughs]
TS: Really though, most of these skills came from your own personal laboratory versus some method that you were taught?
TR: Yes. That’s a big part of RLT. We don’t hide behind a professional myth. We’re in the mud with you. I will say to couples, “Look. If you come from a dysfunctional culture, so do I. If you come from a dysfunctional family, so did I. And the skills that I’m downloading to you are the same skills I use in my marriage every day. And on the days I don’t use them, I look just as ugly as you two,” which I do, by the way. Couples love hearing that from a therapist.
So this is the path I walk every day. Really, my authority comes from my own … It’s more like a 12-step sponsor than a therapist. My authority and all RLT therapists’ authority comes from our own relational recovery. That’s where the rubber hits the road. And that’s where I’ve learned most of this stuff.
TS: Now, in RLT, you offer a golden rule of relational empowerment and I want to make sure we talk about that because a golden rule’s a big deal. And here’s what you say the golden rule is, “What can I give you to help you give me what I want?”
TR: Yes, isn’t that cool?
TS: It’s pretty cool.
TS: So give me some examples of the golden rule in action, how it works.
TR: Belinda says to me, “I would like you to be less defensive. When I confront you about something, I would like you to be empathic to my feelings and not be defensive about what’s going on with you and try and deliver for me.” And I say, “OK. I’m going to do that.” On a good day, I say, “OK. I can be defensive and I will try to work on that.” She then follows up with, “What could I do to help you be less defensive?” And I say, “You could be less accusing and critical.” And she says, “OK. I’ll work on that. How would I be less accusing and critical and still get it said?” I say, “Well, you might say instead of, ‘You did this wrong,’ ‘This would be better for me.’ Leave out what I did wrong and just tell me about what you want.” And she’ll say, “OK. I’ll work on that.”
So the minute you ask your parnter to do something and they come on board and say, “OK, I’ll try,” You humbly put yourself at their service. “What could I do to help you try that?” Why would I do that? I call this “helping them win.” I want you to win because winning means you give me what the hell I want, so why wouldn’t I want you to win? It’s also called working like a team. It’s also called thinking relationally instead of thinking linearly. I’m in the system with you.
Thinking relationally is synonymous with thinking ecologically. The relationship is your biosphere. I’m not above it. That’s the essential mistake of patriarchy, dominion over. It’s not about dominion over. I have the humility of understanding that we’re a component-part system and I am humbly a part of that system. So what can I do on my side of the seesaw to trigger a different response in you? That’s my responsibility. That’s called working a relationship, and you have to have humility to do that.
TS: OK. Let’s take an example where one partner in the couple wants to have sex a lot more than the other partner. How could the golden rule of relational empowerment come into play?
TR: Well, first of all, this is a good example of thinking relationally instead of thinking linearly. Linearly is, “I want more sex in this relationship and you’re not giving it to me.” OK, well, how well is that going to go over? Relationally is, “Honey, we both deserve to have a good sex life. This isn’t it. What do you need? What can we do together to revitalize our sex life?”
Which of those two approaches do you think is going to be more successful? “What do you need from me in order for you to feel more sexual?” “Well, I need you to slow down. I need you to be less demanding. I need you to stop bitching about not having sex. I need you to light a few candles and have a little romance.” “OK. I’ll do it.” That’s an excellent example of what I’m talking about.
See, couples come to see me and they’re all essentialists. In other words, what’s wrong with my partner? Them. That’s what’s wrong with them. What’s wrong with Tami is her essential Tami-ness. Why doesn’t she want to have sex? “She’s just a frigid person like her mother.” Then I get the woman in. Or let’s say, I get the woman in and I say, “Why don’t you want to have sex?” It’s, “Well, he’s a lousy lover. He’s selfish. We can’t talk about it. Blah blah blah blah.” It turns out there’s 50 things the person could do to warm up their partner. And it’s the couples therapist’s job to put you back in the picture, to say, “Listen, the reason why your partner is responding this way is, guess what? You. So if you change your behavior on your side of the seesaw, you may be able to influence the transaction between the two of you.” That’s thinking systemically. And that’s what the therapist provides to the couple because they’re not thinking that way themselves.
