16 Jan Love on The Ropes: Men and Women in Crisis: A Review of How Can I Get Through to You: Reconnecting Men and Women by Terrence Real

Posted at 9:55 am in Uncategorized by jlbworks

By Philip Chanin, Ed.D., ABPP, CGP

Board Certified Clinical Psychologist

Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry

Vanderbilt University Medical Center




“Psychological patriarchy is the dynamic between those qualities deemed ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ in which half of our human qualities are exalted while the other half is devalued.  Both men and women participate in this tortured value system.” (p. 20)


“We live in an anti-relational, vulnerability-despising culture, one that not only fails to nurture the skills of connection but actively fears them.  Few of us have emerged from healthy, psychologically responsive families because the patriarchal norms all families live within are profoundly skewed against emotional sensitivity…what we most likely share is longing, a sense of inner emptiness.  Part of that emptiness is spiritual, existential, our ‘human condition.’  But a great part of the troubling sense of dis-ease comes from a profound missing of the abundant well-being we find in authentic connection.  The wound of being torn from that state represents nothing less than the core environmental contribution to most psychiatric and behavioral disorders.”  (p. 21)


“Men and women will not completely love one another until both recover the state of integrity in which they began their lives.  From there, each must proceed to hone and nurture qualities and skills that may well have stopped growing from the age of three, four, or five.  The cultivation of our nascent relational skills is the kind of help all of us as children deserve but few of us receive.  Instead, girls are taught to submerge their own needs in the service of others, while boys are taught to ignore their own and anyone else’s needs in the service of the great god, achievement.” (pp. 22-23)


“A generation ago, women across the West united in an unparalleled collective movement to support one another in reclaiming the half of their humanity—assertion, public competence, independence—that patriarchy denied them.  Now, empowered, they are insisting on levels of relational skill from their spouses that men have in no way been prepared to deliver.” (p. 23)


I begin this article with quotations from the introduction to Terrence Real’s seminal book, How Can I Get Through to You:  Reconnecting Men and Women. (New York: Scribners: 2002) I have recommended this book to countless patients since first reading it 20 years ago. Throughout the book, Real gives powerful vignettes of the exchanges that take place in his office between him and the couples he works with.  I say to my women patients, “This book will encourage you to push harder for what you need in your marriage.”  I say to the men I work with, “This book will show you what you have been doing and the toll it’s taking on your marriage.”


In Chapter 1, “Love on the Ropes:  Men and Women in Crisis,” Real states to the husband of a couple he is working with, “The fundamental thing is that, real or imagined, your wife experiences you as someone who, though you don’t mean her harm, is nevertheless in day-to-day life simply too selfish and in your own way too controlling to live with.” (p. 29).  Real continues:


“There is an old saying, ‘Hope is the remembrance of the future.’  Steve and Maggie had it in them to remember a future, their love, at least for an instant.  If they could do that, then the odds were that with hard work, they could remember it for an hour or two, perhaps a whole day.  This is how couples heal, building up from such small instances of recovery.  Finding these moments, sometimes creating them—through teaching, encouraging, exhorting—is the essence of my job.” (pp. 31-32).  Real adds, “Maggie brings to mind the angry wife in a New Yorker cartoon who exclaims to her puzzled husband in front of their marriage counselor, ‘Of course you don’t know why we’re here.  That’s why we’re here!’” (pp. 32-33)


Real laments the current state of marriage in our country: “One of the few stable statistics in our fast-changing world is the rate of divorce, which has hovered between 40 and 50 percent for the last thirty years.  Any two people who marry face a grim 50 to 60 percent chance of survival…Of those who remain together, how many do so happily, as opposed to those who stay for external reasons, like their children, finances, religion, or fatigue?  Conservatively, we can estimate that at least one out of three, perhaps one out of two, of those couples left standing do not relish their lives together.” (p. 33)


Real poses an interesting question: “Is there some natural law of marital entropy?  Some ubiquitous centripetal force pulling people away from one another?  Of the thousands of statistics about marriage churned out by social research each year, the one I find most depressing is that in all couples, rich and poor, happy and unhappy, one of the most reliable predictors of marital dissatisfaction is simple longevity.  The longer couples live together, the lower their reported contentment.” (p. 35).  The wife Maggie is quoted as saying, “My feelings for Steve are like a balloon that’s been leaking air for years.  I don’t hate my husband anymore.  I did for a while.  But I don’t even have that much left in me.  I’m just out of air.” (p. 36)


