Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge, produced by Sounds True. My name’s Tami Simon, I’m the founder of Sounds True, and I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the Sounds True Foundation. The goal of the Sounds True Foundation is to provide access and eliminate financial barriers to transformational education and resources, such as teachings and trainings on mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion. If you’d like to learn more and join with us in our efforts, please visit SoundsTrueFoundation.org.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, my guest is Terry Real. Terry is an internationally recognized family therapist and the bestselling author of, I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. Along with a book called, The New Rules of Marriage, and a brand new book, Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship. With Sounds True, Terry’s the author of a highly acclaimed and loved… I hear so much positive feedback from so many people about this series. It’s called Fierce Intimacy: Standing Up to One Another with Love.
I absolutely love talking with Terry Real. I’ll tell you why he gets me off my I-know-I’m-right-in-this-relationship position and instead to a place of, you know, I’m going to figure out what works for us. Here’s my conversation with Terry Real.
Terry, I’m so happy to have this chance to be with you and to talk about your new book, Us, a New York Times bestseller.
Terry Real: I’m excited.
TS: All right. OK. So right here at the beginning, you’re known as the relationship turnaround guy. How did you come, in your career, in your work, to that role and to really focus on relationships in general, as a practitioner?
TR: It’s kind of interesting, actually. Back in the ‘90s, I published a book called I Don’t Want to Talk About It, about male depression. It was the first book ever about male depression. Until that time, depression was seen as primarily a woman’s disease, just like alcoholism had been seen as a man’s disease. And I’m proud of my role in bringing that to the fore.
There are an estimated 6 million depressed people in America. So the book did really well. And I began getting calls from not just America but really around the world saying, is there somebody who does this kind of work in Topeka or LA or wherever? And the calls, of course, were primarily from women.
It’s women who bought my book. I say I Don’t Want to Talk About It appeared under pillows all over the states. And these were couples in trouble. I would refer them to a therapist as best I could, but after a while the light bulb went off and I said, look, if you’re crazy enough and you have the resources, come to Boston where I work and be with me. And what evolved was a two-day intervention, I called it a relationship intervention. Me and the couple, two days straight, face-to-face. At the end of those two days, you’re either on track or getting a divorce. This was the last stop.
And I learned two things. One, I had a remarkable track record. We’re just now doing outcome studies. It’s not formal, but honestly I’d say 19 out of 20 couples were pulled off the ledge. They all went home with a treatment program. You go to AA, you go to get some medication, you do meditation, you do this, that. But most of them were spared a divorce.
And these were people that no therapists have been able to—six, seven, eight, or ten therapists is my record, that nobody’s been able to help. The second thing I noticed about these relational interventions is that I broke just about every rule I’d learned in a couples therapy school.
So I’d already been teaching family therapy at that point, and rather than have a big shame attack and figure, oh my God, I must be doing something wrong. I said, oh, I seem be doing something right. I invited a friend at that point, the great feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan, assembled a group behind the one-way mirror, we did a five-year research project. And this was sociologists, anthropologists, educators, therapists of different stripes.
I would meet with a couple on the brink of divorce for two hours in front of the mirror, then Carol and the team would come out from behind the mirror. And one by one, they would each talk about what they just saw me do from their perspective—anthropology, sociology, whatever. And it was really out of these conversations that my method, Relational Life Therapy, was created. And we break a lot of rules. If I may?
TR: We take sides. When I was a couples therapist, the cardinal rule was, if you took sides, particularly if you sided with the woman against the man, you had to go to your supervisor and talk about your mother for a while. Like you’d lost your neutrality. But not all problems are 50-50.
I remember sitting with a couple, he was an untreated, unmedicated, alcoholic rager, and her quote-unquote contribution, as far as I could see, is that she was there. This was the feminist critique of family therapy, talking to an abused spouse about their contribution to the system is grotesque.
So in RLT, Relational Life Therapy, we’re perfectly capable of saying that Mrs. Jones, you’re a nut and Mr. Jones, you’re an even bigger nut and here’s why. So we take sides. We tell the truth. I think it’s one of our great contributions. We deal not just with shame but also with grandiosity.
TS: Yes. And this is something, Terry, I really want to talk to you about, because in your new book, Us, you go into quite a bit of detail about grandiosity and relationships and the roots of grandiosity in our individual lives and the culture. So let’s take some time together on this.
TR: OK. Anyway, so I began teaching this method and now we have a training program. If I can put it, come to my website, RelationalLife.com. We have a beautiful two-year certification program and we’re training thousands of therapists around the world. So it’s very exciting.
TS: So let’s talk about grandiosity. Why and how did you start tracking it, and help us understand it in ourselves and in our relationships and in the culture? It’s a big question here, but I think is really important.
TR: I was raised by a loving, depressed, angry, violent father. I write about it. And in fact, I believe I became a psychotherapist in order to get the skills I needed to talk to my tortured father and find out what the hell happened to him, so that I wouldn’t become him. And I was just writing a piece for a newspaper—I am the son of a depressed, angry man. He was the son of a depressed, angry man. I have two resplendent boys, 32, 35. They do not say that and their children will not say that. And that is the greatest accomplishment of my life. I have been the recipient of male grandiosity and male abuse of power and I internalized that. I was a rager early on in my life, I also internalized it as depression and shame. I attacked myself as so many of us do.