TS: Now, you mentioned that when people come to you, they often have this idea, “My partner’s just frigid,” or whatever. One of the phrases I learned from your work is the idea that we can have a Core Negative Image.
TR: Yes. CNI.
TS: A CNI about our partner. I flashed on the CNI that I have about my partner and that was OK. And then I imagined the CNI that she had about me, and I thought…
TR: That’s a little tougher.
TS: That’s terrible. That’s absolutely terrible.
TR: And completely wrong.
TS: Well, yes. It was a frightening few moments there. What do we do though with the CNI that we have about our partner, this image, this Core Negative Image?
TR: It’s a very helpful thing, unearthing your Core Negative Image of each other. First of all, one of the great things about it is it’s consistent. For example, Belinda thinks of me, her CNI of me, is that I am a, let’s see, an irresponsible, selfish, undependable, charming boy. So I have a CNI of her as being demanding, insatiable, critical, micromanaging witch. By the way, I don’t mind outing ourselves because this is not a rare-
TS: We’re outing you, Terry.
TR: This is not a rare heterosexual pairing.
TR: But anyway, here’s the example. I leave the milk out of the refrigerator. This is true when the kids were little. They’re grown now. And Belinda gets CNI triggered. So she starts talking to me like I’m that irresponsible child. Now normally what I would do is I would react to her exaggerated imagery about me and I would say, “Oh come on. It’s just a damn milk carton…” and I would try and get her out of her CNI. The devilish thing about this CNI stuff is the things that I would do to push against her CNI of me, confirm her CNI of me. “Oh come on, it’s just a milk carton. Don’t be such a bitch. Blah blah blah.” And she’s thinking, “See, I told you, you wouldn’t be responsible.”
Her CNI gets triggered of me. My CNI gets triggered of her. The two CNIs are battling with each other. I like to say, the couple can sit down and have a beer. The CNIs just duking it out with each other. There are numerous things you can do with this. First of all, is if you know what your CNI of your partner is, start to take it with a grain of salt. Your CNI of your partner is an exaggerated version of your partner at her worst. It’s not her at baseline. It’s certainly not her at best. And it’s not even an accurate description of her at worst, it’s just sort of like a…
TR: … yes, it’s a caricature of her at her worst. It does have a seed of truth in it though. But it’s just a seed. I say it’s like looking at your partner through the wrong end of a telescope. It’s like, “Oh my God. They’re such an impossible jerk.” Know that you’re CNI triggered and relax a little bit. It helps with your boundaries. It helps you stay moderate. It helps you disbelieve your negative image.
But the real juice comes when you know what her CNI of you is. Because her CNI of you is operating instructions. Can I ask what’s your partner’s first name is?
TS: Oh my. Oh that part, yes, sure. Her name’s Julie.
TR: Julie. So anything that you do that comes close to her negative image of you, will trigger her. It will upset her. And conversely, anything that you do that’s the opposite of those qualities, will make her happy, will chill her out. Your partner’s CNI of you is actually a compass pointing in the opposite direction of where you need to go, consistently. It’s operating instructions. So anything I do with my wife that looks irresponsible… I forget to pick up one of the kids and I’m half an hour late or something. So she gets CNI triggered.
I come home and she goes, “I can’t believe you did this. Blah blah blah.” If I go, “Well, you’re making a big deal out of it. Blah blah blah.” That’s more CNI triggering. If I go, “You’re absolutely right. I can be a total jerk. I’m so sorry. Blah blah blah,” and I take responsibility, well, that’s the opposite of her CNI and she chills. Your CNI of your partner is something you want to take with a grain of salt. Your partner’s CNI of you is something that you want to not get very close to, in fact, get as far away from as you can. Knowing what they are gives you a lot of instructions about how to work this person, how to be in a relationship.
TS: So someone’s listening and they’re thinking, “I don’t even know if my partner and I could share our CNI of each other…”
TR: Well, they’re pretty explosive, yes.
TS: “… without that being quite difficult and damaging.” I know the subtitle of the program, the new program you’ve created with Sounds True is, Standing Up to One Another with Love. In thinking of even just saying, “Hey, let’s talk about our CNI. Let’s go ahead. Let’s do it.”
TS: Is that standing up to one another with love?
TR: No. That’s being dumb.
