As a family therapist for more than 25 years, Terrence Real sees how often couples fail to compromise or repair damage when things go awry. In his new book “Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship,” he argues it is because we’ve created “a toxic culture of individualism.” We know relationships are hard work, says Mr. Real, who has counseled thousands of couples across the country, including Bruce Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa. “But we don’t know how to deal with that. We don’t teach how to speak with love, how to negotiate, how to deal with grief.”
In the book, for which Mr. Springsteen wrote the introduction, Mr. Real provides practical advice to help couples move beyond the individual and adversarial to care for the relationship. Here, Mr. Real, who also trains therapists and is the author of several other books, discusses those techniques, including how to better understand what causes a relationship to stumble, and, when it does, how to move forward with your partner.
Questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
How do you see our patriarchal, individualist culture hurting our relationships?
If I had a nickel for every guy who called me and said, “I’ve got to get my wife into therapy,” I would not be able to retire. It’s the women who bring their partners in. They carry the longing and the dissatisfaction. And they’ve raised the bar on relationships. I don’t want women to stand down. I want men to stand up and meet these new demands. Intimacy is good for your body. You live longer. It’s good for your marriage. It’s good for your kids. Once you think relationally, you realize that you’re not individual adversaries but that you’re a team. You don’t make sacrifices to your partner. It’s not that they win and you lose. You make sacrifices because it will nurture you in the long run. That’s wisdom.
In your book you use two terms — “adaptive child” and “wise adult” — that are key to your view of relationships. How do you define those terms?
Wise adults are present-based. They’re not flooded with the past and can see things clearly. They have the capacity to see the whole of the relationship. They have the capacity to stop and reflect and choose.
When we move out of our prefrontal cortex, out of our wise adult self, we are in our adaptive child self. We get trauma-triggered, and the adaptive child — the things you learned to do as a kid because of emotional neglect or violence — part of us comes in and takes over. One of the bitter pills here is that the adaptive child part of us doesn’t want to be intimate. It wants to preserve itself. It’s about me, me, me. You-and-me consciousness is an adversarial world in which one loses and the other wins. It’s a big power struggle.
By repeating the same adaptive child move over and over again, you get in a dysfunctional relational stance. I’ll give you an example. Angry pursuit is a dysfunctional stance. Angry pursuit is an oxymoron. You will never get someone closer to you by complaining about how distant they are. Controlling your partner, retaliating or withdrawing will never solve your problem. These are the hallmarks of the adaptive child part of you. And the first skill is shifting out of that part of you into the wise adult.
This seems especially hard work given your theory that we marry our unfinished business. What do you mean by that?
I call this the mysticism of marriage. There may be super placid couples who aren’t terribly intimate, and they don’t bug each other. But usually there are three phases of love: harmony, disharmony and repair. Those phases can occur 20 times during one dinner conversation or span over decades of your marriage or long-term relationship. The harmony phase is love without knowledge. You may have a soul recognition that this is your guy. But you don’t know what he does with his socks in the morning.
The disillusionment phase is critical. It’s the stuff of intimacy. It’s the collision of your imperfections and how we handle it. Our culture doesn’t equip people to deal with that disillusionment. It’s rough. It’s dark. I’ve run around the country for 20 years, talking about what I call “normal marital hatred” and not one person has ever come backstage to ask what I meant by that.
As for repair, you write a lot about what that can look like, including with some lines that would be good refrigerator magnets for couples: “I’m sorry you felt bad. I didn’t mean to make you feel that way. Is there anything I can do now that would help you feel better?” That word “now” feels key.
Right. You can’t do anything about the past. The question is, What can I do right now to bring you back into harmony with me? And it’s in my interest to bring you back into harmony with me because I’m here — I live with you. I don’t talk about altruism. I talk about enlightened self-interest.
How do we fail at repairing?
When your partner is in state of disrepair, it’s a one-way street. Everybody gets this wrong. It’s not supposed to be, “Well, these are your issues, here are mine.” When your partner is in disrepair, it’s like you are working at the customer-service window. Your partner says, “I want a new microwave.” They don’t want to hear that your toaster doesn’t work. They want you to fix their microwave. Later on, we can hear about your issue, but not then. The question of who’s right and who’s wrong is irrelevant. What matters is how we, as a team, are going to make this work for both of us. That’s thinking relationally.
You note that it can take two to five years of work for couples to develop a healthier, more intimate relationship. What does that look like?
It looks like damn hard work. It’s moment to moment. When my automatic reactivity is flooding over me, am I going to act it out, or am I going to take a break, take a walk, splash some water on my face, talk to my little boy inside me, do some meditation, get centered in that part of you that wants to make repair? And, in that moment, we can literally change the legacy. People talk about the American dream, in which your kids have a better life than you do. And we always think about it materialistically. But I think about it psychologically and spiritually — changing the legacy of how you were raised and handing your kids a new default that is kinder and more humane and wiser.
Nowadays, if my wife Belinda and I start to square off, we’ll take a break. We need that because she’s a fighter and I’m a fighter. I know that the fighting little boy was exactly what I needed to protect myself from my violent father. But that was a long time ago. I can do something different now. So, we take a break for 20 to 30 minutes, and we’ll come back. And one or the other of us will say something like: “Hey, do you want to fight? I don’t really want to fight. Can we get out of it? What do you need from me?” And Belinda will say, “Well, you can say you’re sorry about blah, blah, blah.” I say, “OK, you’re right. I apologize.” Then, I might ask her to be accountable for three things, and she’ll take ownership of one and I let the other two go. And we’re done. What would take five or six days now takes 20 minutes.
You argue that the need for less individualistic thinking extends beyond romantic relationships. How so?
My book is a critique of what I call the toxic culture of individualism. That fuses with the patriarchy, which teaches us we’re not only apart from nature, we’re also above it and dominate it. This model is killing us in our relationships, in our society and on the planet. There’s no such thing as an individual. We co-regulate each other’s nervous systems all day long. We need to shift from the control model to a collaborative one, an ecologically humble model. You’re not above the system, you’re in it. You breathe it.