Real addresses the question of who is most likely to initiate divorce: “The crisis starts with Maggie.  It is women who buy magazines with headlines that promise “Ten things to do to keep your marriage hot.’  It is women who fuel the self-help industry.  And it is women, by and large, who end their marriages.  In fact, over 70 percent of divorces are initiated by wives.  Most men, like Steve, are not dissatisfied with the status quo, and they are not dreadfully unhappy in their marriages; they are unhappy with their wives’ unhappiness.  If their partners could just ease their complaints, most men tell me, they’d be fine.  Wives like Maggie, by contrast, often live in a state of chronic resentment.”  (pp. 37-38)


Real makes a strong case for the fact that wives these days want so much more from their husbands that they typically get: “Sensitivity to others, the capacity to identify and share his feelings, a willingness to put his needs aside in the service of the family, these are the qualities Maggie wants from Steve.  In short, Maggie needs her husband to respond more like a traditional woman…Women across the West are rightly insisting that men step into levels of familial involvement, of sensitivity and responsibility, that were unheard of a generation ago…when Steve claims not to grasp what Maggie wants of him, he is telling the truth.  Empathy, sensitivity, knowing what he feels and wants, speaking with a vulnerable heart, even introspection itself—these skills belong to a world Steve left behind a long time ago.  They are the very ‘feminine’ qualities that most boys, even in our enlightened times, have had stamped out of them.  In our culture, boys and men are not now, nor have they ever been, raised to be intimate.  They are raised to be competitive performers.” (p. 39)


Real concludes Chapter 1 with the following summary: “Women are unhappy in their marriages because they want men to be more related than most men know how to be.  And men are unhappy in their marriages because their women are so unhappy with them.  Any therapy, psychological theory, or self-help model that does not deal with this central impasse will miss the boat, failing women like Maggie, and consequently, men like Steve as well.” (p. 41)


In Chapter 2, “Echo Speaks:  Empowering the Woman,” Real lays out the dynamics that lead to wives’ underlying resentment and why they are prone to explode with anger:  Maggie says, ‘if I dare to tell you how I feel, I’m a complainer, and even if I’m nice to you, you have to avoid me because I might complain?’  ‘As I see it,’ I tell Maggie, ‘where you went wrong wasn’t in speaking out, but in not speaking out enough.’” (p. 45).   Real is explicit about the consequences for women who don’t more strongly speak out:


’Explode or corrode’ is the expression I use with women clients.  If a wife truly demands that her emotional needs be met, she may indeed put her marriage on the line.  On the other hand, few women who back away from their needs manage to bury their resentment.  Their unspoken anger spills out as occasional rage and everyday coolness.  Feeling uncherished, many wives unwittingly shut down their own sense of pleasure, as well as their willingness to please their partners.  And even if women try to accept and forgive, eventually passion drains away from the marriage along with their authenticity.  I cannot tell you how many long-suffering women I have seen who, over the years, tolerated their husband’s verbal abuse, unilateral decisions, wholesale withdrawal—only to find themselves, in middle age, dumped for younger women anyway.  So much for the rewards of patience!…If there are dangers in speaking, there are also dangers in not speaking.  Avoiding conflict may not be a safer choice in the long run, only a quieter one.” (p. 53)



Real concludes Chapter 2 with another phrase to describe the dynamics of women’s resentment: “Most of the wives and girlfriends I’ve seen over the years fit into the more common pattern of ‘stash and blow.’  That’s a cycle wherein, after weeks of silence or mild sniping and coolness, one Thursday evening the man comes home an hour late, or he leaves the lid off the mayonnaise jar, and then four months of unspoken resentment comes flooding into the room…there is a great difference between histrionics and clear, firm limits.  Maggie ‘lost it’ from time to time, but until therapy, she was unwilling to ‘mean it.’” (p. 55)


I often say to the men in my office that psychological health for men involves the ability to bear uncomfortable feelings such as hurt, disappointment, and loss.  In Chapter 3, “Bringing Men in from the Cold,” Real describes men’s difficulty with this: “For all of men’s vaunted stoicism in the face of physical distress, many of the men I have treated are babies when it comes to bearing emotional discomfort.  Men are socialized to mistrust feelings,  particularly difficult feelings, to experience them as threatening, overwhelming, and of little value.  It takes a lot to teach men, as they say in AA, ‘Don’t just do something, stand there!’” (p. 61). Real concludes this chapter with a vignette: “’Where did you learn to demand so little?’ I ask Tracy in our first joint session.  ‘And just where would I have learned to demand more?’ she returns…Tracy must drop the mantle of long-suffering self-abnegation and allow herself to become dangerous.  She must risk fighting for her real needs and taking on her husband.” (p. 70)