TS: No. That’s not it. OK. Glad I checked that out with you.
TR: There’s some skills that precede that. This is the highest risk exercise of all the exercises…
TS: Oh, really?
TR: … sharing each other’s CNI. Yes. This is live ammo. Before you do that, you have to have a modicum of recovery and self-esteem so you don’t go into either one-down shame when you hear your partner’s CNI of you, or one-up grandiosity and superiority,”I can’t believe you think that, you…” So you have to have a modicum of recovery around self-esteem and you have to have good boundaries, good internal boundaries, both of which I teach as part of the program.
You have to have a little recovery onboard before you do this CNI exercise and particularly you have to have good boundaries. Good boundary means, well, “This is what Tami’s making up about me. This is her CNI of me. Isn’t that interesting? Isn’t that important data about Tami?”
TS: Well, it has a seed of truth in it, too.
TR: Well, the beauty in knowing your CNI is if I can instead of fighting, which is what most people do, most people react to the exaggeration in it and they fight against the exaggeration. If I can duck under that instead of oppose it and say, “Well, you know, I really can be irresponsible and selfish some time,” then things calm down. It’s like the Chinese finger puzzle. The more you push against it, the tighter it gets, and the way out is to move into it instead of oppose it. You come at me and you go, “Terry, you were supposed to be at this interview at 10:00, and you show up at 10:15. You’re so irresponsible. You’re so this. You’re so that.”
Instead of my saying, “Look, OK, it was only 15 minutes,” which would reinforce your CNI of me. If I were to say, “You’re right, I was 15 minutes late. I can be selfish in those ways. It’s a character defect of mine. I’m really sorry. What could I do to help you feel better and calm down?”
TS: That would be one way of addressing your CNI, but an even further step would be to make an extra effort to be on time, especially with your spouse, if you knew that was something that was really an issue for them. Correct?
TS: But that would be going in the opposite direction.
TR: Right. Because I know that Belinda’s CNI of me is irresponsible and selfish, anything… if I know her CNI of me is irresponsible and selfish, back when the kids were young, I show up and I go, “Honey, I’ve arranged for a babysitter and a show.” If I take the initiative and I’m uber-responsible, she’s glowing. And conversely, anything that I do that’s sloppy and irresponsible will furrow her brow.
TS: Well, people could make good use of this even if they’re not ready to confront their spouse and share CNIs if that seems too explosive. Most of us kind of know. We kind of know.
TR: I think we know. I think we know. It has to be done from your functional adult. You can’t use this exercise to clobber your partner. Keep it brief, four or five words. That’s it. Own it. It’s your production. This is my negative image of you at your worst. But unless somebody’s extremely manipulative, like an addict or something, or a nut, they’re CNI… Look, nobody would call Belinda an irresponsible child. And no one would call me too tight and controlling. This is not the person to the left or the right of you. It is you. It’s very disarming to know it and own it.
TS: Another idea that you bring forward is something you call normal marital hatred. I think part of the reason I went in this direction of there’s a Core Negative Image that we have of our partner and even hatred in our marriage is normal, is that I think it’s something we don’t talk about a lot.
TR: We don’t.
TS: And yet, I know it’s in me. I think it’s common. There’s another relationship therapist, David Schnarch, who coined the term “normal marital sadism”. So my wife and I have joked about that term in our marriage on occasion, when it’s come up. It’s like, “this is just an example of normal marital sadism.” I actually think it’s a healthy thing to be able to name. That this feeling of, “I hate you right now,” is actually “normal.”
TR: Yes. Isn’t it great?
TS: It relieved me to hear that I’m not just…
TR: Yes. I’m glad.
TS: … the only person with these terrible thoughts in my head. What do people do when they feel those feelings like-
TR: Normal marital hatred?
TR: First of all, I want to tell you I’ve been talking about normal marital hatred for 25, 30 years.
TS: You’re a pioneer, Terry.
TR: Yes, I am. And not one person has ever come to me at the end of a talk and said, “What do you mean by that?”
TS: Sure. We all know it.