One of my insights—one day I figured out that the energy of shame, which we’ve been focused on as a field for 50 years, helping people come up from the one down, the energy of shame and the energy of grandiosity, superiority, are not different. It’s the same energy in two different directions, and the emotion is contempt.
I ask people to think of it like a flashlight, when the flashlight of contempt beams out on you. Oh, I can’t believe that Tami, she’s such an idiot, blah, blah, blah. We call that grandiosity. When the flashlight beams on me, it can even be the same exact words. What an idiot I am. We call that shame, but it’s exactly the same energy.
And what I figured out and began working on, first in my own life and marriage and then with my clients and students, is how to live a contempt-free life, nonviolent. This is way before Nonviolent Communication, but it’s akin. Nonviolent between you and others and nonviolent between your ears.
So as you know, in the book I talk about coming out from under the great lie. And the great lie is that a human being can be essentially superior or inferior to another human being. We are equal, we are same as. We all have the same inherent worth. We all have the same value. It can’t be added, it can’t be subtracted from. It’s an existential or spiritual fact. And our culture runs on the lie of superiority and inferiority. It absolutely infuses our day-to-day life, minute to minute, every day that we live.
TS: Let me ask you a question, Terry, because as you were speaking, I’m scanning for, if I want to live a contempt-free life, where would I notice contempt? How would I notice it coming up in the course of my day, of my life? And I don’t think I think about contempt really as one of the—I think about envy maybe, or tearing someone down, but I don’t name that contempt as underneath it. So how could I do a contempt scan on my life?
TR: Well, I would ask our viewers to, literally, I have an exercise where at the end of the day, you do a self-esteem journal and you note when you were one up and when you were one down and what the physical sensation is, that’s the marker. We all have the same physical sensation. When I go down, my dad used to swat me over the back of the head. When I go down my shoulders go up, I don’t know that anybody sees it, but my body feels like I’m protecting my head and I’m looking up. Like when I go up, I literally look down my nose at people.
The thing is, this is every—I’ll tell you a story. So this is how I illustrate it. Back when my kids were little, I’m at a PTO dinner and this guy comes up to me and I hadn’t seen him. And the first thing I notice is he’s really fit, he’s really good looking. And I’m always struggling with a little pot belly. And so I look at this incredibly fit guy, I go down into shame. I feel old and fat. Oh God. And I’m one down, I’m inferior.
And then I think to myself, well yes, this guy looks great. He’s a gym rat. He’s a trust-fund kid. He comes from money and he’s never had the work a day in his life, so he can be at the gym. Me, I’m a self-made man, and I’m one up. And while I’m one up, looking down my nose at him, I notice I still have more hair than he does. And I’m, like, glorying in that.
And then I think, yes, son of a gun is rich. I’m not rich. How come I’m not rich? Why can’t I be rich? So-and-so is rich. A lot of people I know are. And I go down. One up, one down, one up, one down, inferiority, superiority. Until I take a breath and I say to myself, you haven’t listened to a thing this guy’s been saying, why don’t you pay attention to what’s in front of you? And then I bring myself down into even.
The beauty of this is once you start to get aware of when you’re up and when you’re down, you can intervene. You don’t have to stay that way. And you can take a breath and reach up and literally bring yourself back into your body, looking at your eyes, even saying that, bring yourself up from that one down back into even and seeing that. And this is a muscle that can be cultivated.
TS: Now, one of the things you write as a motto, if you will, it’s a generalization of Relational Life Therapy that I thought was very powerful is, “I invite the weak to rise and stand up and the mighty to melt.” And I wonder if you can make that real for us, because as you’re talking in terms of working with a couple, there’s the down, there’s the up, and you’re having the mighty melt and the weak rise in a couple dynamic?
TR: It has to do with the skill of how to take on the mighty. Not all couples have this asymmetrical power dynamic, but many do. And when we do see an asymmetrical power dynamic, one’s grandiose, one’s shame-based, we call it the blatant and the latent. One is more blatantly egregious, and the other is more like an enabler.
Our first move is to empower the enabler to stand up, and then we use that as leverage to go after the grandiose one. As psychotherapists, we’re taught to be nice to everybody, and God forbid you confront anybody. We’re taught, form an alliance with a difficult client and then maybe after a year or two, you can confront.
In RLT, we form the alliance by dealing with difficult truths, right out of the starting gate. We call it joining through the truth, but it takes skill. And what I do is I reach for the decent person underneath the grandiosity, that I hope we get into it. I reach for the wise adult part of the person, rather than the adaptive child part, which is the grandiose part that they’ve been living through.
It sounds like this: Bill, you’re a nice person. Bill, who’s been a philanderer and a cheater and a liar for 20 years. You’re a nice person. You’re a good person. I can feel it sitting with you. I have been with people who are indecent to the bone, they’re called sociopaths. And they’re cold, but you’re warm. We’re connected. I like being with you. You know what’s so sad? I am talking to a decent man who’s behaved indecently for the last 20 years. Will you let me rescue the real you from this crap that you’ve been involved with?