In Chapter 4, “Psychological Patriarchy: The Dance of Contempt,” Real returns to the dynamics of how men are raised that he laid out so poignantly in his first book, I Don’t Want to Talk about it: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression.  Real writes, “When I first began looking at gender issues, I believed that violence was a by-product of boyhood socialization.  But after listening more closely to men and their families, I have come to believe that violence is boyhood socialization.  The way we ‘turn boys into men’ is through injury.  We sever them from their mother, research tells us, far too early.  We pull them away from their own expressiveness, from their feelings, from sensitivity to others.  The very phrase ‘Be a man’ means suck it up and keep going.  Disconnection is not fallout from traditional masculinity.  Disconnection is masculinity.”


In Chapter 5, “The Third Ring: A Conspiracy of Silence,” as in his first book, Real is concerned with the grandiosity-shame dynamic and it’s deleterious impact on men and their relationships: “My breakthrough came in the remarkable idea of a great friend and mentor, Pia Mellody.  Pia observed that there wasn’t one form of childhood abuse, but rather two.  What Pia has called ‘disempowering abuse’ is the one we can all readily identify.  It is made up of transactions that shame a child, hurt him, physically or psychologically, make him feel unwanted, helpless, unworthy.  What Pia has called ‘false empowerment,’ by contrast, is comprised of transactions that pump up a child’s grandiosity, or at the least, that do not actively hold it in check.  Pia’s genius was in understanding that falsely empowering a child is also a form of abuse.  Failure to supply appropriate guidance and limits does a grave disservice to a child, and represents a serious breach in parental responsibility.  The combination of these two kinds of abuse lies at the core of the conspiracy of silence about men.” (p. 93)


Real concludes Chapter 5 with the following analysis: “It is this unacknowledged superimposition of grandiosity on shame, this burying of hurt boy inside hurting man, the sweet vulnerable self wrapped in the armor of denial, walled off behind business, work, drink, or rage, the hidden ‘feminine’ inside the bluff ‘masculine,’ that is the truth about men which dare not be uttered.  And why must it remain unspoken?  Because women and children fear triggering either extreme grandiosity or shame in the men they have depended upon.” (p. 95)


In Chapter 6, “The Unspeakable Pain of Collusion,” Real continues his exploration of the toxicity of the grandiosity-shame dynamic:  “But Will avoids such feelings of vulnerability.  He disowns the wounded boy inside, wrapping that small self in a large cloak of coldness and rage.  Encountering such reactions, most women freeze.  A further escalation of either state in the man bodes no good.  If the man’s grandiosity intensifies, so, too, will his irresponsible behaviors; in Will’s case, his aggression.  If the shame escalates, women fear that the man will ‘fall apart,’ that a lifetime’s worth of suppressed pain will flood him, overwhelming him.  Grandiosity pushed to extremes ends in homicide, shame in suicide.  Both states are potentially lethal.  This double-edged threat stops the truth in a woman’s mouth.  Afraid of being hurt, afraid of hurting someone she loves, she back down.  Caretaking is, after all, her mandate, her primary training since birth.” (p. 99)


In Chapter 7, “Narcissus Resigns:  An Unconventional Therapy,” Real makes the case for a radically different approach to marital therapy than most therapists are taught.  He credits the marital research psychologist John Gottman for the following insight: “Gottman found that the most reliable predictor of long-term marital success was a pattern in which the wives, in non-offensive, clear ways, communicated their needs, and husbands willingly altered their behavior to meet them.  Women, it turns out, want more than to be understood by their men; they want men to change.” (p. 117)


Real explains his approach: “My therapeutic strategy is quite simple.  I take Echo (the voiceless female lover of Narcissus in Greek mythology) by the hand and bid her to speak.  The ‘return of the repressed’ is the reemergence of her lost voice.  Together, we place ourselves between Narcissus and his addiction/entitlement, the false god of his solace that stands in—poorly—for self-esteem and connection.  Why do I throw my weight behind Echo?  Because, by and large, I trust her to tell us the truth.  In crediting what she says, I break one of therapy’s cardinal rulesI take sides.” (p. 118)