TR: We all know what it is. Look, to be abstract for a moment, let me zoom out, do big picture. All relationships are a dance of harmony, disharmony, and repair. Closeness, disruption, and return to closeness. I got that from Ed Tronick’s work, infant observational research out of Harvard. The baby’s molded loose as a noodle. Mother and child are like totally great and then there’s some gas or a noise and the baby freaks out and the mother freaks out. Everybody’s freaking out trying to regulate each other, and then the nipple’s accepted or the gas passes and then we’re back to molded again.
What Tronick discovered is, that is the rhythm of relationship. Closeness, disruption, return to closeness. I’ve transposed that to adult relationships. I talk about the harmony phase, the disillusionment phase, and the mature phase. Closeness, disruption, repair. By the way, that’s where all the skills come, how to move from disruption to repair. Well, we don’t acknowledge in our culture that the disillusionment phase even exists, let alone what to do with it. The first thing is to get on the table that that disruption phase, whether it’s momentary or whether it’s months or even it could be a couple years in a marriage. First of all, that doesn’t mean you’re in a bad marriage, it just means you’re in a marriage.
Second of all, it can be dark. It can be really… The father of couples therapy, James Framo once said, this is back in the ’50s when it was assumed the person you were sleeping with was your spouse. He said, “The day you turn to the person sleeping next to you and you say to yourself, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been had. This is not the person I fell in love with. This is a dreadful mistake. This is impossible.’ That day,” says Framo, “is the first day of your real marriage.”
See, to be abstract for a moment, I believe that what we long for is the divine. What we long for are gods or goddesses that are going to complete us and never let us down and perfect us. And what we’re stuck with is an imperfect human being who has all sorts of warts and moles just like we do. What’s lost in our culture is that it’s exactly the collision of your particular imperfections with mine and how we manage that together. That is the stuff of intimacy. That’s the guts of intimacy. I wouldn’t want a perfect relationship. That’s what drives us deep. But you have to know how to get from that disillusionment into addressing things.
I have to take that normal marital hatred and I have to say, “Look. The reason why I’m despising you right now is because for the last four months you’ve barely said hello to me.” Or, “Because every time we go out in public, you demean me.” Or, “Because, because, because.” There are reasons and they need to be addressed, but most people don’t know how to do that.
TS: OK. There’s one more observation from your work that really struck me that I want to highlight. You said, “If you want to work on your relationship, you have to totally let go of the facts of the situation and just honor the other’s understanding. Objective reality has no place in close personal relationships.”
TR: It’s a bitch, isn’t it?
TS: I thought that was pretty big.
TR: It’s a bitter pill.
TS: Yes. Let go of the facts.
TR: Let go of the facts. The relational answer to the question, “Who’s right and who’s wrong?” is, “Who cares?” Who cares? The real question is, how are you and I going to work this through in a way that’s going to work for both of us? Who’s right and who’s wrong is one of my five losing strategies. It’s called being right. You try to “solve your differences” by coming to one right conclusion about what really did happen last Tuesday or whose feelings are really valid, or who’s doing what to whom. Good luck. Good luck with that. It doesn’t matter.
What matters is, I care about you. You’re unhappy with something. What can I do to help you get happier because I want you to be happier because I live with you? To say nothing of the fact that I love you, I just have to deal with you. So it’s in my interest to help you feel better. It’s got nothing to do with whether it really did or didn’t happen. I call this relational jiu-jitsu. You don’t oppose your partner when they’re unhappy or giving you feedback, you duck under the wave and meet the resistance. You don’t oppose the resistance.
Another winning golden rule is the phrase, “What could I do that would help you feel better right now?” Just that.
TS: Could I write that down? No, I’m just kidding. That’s good.
TR: What can I say or do that would help you feel better right now? I’m sorry you feel bad. How simple is that? But it means that you put yourself in the service of your partner. It’s not a dialogue. Therapy has tried to promote this idea of dialogue. That is just terrible. It’s not a dialogue, it’s a one-way street. You’re in a state of disrepair. I don’t want you to feel bad. What can I do to help you come back into repair? You’re not interested in me. You talk to me about your unhappiness and what do most of us do? Well, I talk to you about my unhappiness with you. I’ll go tit for tat. Or I’ll explain why you shouldn’t be unhappy with me or I’ll rebut it in some way.