Who says no to that? And they don’t, they don’t say no. So you have to reach through the grandiose part of the person to the living core, the wise adult part of them. I’ve never met an indecent person to the bone, there’s always a decent person in there and it is my job to, in some ways, bypass their adaptation, the grandiose difficult part of them, and form an alliance with the beating heart of who they really are.
And say come on, brother, let’s go. Let’s get on the journey. But it helps if the disempowered one has some oomph. Grandiosity impairs judgment, the more grandiose you are, the less empathic you are and the less you have a realistic assessment of negative consequences.
So as an RLT therapist, I hold the mirror of negative consequences up to you. If you don’t play ball with me, if you keep going the way you’re going, these are the negative things that are going to happen to you and your family. And if you do change, these are the positive rewards that await you. And partly it’s the partner—you’re going to lose your partner or you’re going to be in a miserable marriage.
A lot of times, I go for the kids. What kind of father were you? What kind of father do you want to be? What’s the legacy that you want to pass on to your kids? Will you let me help you be a better person than the people you grew up with?
So it’s really about healthy self-esteem means being able to feel bad about your bad behavior. That’s a good thing. If you don’t, you’re shameless, you’re a sociopath. But still hold yourself in warm regard. You’re a flawed person who behaved badly. You feel remorse and guilt about the bad behavior. You learn from it. You make repair, but you don’t go into self-attack.
This is like healthy self-esteem in action. As an RLT therapist, I’m holding the person in warm regard and casting a very cool eye on their bad behavior, or even some of their bad character traits. Look, this isn’t the best of you. Let’s wake up the best of you and bring that to the surface.
TS: When you see the mighty melt, what does that look like? What does the melting look like?
TR: Oh, it’s beautiful. It looks like remorse. It looks like an openheartedness. I talk about bringing the person out of cold outer space into connection, and it really is like waking up. The person turns to their partner, often crying and says, I can’t believe how stupid I’ve been. I’m so sorry. I can’t believe the way I treated you. I’m so sorry.
And also, by the way, this is about taking sides. When we take on the difficult grandiose partner, just because you’re latent doesn’t mean that you’re pleasant. You could be a pretty angry latent. A lot of women in particular who try—I have a saying, “An angry woman is generally a woman who doesn’t feel heard.” And they haven’t been heard and they’ve dragged, in this case, we’ll say their guy to six, seven therapists who—no one’s ever taken them on.
And when they see me take on the difficult partner, man, woman, nonbinary, whatever their usual response is, they cry. I say to them, you cannot get through to this person, but I can. You have not been heard by this person, but you’ve been heard today by me. Let me take them on. I’ll do a better job of it than you. You can relax. You can begin to enjoy them again. I’ve heard everything you said about them and you’re right. They are difficult and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I’m going to take care of it. And when we actually support the disempowered one and let them feel that help is on the way, the whole system completely transforms.
TS: Now I can imagine someone saying, God, I’m going to go see a Relational Life Therapist, because finally, because I’m right, they’re going to take my side. Thank goodness. Someone’s finally going to take my side. And then they go in, they see the therapist and guess what? The therapist says, actually, you’re the one who’s part of the problem. And then wouldn’t that person say, guess what? I’m out of here. I’m out of here. But you said no, you’re joining with the truth. Somehow they feel like they’re going to stay and work this out. What do you do so they don’t say, I’m out of here, you picked the wrong side.
TR: First of all, ultimately we don’t give a damn about who’s right and who’s wrong. We only care about what’s going to work between the two of you, and ultimately it does even out. The latent issues come to the fore the minute the blatant starts giving him or her what she wants, then the intimacy issues for the other one comes right out. So it’s not a question of you’re always right and you’re always wrong, it’s just that it’s not always 50-50, and the blatant one has to go first.
If you’re yelling and screaming and throwing plates and stuff, don’t come complaining to me about your partner not being close to you. I will help him or her get close to you, you just have to stop throwing plates. You go first, is the mantra that we often use.
And then I promise you, I will help, we’ll say, her warm up and if she doesn’t, I’m going to be just as firm with her as I’m being with you right now. But you have to go first because no one would warm up to you the way you’re behaving.
And there’s a way of just talking sense to people. I mean, people aren’t stupid. You say to somebody, I know that you’re upset that she isn’t sexual and she isn’t close to you. But look, whether you agree or not, she feels that you’re volatile. You’re angry, you’re demeaning, you’re controlling, or conversely, you’re shut down. You’re withdrawn. You’re unaccountable. How am I supposed to help you while you’re behaving like [that]. Let me clean up your act. And then I promise you I’ll get to the other one. I give you my word, but let’s do it in stages because you know what’s going to happen? If you don’t do this, I’m really worried about what’s going to happen to the two of you. That’s the negative consequence. And also remember your children are watching. You’re repeating what you grew up with, is that what you want to inflict on your kids?
Mnuchin used to talk about stroke/kick, it’s positive, pulling them out with a little fear of doom and gloom if they don’t, and you play—look, we call it joining through the truth. Any fool can clobber somebody with the truth. I have a two-year training program, you have to learn how to do this, but it’s a titrated dance of positive and negative but it all boils down to—somebody said to me once, can I boil down Relational Life Therapy in two sentences? I said, Yes. You want to hear my summary, Tami?
TS: Please. Of course, you kidding me? I’m a CliffsNotes kind of person.