I like to say, your partner comes you in a state of unhappiness. You’re at the customer service window. Somebody comes to the customer service window and says, “My microwave doesn’t work.” They don’t want to hear you say, “Well, my toaster doesn’t work.” They want you to give them a new microwave. Take care of your partner. Then they might have some interest in your explanations of your experience. But that comes last.
TS: That sounds good. I like that idea. This is the customer service window. But if I’m feeling resentful, I don’t want to… I want to talk about my broken toaster.
TR: Well, that’s the adaptive child part of you. The functional adult part of you can take a breath and go, “Yes, I want to talk about my issues, but it’s not my turn right now. And I know that that’s not going to work. I’m going to go through door B this time. That’s about making…” Look, this is very grown-up stuff, these skills. You have to be grown-up to pull it off.
I talk about, my institute is always financially on the ropes, as all institutes are. I have a million merchandising ideas that we’ll never do. One of them is a T-shirt, on the front it would read something like, relational living and on the back it would read, “I choose door B.” You take a breath. You know what door he’s going to get you. “Well, I want to talk to you about my damn toaster.” Well, you know how that’s going to go. This minute, this one time, I’m going to listen to you talk about your microwave. And I’m going to see if that goes better. I’m going to choose door B. That’s what relational mindfulness is all about, keeping your wits about you and doing it differently.
I talk about second consciousness. Your first consciousness is your automatic response. “Well, your microwave, my toaster.” Your second consciousness cuts in—and you can cultivate this. That’s the beauty. Second consciousness cuts in and goes, “I know what’s going to happen if I do that. This minute I’m going to do this instead of that.” One of the things I say is, everybody says relationships are work, but nobody tells you what it is. The real work of relationships are not even day by day, it’s minute to minute. In this minute right here, am I going to do the same old same old or am I going to take a breath, get relationally mindful, and then choose something that’s more functional? That’s the actual practice of living relationally.
TS: Of all the skills that you teach, what’s the hardest one for you to put into action?
TR: Oh, relational jiu-jitsu is the hardest one. Belinda comes at me, “Terry, you this,” and, “Terry, you that,” and “Terry, the other thing.” It would be easier if she were in her functional adult. The hardest skill is meeting immoderateness with moderateness. When my partner comes at me and she’s in her adaptive child, man, I just want to go right into the mud pit with her.
TR: The art of taking a deep breath, digging down deep, and staying in my functional adult when Belinda’s not in her functional adult, that’s really hard. What I tell people is, you try a couple, three times to see if you can get your partner to be reasonable with you. “Oh honey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. I can see how you feel bad, but let me…” You try that a couple, three times, if it doesn’t work, you take a break. Stop beating your head against the wall.
I’m from Boston and so I have the southeast Boston, blue-collar south Boston Irish. I had a guy, I said, “When your wife won’t come through, try a couple, three times, and then go make a sandwich.” He came to me three months later. He said, “Hey, Doc. Can you give me something else to do? I’m getting fat.” [laughs] For me, I call this relational integrity. If you’re in your functional adult and your partner’s in his or her functional adult, that’s gravy. If you’re in your functional adult, your partner’s out of her mind and you dig down deep and you don’t go out of your mind with her, that’s relational integrity. That’s riding a bike uphill.
It doesn’t feel very good. It takes a lot of discipline, but it builds strong muscles. I have a saying, in a long-term relationship, everybody gets to go crazy but you have to take turns. If every time A gets crazy, B gets crazy with him, you’re done. So when Belinda comes at me with self-righteous… We’re both fighters. And if she comes at me with self-righteous energy or accusation or whatever, the adult thing to do is say something like, “B, I want to hear you. Could you tone it down so I can hear you better?” The whoosh in me is like, “Who the hell do you think you are talking to me like…”
Taking a breath, containing… That’s boundary work. Containing that impulse, settling into my adult, holding myself in warm regard, holding her in warm regard even though she’s out of her mind, and doing whatever I can to make things better, that moment right there, that’s a tough moment.
TS: Well, and if you’re at the customer service desk, then you would even be this crazy person has come with their broken microwave and they’re crazy about it, you would even be looking at, “How can I help you?”