TR: Here’s the whole of RLT in two sentences. “Aw, you don’t want to do that, do you? You want to do this.” That’s it, that’s the whole summary. It’s about motivating somebody to step up and do better for themselves and for their family.
TS: I’ve heard you say, Terry, that there’s no place for harshness, that it doesn’t work, it’s not effective, that it causes damage. And how do you help people who say, yes, I hear you, but they still find themselves—and when they get upset, they say harsh and mean things, and then they regret it. How do we get to a place where we’re actually not bringing meanness, harshness into our relationships?
TR: And also in our relationship to ourselves, we’re very harsh with ourselves as well. The exact quote is, “There’s nothing that harshness does that loving firmness doesn’t do better.” And the key is this. When I’m sitting with a couple, my first question is not, what are the stressors? A good couple can handle stuff, and it’s not even what’s the choreography? We’ll do it straight. The more she pursues, the more he distances, the more he distances, the more she pursues. That’s important, but not the most important.
The most important is this. Which part of you am I speaking to? Which part of you am I speaking to? And as you know, I go into this is great detail in the book. Am I speaking to the prefrontal cortex, the most mature part of the brain, present-based, here and now and non-triggered? The mature part of you that can make decisions? Or am I speaking to a triggered part of you? Trauma-based, either the wounded-child part, which is the recipient of the trauma, flooded, young, overwhelmed. Or am I speaking to what I call the adaptive child part of you? The adaptive child part of you is the you that you created as a kid to cope with whatever was going on. And it’s a kid’s version of an adult. And almost all of the people I see have lived most of their lives out of the adaptive child part, thinking that’s a wise adult and it’s not.
When we get triggered, the autonomic nervous system scans the body four times a second. Am I safe? Am I safe? Am I safe? Am I safe? If the answer is, yes, I’m safe. We stay seated in the prefrontal cortex. If the answer is no, I’m in danger, boom, we’re flooded.
We move into subcortical, automatic, knee-jerk responses. We do exactly what we learned to do as kids. We bring that into our relationships over and over again. It’s repetitive, it’s compulsive, and it gets the same result every time.
And the essence of the book and my work is what I call relational mindfulness, how in those triggered moments to take a breath, take a walk. I’m a big fan of breaks, get re-centered in the part of you that can remember love. Remember that the person you’re speaking to is someone you care about, and the reason why you’re talking is to make things better. That’s the first skill. If you stay in the adaptive child, you won’t use any other skill. It doesn’t want to.
The first skill is remembering that you want to make peace or whatever, you want to thrash things out with your partner to begin with, get centered there and then you can come into the fray. That’s where the hope—can I give you a story, an illustration?
TS: Of course. Of course, Yes.
TR: This is the story I’m using these days. True story. It’s one of the first stories of the book. Couple on the brink of divorce, the guy’s a chronic liar, lies about everything and his wife is going to leave him. And he is the kind of guy—other therapists know this guy. You say to him, the sky’s blue. He goes, well, it’s aquamarine. He is not going to give it to you, right? He’s got like a black belt in evasion. So we talk about the adaptive child dysfunctional stance, the thing you do over and over again. His adaptive stance, I can figure out in five minutes, is evasion. You’ve got a black belt in evasion. So I think relationally, I say something that if you’re thinking individualistically you would never occur, but relationally, what was that adaptive child adapting to?
So I say to him, who tried to control you growing up? His father, military man, how he sat, what clothes he wore, what friends he had, courses he took, everything. How did you deal with this controlling father? He looks at me and he smiles. That’s important, that smile is the force of resistance. He looks at me, he smiles and he goes, I lied. Brilliant.
I always teach my students, be respectful of the exquisite intelligence of the adaptive child. You did exactly what you needed to do back then to preserve your integrity and your home. Good for you. Smart boy. Great adaptation. But I have a saying, “Adaptive then, maladaptive now.” You’re not that little boy, your wife is not your father. So that’s it. They come back two weeks later. It’s absolutely true—hand in hand, all smiles. We’re done.
- There’s a story, tell me the story. Over the weekend, she sent him into a grocery store to buy, say 12 things. True to form, he comes back with 11. She says, where’s the pumpernickel? He says, every muscle and nerve in my body was screaming to say they were out of it. And I thought of you, Terry. I took a breath. I looked my wife in the eye and I said to her, I forgot. And she, true story, burst into tears. And she said, I’ve been waiting for this moment for 25 years. That’s a moment of grace. That’s a moment of recovery. Coming out of the adaptive child part of you, out of the knee-jerk response, taking a breath and reaching for something more mature and more relational. That’s what this is all about.
TS: Now, Terry, the person who’s investigating inside, hmm, what’s my adaptive child stance? What is it? How could you help them do that investigation, to know?
TR: Well, here’s a quick generic: Fight, flight, freeze, or fix. Fight, I’m a fighter, my wife’s a fighter. We both grew up in violent homes. Screw me. Screw you. Punch, punch. We’re boom, boom, boom, boom. Flee, you can be sitting six inches in front of somebody and still fleeing, that’s called stonewalling. Freeze is just freeze, I actually think of freezing as frozen flight. But fix is an interesting one. The trauma people have now added that, in nature, it’s fawning. Fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. And fix is, oh my God, oh my God, you’re unhappy. I’ll twist myself up into knots to take your—any tension in the room, I’ve got to get rid of. It’s not a mature working on the relationship, it’s a compulsive, anxious, I’m-going-to-take-your-pain-away-because-I’m-too-distressed.