TR: You know what? People do this all the time. This is particularly true for men. If somebody comes at you and they’re kind of inflamed, what they’re saying may have a lot of validity, but 999 out of 1000 people will react to the inflammation, the bad delivery. “Well, don’t you talk to me like that or blah blah blah blah.” Part of ducking under the wave is instead of paying attention to the delivery, pay attention to the point the person’s trying to make. Duck under it.
Belinda comes at me, “Blah blah blah blah.”… and on a good day, and I really do sound like this on a good day. On a good day, instead of, “Don’t you talk to me like that!” Or even, “Honey, could you please calm down?” Which is OK, that’s a good B plus. But an A is, “Gosh, you know, you’re right. I did do blah blah blah and I could see why you would feel bad about that and I’m sorry.” You just disarm it. It’s pretty egoless.
TS: Well, I noticed when you used the customer service metaphor, that’s very helpful for me. We have a customer service department here at Sounds True and I understand that idea, so that’s very helpful.
TR: Yes. You’ve got to satisfy the dissatisfied person. It’s what I call keeping your wits about you. What are you about right now? Are you about proving that you’re right and arguing? One of the things I say is, if you lead with an argument, you’ll get an argument. I talk about keeping your eyes on the prize. Belinda and I used to fight for days 20 years ago. We don’t anymore, very rarely. What happens now is, and I say this to the couples I work with all the time, what happens now is we’ll get into a fight. One or the other of us will take a break, a responsible break. “I’m taking a break. I’ll come back.”
We come back 15, 20 minutes, maybe up to an hour. And it sounds something like this. “Hey, honey, I don’t want to fight. Do you want to fight? I don’t want to fight. What do you need?” “Well,” says Belinda, “You could really apologize for blah blah blah.” “OK, got it. I am sorry.” “What do you need?” “Well, Belinda, you could really say you’re accountable about blah blah blah.” “OK, I got it.” Now, the reason why it works, what I’m really honestly thinking when I go back and I say, “I don’t want to fight,” is, how do I want to spend my evening? Do I want to spend my evening fighting or do I want to cuddle on the couch and watch a great TV show?
It’s really about me taking responsibility about, do I want door A or am I going to try door B? That’s my job.
TS: Just two final questions, Terry. Your audio series with Sounds True is called Fierce Intimacy.
TS: What’s the fierce part?
TR: Well, we haven’t talked about this, but I believe that because people don’t know how to do it, I gotta give them that. What happens in relationships is that we stop telling the truth to each other. We stop taking each other on. When you stop taking each other on, the first casualty is passion. You say that you’re compromising, but really you’re settling and you resent it like hell. Resentment builds. Generosity dies. Passion dies. It’s really a bad deal.
I want people to really grab each other by the collar and deal with each other. I really don’t like it when you dot dot dot. I really would prefer if you dot dot dot. But you have to do it with love. If you do it with self-righteous indignation, you’re done. There’s an art. I talk about this in length on the tape. Can I tell you a story?
TS: Yes, yes.
TR: I’ll tell you how this was born.
TR: It was my friend, Alan Slobodnik, who taught me this, a therapist who’s in recovery himself. I was at his house at a barbecue with my wife and kids and his family. And long story short, he did something that really got to me, really pissed me off. And I got into self-righteous indignation as I can do. I have that fault line. I was just pasting the guy. It was a hot moment between us. I was yelling, basically, and when he came back at me, his whole body was trembling. His voice was trembling. He was red. It was serious. Here’s what he said to me, Tami.
He said, “Listen.” He was like, intense. He said, “Listen. The first and most important thing I want you to understand is that I love you. You’re my best friend. You’re going to be one of my best friends ‘til the day I die. The rest of what I’m going to say has nothing to do with that. I want to be clear. Now, I grew up in a rageful family as you well know. I invite you to my family, to my barbecue, you come up on my porch, and you unleash that kind of rage at me in front of my wife and kid. I want to tell you, I don’t like it. Now, I can’t control you, Terry. I don’t even want to. You’re going to do what you do, but if you come at me with that energy which I spent my life divesting of, I’m going to tell you in no uncertain terms just how much I don’t like it. And brother, I don’t like it. Am I making myself clear?” That’s what he said to me. Here’s what I said to him. You ready? He had me.
TS: Yes. You couldn’t say anything.