Fight, flight, freeze or fix. Those of you who are listening to us, take a moment and ask yourself—Tami, you can pass, but I’m a fighter—what are you?
TS: Oh God. I mean, as you’re saying that, I do have a combination of those reactions in different—but I do like to fix things a lot.
TR: What I ask people to think of is the answer to that question in your current intimate sexual relationship now. Not your kids, not your colleagues, not ten years ago, but these days when you’re not in the state of recovery. Now I understand that you, Tami, and people listening are in their wise adult 364 days out of the year but that one little day when you’re reactive—
TS: OK, I’m a fighter then, I would say that would be pretty natural for me. Yes.
TR: So everybody listening can do that for yourself and for your partner. And by the way, that’ll tell you something about the dynamic between the two of you. But it gets much more nuanced.
TS: Right. And so in this response to loving firmness—the question here—can do more than harshness in terms of being effective, in terms of being a practical approach. When we’re being harsh or mean that’s coming out of our adaptive child, that’s what you’re saying.
TS: And when we’re centered in our wise adult, we can find a way to say hard things, but in a firm and loving way. And you talk about this, you have this great phrase, “soft power.” Tell me more about soft power. Maybe give some examples of it. It’s so important, Terry.
TR: Yes, I think it really is critical. Let me go back for a moment and talk about individualism and patriarchy, the social contract.
TS: Sure. Sure.
TR: And the book is really a critique of individualism, what I call the toxic culture of individualism. Individualism teaches us that we stand apart from nature, that’s what the word individual means. And that fuses with patriarchy, which I’ve been writing about for 30 years, which teaches us not only are we apart from nature, but we’re above nature. We dominate nature. We control it. Whether this control is our partner—you better stop doing that—our kids, our bodies, I’ve got to lose 10 pounds. Our thinking, I’ve got to be less negative.
And I’m proud of the book in that I start with neurobiology, I move on to personal relationships, and then I fade out to issues like racism, homophobia, sexism, and our relationship to nature itself, the biggest picture.
Look, I don’t think it’s overblown to say, if we don’t realize what I call ecological wisdom, we’re not above it. We’re in it, we’re breathing it. If we don’t trade in the hubris of power and control for the humility of cooperation and collaboration, we’re in bad shape as a species. This is big. We’re in bad shape as a democracy. But the same paradigm of power and control is what kills us, not just as a planet, but in our living rooms and bedroom.
So that adaptive child is about you, “Goddamn do it or else,” or conversely, “Don’t talk to me, I’m shutting down. Leave me the hell alone,” either of those extremes.
Under patriarchy, you can either be connected or you can be powerful but you can’t be both at the same time. Let me say that again. It’s a big point. Under patriarchy, which is the water we’re all swimming in, you can either be affiliative—quote-unquote feminine, accommodating—or you can be powerful, quote-unquote masculine, assertive. But power is power over, not power with. So when you step into power, you lose connection. And I see that. I see that with disempowered people, men and women, particularly women move into what I call individual empowerment. “I was weak, now I’m strong. Go screw yourself. I found my voice, stand back.” And individual therapists, the 12-step sponsors, feminists groups, spiritual people will applaud that.
Relational empowerment is, “I was weak, now I’m strong. I’m going to stand toe to toe with you. I’m going to have full voice. Let me tell you what I want from you. Now, what can I do for you to help you deliver that for me? We’re a team, how are we going to work together on that?”
Who sounds like that? No one. It’s new, it’s new for our culture. Soft power is the art of standing up for yourself and cherishing your partner and the relationship in the same breath. And I have to teach people how to do it.
For example, simple, it’s the difference between saying, “Tami, don’t talk to me like that,” which is fair enough, and saying, “Tami, I want to hear what you have to say, sweetheart, could you tone it down so I could hear it?” It is the difference between saying, “Goddammit, I need to talk to you,” and saying, “Honey, this isn’t working. We’ve got to sit down. We’re a team.”
Now, you know the relational answer to the question who’s right and who’s wrong is who cares? What matters is, how are we as a team going to work this out in a way that’s going to work for both of us? Not accommodation—it’s not that I subsume my needs into yours—but how are we going to work?
Let me give you an example. This is a classic heterosexual dynamic. I’ll just do it straight up. “You’re a reckless driver,” says she. “No, I’m aggressive. I’m perfectly competent.” Then they get into what I call an objectivity battle. Objective reality has no place in personal relationship. “You’re a bad driver. You go 20 miles above the speed limit. You tailgate. You switch lanes.”
“No, I’m an aggressive—I’ve never gotten any ticket.” They start arguing their case. Let’s shift that to this, “Honey, I know you love me. I know you want me to feel good. Call me crazy, call me a nervous Nellie, whatever, when I get in the car with you and you tailgate and you drive 20 miles above the [speed limit] and you switch lanes, I get myself terrified. And the whole time I’m driving with you, I’m like, oh my God, oh my God, we’re going to crash. Now you’re a sweet guy, you don’t want me to be feeling like that. As a favor to me, when I’m in the car, could you please drive more conservatively?” And he says, “I’ve seen it, yes.” And what might have been a 40-year argument is settled in 10 minutes because they stopped thinking like individuals and they started thinking like a team.