TR: He had me. He had me with, “Terry, the first thing I want to tell you is I love you.” I’m a fighter. If he’d come at me with rage, I would have known exactly what to do. But that one just opened my heart. So I began to experiment with, and now teach my couples, I go into it in great detail in the tape, how to cherish your partner and cherish the relationship in the same breath as standing up for yourself. It sounds like this. It’s the difference between saying for example, “Tami, I don’t like how you’re talking to me.”
TR: Instead, it turns into, “Tami, I really want to hear what you have to say. You’re important to me. Could you tone it down so I could listen?” They’re two ways of saying the same thing. But one’s going to get it done and one isn’t.
TS: Can you give me a couple other examples in a marriage?
TR: Well, you mentioned the sex thing. There’s a difference between, “You’re not giving me the sex that I deserve.” Or saying, “Honey, we both deserve to have a good sex life. I really miss you. What can I do to help you be more sexual with me?” You start off by appreciating the partner.
You start off with your intention. “Honey, I want to be close to you right now, and the way that you’re dealing with me is pushing me far away. Now, you don’t really want to push me far away. Can you deal with me differently so that I can stay close to you?” You stay with the intention. You honor the partner and you honor the relationship at the same time you tell the truth about what’s going on. It takes a little practice.
TS: OK. Here’s my final question, but I’m going to begin it actually with a statement. Which is, I believe that the skills you’re teaching and the skills of being in a long-term, committed relationship that is really alive and joyful and happy, deep partnership, are the skills that will help us evolve as a human species. They are the necessary skills. I personally believe that. And I’m really committed to it. It’s something that’s really important to me.
You’re the relationship therapist, so this is your profession. I’m just a person in a relationship that believes that this is an evolutionary path, not just for me, but for humans. So I’m wondering how you see it, how you see these skills that we learn in our committed partnership translating into actually being a salvation—strong language—for our culture, for our world?
TR: Well, I talk about leading men and women out of patriarchy. It’s an old-fashioned word, but patriarchy really means dominion, power over instead of power with, as Riane Eisler put it. I think it’s the essential mistake of humanity. I think that thinking relationally is synonymous with thinking ecologically, and it’s wise. It’s moving from blindness to wisdom. It’s putting it in the paycheck. This is a spiritual practice. This is an evolutionary practice. But it’s not like you sit down on the couch or sit on your pillow and get high. There’s a place for that.
But it’s about bringing that sense of … I talk about what I call deathbed consciousness. You and I are having a big fight and God forbid, the phone rings and the cancer is malignant. What happens to the fight? It’s gone. Now it’s just how much I love you. And I want you to be in that deathbed consciousness every minute of your life, and go from there. I call it “keeping your wits about you” or “remembering love.” Remembering that the person you’re dealing with is someone you care about and the reason why you’re opening up your mouth is to make it better. Staying in that centered, adult part of us, or if you want to say it differently, staying in that spiritual part of us. They’re really synonyms for each other.
This is about bringing that evolutionary spiritual practice into our daily living, not … in relationship to ourselves, that’s an important part. But you know, I sit Zen or I sat Zen for a number of years. When I was writing I Don’t Want to Talk About It, I sat with my Zen teacher and he said, “How are you doing?” I said, “I’m manic. I’m jazzed. I think I have figured out the essence of male violence and what to do about it. I think I might save the planet.” And he said, “Great.” I said, “Look, from a Zen perspective, what would you say to that?” And he would say, “How have you been treating Belinda?” And in fact, I’d been a jerk to Belinda because I was so consumed with how grand I was.
Put it in the paycheck. Bring that evolution here. One of the things I say is, we may not be able to bring peace to the Mid East or to Syria or whatever, but we can bring peace to our living rooms and our bedroom. So start with your life. And our life is relationships. So learn how to do that and learn how to do it well.
TS: Terry, I so enjoyed talking with you. Thank you.
TR: You’re welcome, my dear.
TS: Thank you.
TR: It’s been great.
TS: Terry Real is the author of the book, The New Rules of Marriage, and with Sounds True has created a new audio learning series called Fierce Intimacy. Thank you so much.
TR: You’re welcome.
TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at soundstrue.com/podcast. And if you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app. And also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.