And that’s the art. How to remember that the two of you are a team and this has to work for both of us. If one of you wins and the other one loses, you both lose. The loser will make the winner pay for it. You’re an ecosystem. And when you stop thinking like an individual and you start thinking like an ecosystem, which includes your own wants and needs, then everything changes. And all of the tools change. There are a lot of concrete tools in the book, but they’re very different than the ones we think of in the culture.
TS: Yes. So I want to learn more about that to the art of soft power. We think like an ecosystem, but what are some of the other tips you can help me when I’m in a situation and I want to speak in this—so the example you gave, Terry, was so genius.
TR: Well, here’s one, this is an absolutely true story. So a young, straight couple, she wants sex none of the time, he wants sex all the time, and they’re killing each other. Like any good therapist, I get them off the level of the position, I want, I don’t, I want, to what sex means to the two of them. And like a lot of men, unfortunately in our culture, this guy filtered almost all of his emotional needs through sex. And sex meant that she loved him, they were OK together. It was OK. We surfaced this—this is a true story. Two weeks later, they come back, we got the sex thing figured out. They had other issues, but OK.
What happened? About three days after the session, true to form, he wants sex and she doesn’t. Rather than going across the other side of the room, which is what she used to do, she reaches over and she gives her guy a big kiss. She looks him in the eye—it’s actually a true story. And she says to him, “Look, the first thing I want you to know is that I think you are so hot. You’re really handsome. I love your forearms. You’re a good guy. I feel really close to you. I think you’re a wonderful husband. Oh, by the way, I don’t want to have sex. Anyway. I think you’re a wonderful husband.”
And he looks at her, to his amazement and he goes, “Oh, OK.” And she was so cherishing of him while she was saying the no, that the medicine just went down. And as I say, you have to learn—I go into it in detail in the book. But you learn to cherish your partner and stand up for yourself in the same, “Sweetheart, I want to be close to you.” It’s often good to name your intention. “I want to be close to you, but when you just called me a chauvinist asshole, that kind of pushed me to the other side of the room. Would you say something reparative so I can feel close to you again?” It’s subjective. It’s from the I, not objective reality. This is what you should do. It’s humble. I want to be close to you. This would help me. Would you help me out? We’re a team. An invitation works a lot better than a complaint.
TS: Now, Terry, you mentioned that you and your wife, Belinda, are both fighters. Have you come up with like, here are our rules for good fighting, fair fighting. Or are you just like, look when we’re fighting, we’re not in our wise adults. We’re not going to do it. We’re just going to take a break and come back. Which way do you go?
I go the second way these days. I mean, we all know—we have a rule. I mean, we’re both couples therapists, we know what the rule, character assassin. One of the rules, if you’re going to fight, since we’re on it, let me say it. The key thing is to remember repair. We therapists have encouraged this, self-expression is not the be-all and end-all of the universe. That’s nonsense. I have a saying that you can express yourself or you can work towards a solution, but you can’t do both at the same time. What’s more important to you?
So take a few sentences and get it off your chest, but then move into, what could your partner do that would make you feel better? We forget about repair, we’re just these individuals, “I’m mad as hell, I’m not going to…” “No, no, no, no, no. This hurt me.”
Here are a couple of tips. Change the affect, whatever the feeling is that you’re used to, go for the other ones first. So if you’re used to big puffed up, “I’m mad as hell,” find your vulnerability. “That hurt my feelings, honey.” If you’re used to little, “I don’t want to fight,” find your power. “That really annoyed the hell out of me.” But change whatever the affect is to the opposite, to the underlying, and you’ll change the dynamic between the two of you. Don’t lead with what you’re used to, lead with what you’re not used to.
Here’s another tip. Stay particular. Not, “You always…” “You never…” “Two weeks ago…” It’s this one thing that you did that I didn’t like, I’m staying there. Don’t go into trend, and don’t go into character.
And then three is, offer your partner an avenue of repair. “This is what you could say or do right now that would help me feel better.” So often, we just say what they did wrong. We don’t even tell them what right would look like. It’s just ridiculous.
But these days with me and Belinda, to be honest, 37 years, we go, grrr, one or the other of us says, “Let’s take a break, see you in 30 minutes.” You have to say when you’re coming back. We go and cool off, come back in 30 minutes, and it could be either of us and honestly, except for very rare moments, it sounds like this. “I don’t want to fight, do you want to fight?” “No, I don’t really want to fight.” “Let’s get it out, what do you need, hon?” And Belinda will go, “Well, you really were a jerk about blah,” “You’re right. I’m sorry.” And she’ll go, “OK, what do you need?” And I go, “Well, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” She’ll go, “OK. Well, blah, blah.”
She’ll give me two out of the four, and I have to accept that. Let go of the other two. It’s good enough. “OK.” “Yes, you did.” “All right. Yes, I’m sorry.” All right, good. You want some tea?” And we’re done.
And this is what I teach to people I work with. What I’m thinking in that moment when I say, “I don’t want to fight, do you want to fight?” is this—this is what everybody should be thinking—how do I want to spend my evening? That’s what I’m thinking. Do I want to spend my evening fighting with this person, or would I rather cuddle on the couch and watch a cool movie on TV? It’s my life. What’s more important to me? Proving that I’m right, nailing her into the ground, or making peace and getting on with it.
Now look, there are moments when you should have a fight, it’s important.
TS: Yes, which brings up a point that I wanted you to speak to, because you’re right, we’re not going for unbroken harmony. And here you and your wife, you’re both therapists, you’re telling me what it’s like when you fight after 37 years. And I do think I’ve internalized this idea that unbroken harmony is the goal or something like that at a certain point in evolution. You know what I mean? Well, that should be how it is because we know so much, and then it’s a failure that we fought. Even if we’re doing what you’re describing, which is basically having decent repair relatively soon after. I still feel like I failed, but what you’re saying is no, unbroken harmony is not actually even the goal. So speak to that.
TR: Harmony, disharmony, and repair. Closeness, disruption, and a return to closeness. This is the essential rhythm of relationships. I learned that from Ed Tronick, who was an infant observational researcher looking at mothers and infants. The infant is like molded everything and then there’s gas or hunger, and then the infant freaks out and the mother freaks out, and everybody’s freaking out, anger, anger, and then they would pass it and they’re back to molded. Ed said, this is the essential rhythm of all relationships.
And in our culture, we don’t teach people how to get from disharmony back into repair, because we don’t acknowledge that disharmony. It’s shameful. A relationship should be all harmony, just like a great body is a 20-year-old body and great sex life is a 19-year-old, it’s ridiculous.
Disharmony hurts, disharmony is raw. I’ve gone around the country, around the world really, for 30 years talking about normal marital hatred. And I want you to know that not once has somebody come backstage and said, “What do you mean by that?” It’s OK. And we get into relational shame, just like a great relationship never fights. The couple to the left of us or to the right of us is having better sex and fewer fights than we are.
No, we’re human. It’s exactly our imperfections and how we manage these imperfections that is the character of our intimacy. That is the guts of what we’re doing. It’s OK. And there are parts of us that are going to be really annoyed or hurt or frightened.
Look, another one of my sayings is, we all marry our unfinished business. Falling in love, it is the delusion that this person is going to complete us and heal us. A real marriage or long-term relationship, it is the realization that this person is explicitly designed to dredge up every unhealed wound we’ve ever had. We reinjure each other, we retraumatize each other. We pick partners who are going to do that to us.
TS: But Terry, just to push on this a little bit. If we’re both in our wise adult self more and more of the time, do you think that disharmony perhaps happens not that often? Or no, it’s like, come on, it’s just part of the cycle, it’s just how it goes, or actually it becomes kind of rare? Or do you think you need disharmony or you’re moving into some sort of flat artificial place where you’re not really encountering the issues?
TR: I think harmony becomes your baseline. Harmony becomes where you live, and the disharmony becomes the islands in the stream. Whereas when you start off, it’s the other way around, disharmony is where you live and—it’s just like healthy self-esteem. In recovery, it’s the same for all of it. You start off, shame, shame, grandiosity, shame, shame, health, health, health, shame, shame, grandiosity, and then as you start to do recovery work, it’s like, grandiosity, wait a minute, let’s stop that. OK, let’s come up from that.
So that as you do your work over time, health becomes the baseline and these become the exceptions. And it’s the same thing with harmony, disharmony, and repair. You repair quicker. It doesn’t spike as much. It doesn’t go on as long, but it’s always there. And also, you don’t sweat the small stuff. There’s small disharmonies can happen a dozen times during the course of one dinner conversation, but you’re not going to make a big deal out of it, you just go.
TS: Yes. OK. Now there’s something I really want to ask you about, because you talked about the idea of we’re honoring the ecological system of our relationship, and at the same time you get to have individual needs. You do, yes, I’m part of this system, but I’d like to speak from the I for a moment. So my question to you, and I really don’t want this to be abstract and theoretical. It’s actually very personal and real for me, which is how do I not fall into some kind of fusion because I’m so focused on the ecology of the relationship that I’ve brought myself into less of my own needs. I’ve just kind of like, well, I’m just going to kind of tamper myself down and go for the whole, how do I get to be my full self and have a beautiful ecosystem?
TR: Yes, that’s a great question. And I’ve got to tell you, broad generalization, and I own it as a broad generalization, but this is a woman speaking. Women’s socialization is all about subsuming the I and over-accommodating to the whole. So that ain’t what I’m preaching, and I want to be really clear about that. The great Carol Gilligan used to say, “There is no voice without relationship and there’s no relationship without voice.” And I recorded an audiobook for you, Tami, called Fierce Intimacy. I want intimacy to be ferocious. Stand up for yourself, but do it skillfully. So this isn’t about accommodation.
One of the things I would say is don’t forego your wants and needs, quote-unquote for the sake of the relationship. That ain’t doing the relationship any favors. You’ve been brainwashed. The relationship needs a vibrant I, that’s part of the relationship.
And a tip-off is resentment. If it really is OK with you, then it’s OK with you. But if there’s even a shred of, I’m saying yes, but I really mean no, you go back in the ring and you say no. You stand up for yourself. So if you want to accept it, accept it, but if you’re really honest with yourself and your needs are getting in the back seat and you’re not feeling really fulfilled, be straight with yourself about it and go back and duke it out. It’s for the sake of the relationship, it’s not selfish.
TS: So I’m definitely imagining that person who’s like, OK, I can tell I’m resentful about this, that, or the other thing. I’m going to try to use these soft-power skills that I’m starting to learn. I’m going to name it for the relationship and now we’re having a good moment of disharmony. We’re in the ring, we’re having this disharmony. You jokingly said that if you were to write a memoir about your relational life with Belinda, you’d call it A Fight Worth Having. And I thought that’s so good, these are fights worth having. And I wonder if you can speak to that notion.
TR: I ask people to ask themselves, what is this going to cost me? If your wife says, “I really don’t like the way you just spoke to me. Could you please apologize and say it more nicely?” And he didn’t think it was that bad. What’s it cost you to be a nice person, say, “Oh, I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, honey.” It doesn’t cost you anything but your pride.
But if she wants you to move to Timbuktu and you want to stay where you are, that may be a fight worth having, because that’s really going to cost you. So that’s a litmus. Ask yourself two things: Am I going to resent it if I give in, or can I really accept it? And what is this going to cost me? And if it’s going to cost me, then duke it out. But so often, if you really ask yourself, what is this going to cost me? The answer is nothing, being right, my pride. I can be generous.
I speak to people about being emotionally generous to each other. If it’s not going to cost you anything, then go the extra mile and be generous to your partner. If it is going to cost you something, then open up your throat and speak. We talk about moving into vulnerability, but for people in general and a lot of women in particular, it’s more vulnerable to stand up and be assertive. That’s more scary than opening—so whatever it is, I want the mighty to melt, I want the weak to stand up.
Whatever’s outside of your comfort zone, just try and remember it’s in the service of the authentic relationship. It’s not selfish if you do it in a relational way.
TS: Now, Terry one final point here as we end, I noticed when you were talking about contempt-free living and what it would be like if I saw myself above someone to come back and be at eye-level and recognize our shared oneness, if you will, our shared humanity, our shared essence, or if I’m down towards myself. And I thought this is really a heart practice, a heart way of living, a heart-based, a heart-opening way of being. And I wonder if you can speak to that specifically, about the transformation at the level of the heart, if you see it that way. Maybe you don’t. I don’t know. What’s happening in our hearts as we practice us, and ego versus ego-centered living?
TR: Oh, that’s beautiful, Tami. Well, our hearts are opening is what’s happening. The bottom line here is love, it’s about living love. It’s about, particularly, standing up to harshness, as an example, learning to be more loving to yourself and to the people around you.
Look, it’s called Relational Life Therapy. It’s about teaching people how to live authentic, loving relationships, connection to yourself and others. But it is also about enlightened self-interest. And one of the things I teach is that when you bring yourself down from grandiosity, you do it for your sake. You don’t do it for the son of a gun who may desert—if I may tell you, you know I like to tell a story.
So I’m a New Yorker. I’ve been in Boston 48 years and Boston has the most awful drivers in the country. In New York, somebody will cut you off and speed up, they’re a pig, but whatever. In Boston, they’ll cut you off and then they’ll passive-aggressively slow down, stick their fanny in your face and make you drive 20 miles an hour.
So I got one of these people, and I’m doing that laser Star Wars thing like laser beam blowing up that fat little head of mine, and I stopped for a minute and this is literally what I say to myself. I grew up in a contempt-drenched family. I internalized that contempt and shame and depression for a decade. I played out that contempt in control and criticism in my relationships and made a mess of them.
This person may deserve somebody pulling up next to them and screaming at them, which I would’ve done as a younger man, but I deserve to not be that person. As I bring myself back into connection and centeredness and peace, that’s not for them, it’s for me. I want to live a more loving life and it’s in my interest to breathe myself down from that. You can be right, or you can be happy. What’s more important to you?
Now, this is about the personal practice of happiness and it’s detached from outcome. Your partner is going to be in her adaptive child, count on it. There are going to be moments when you’re not going to be able to get through to them. I call that micro-disappointment. The trick is keeping it micro. You can’t badger your way through that. You have to let go.
But if your partner is in her adaptive child and you stay in your wise adult and don’t jump in the mud pit with them, that’s not a great day for her. It’s not a great day for the relationship, but it’s a wonderful day for you. I call this relational integrity. You work on your practice, and it is a spiritual practice. You work on your practice of integrity and skill and harmony and centeredness. And it so happens, that’s the best strategy for improving the relationship, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the best strategy for living beautifully between your ears, that’s what you’re about.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Terry Real. He’s the author of the new book Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship and, with Sounds True, an audio series called Fierce Intimacy. Terry, I always love talking to you, I learn so much from you. Thank you so much.
TR: Thank you, Tami. I feel very met whenever we speak. You’re a big-soul human being and I feel the breadth of your connection, so I appreciate that.
TS: Thanks for being with us. Thanks for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at resources.SoundsTrue.com/podcast. That’s resources.SoundsTrue.com/podcast. If you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I absolutely love getting your feedback and being connected. Sounds True: waking up the world.