Real discusses how most marital therapy is initiated: “The problem with treating heterosexual couples even-handedly is that it assumes men and women in therapy are on an even playing field, when after twenty-plus years of clinical experience I can unequivocally say that most are not.  Let’s start with who initiates therapy.  Are men as likely as women to pick up the telephone to call a couple’s therapist?  I like to tease my students by saying that if I had a nickle for every guy who dragged his wife into therapy complaining of their lack of intimacy I would not be able to retire.  Men do not bring women into therapy.  Some men may volunteer, but most are brought; they are what I call ‘wife-mandated referrals.’” (pp. 119-120)


Real elaborates the implications of this dynamic: “There is a fundamental asymmetry in their agenda for therapy.  She is there because she is unhappy with him, and he is there because she is unhappy with him.  Pretending that both partners are equally troubled, equally skilled, and equally motivated is simply a charade.  I do not mean to suggest that she is devoid of issues about intimacy, not do I mean that I will not in time address both of them.  What I mean is simple:  he goes first.” (pp. 124-125)


Real concludes Chapter 7 by returning to the grandiosity-shame dynamic: “Grandiosity, like intoxication, impairs judgment.  If you’re in the on-down shame state—which is where most women are, overtly—at least you know it.  It feels uncomfortable and you have a natural impulse to get out of it.  But one of the insidious things about the flight from shame to grandiosity—which is where many men go—is that it doesn’t feel bad.  In fact, it often feels pretty good…While it can be argued that conventional therapy is reasonably effective in treating issues related to shame, my experience with men has convinced me that most therapy utterly misses the boat when it comes to issues of grandiosity…Grandiose states…represent a kind of empathy deficiency toward others; what is missing is a capacity to sufficiently cherish those around us.  In such instances, supplying empathy toward the client, while necessary, is not sufficient.  More to the point is helping the client regain sensitivity to his impact on others.”

(pp. 131-132)


In Chapter 8,  “Small Murders:  How We Lose Passion,” Real outlines the dance that traps many couples in an escalating downward spiral:  “In the feedback language of family therapy, diagnosing their choreography is elementary: the more Dan withdraws, the more critical and less loving Judy becomes; the colder and angrier Judy becomes, the more Dan withdraws.  Wind up the machine and let it self-reinforce for twenty years and what you have at the end looks like two decent people trapped inside a dying relationship.  So go love’s small murders, tiny, everyday escalations of injury reacted to by disconnection, causing more injury, until one fast-forwards to a couple whose initial passion has become so ‘encrusted’ with disappointment that they barely function as a couple any longer.” (p. 147)


Real speaks to the steady breakdown of a once passionate relationship: “Down deep, Judy doesn’t really want to give Dan pleasure, or, if she were honest, give him the satisfaction of giving her pleasure.  She doesn’t want to give in to him at all; she’s too angry…The degeneration of connection that spans years is made up of thousands of tiny incidents of disconnection that span mere moments.  In the absence of closeness, other feelings rush in to fill up the vacated space—anger, bitterness, despair.”  (pp. 147-148)


Real elaborates on the steady erosion of passion: “Both partners long for passion, but they are both too hurt by the other—his selfishness, her shrewishness—to sustain it inside their marriage.  Real passion requires surrender.  And the last person Lester or Carolyn wants to surrender to at this juncture is one another…(their) story reveals a great deal about the deformation of desire under patriarchy.  We first meet the couple in a state so devoid of passion that it approximates death.  Is this merely the natural degenerative course of erotic intensity in any long-term relationship?  Is passionate monogamy an oxymoron?  It is, frankly, difficult to say with authority what healthy long-term sexuality looks like because the patriarchal context in which we all live is so profoundly inimical to health…patriarchy erodes the capacity to desire at all.” (p. 151)


In Chapter 9, “A New Model of Love,” Real writes about the profound contradictions in our literary images of romantic love: “The romantic love story is a paradoxical fusion of two extraordinarily potent messages.  The first is that love, deep connection, is the most important, indeed the only truly important matter in the world.  And the second is that true love cannot exist in this world.  Romeo and Juliet in sweltering Verona; Jack and young Rose aboard the Titanic; Katharine and Almasy, the English patient, in the Saharan sands, even the prince and his enchanted swan princess—in our culture what great lovers have always done best is die, heartrendingly and gloriously.  There is even a term for this apotheosis of passion—liebestod in German, ‘love death,’ the ultimate climax.” (p. 157)


Real closes Chapter 9 with describing the rhythm of successful connection: “The essential quality of real relationships, from our earliest days on this earth, is the dynamic of change itself, the flow of balance, imbalance, and balance again.  Infant observational research teaches us that our prototypic bond is not characterized by the absence of disconnection, but the experience of its survival, in a dozen small ways.  It is love holding firm against the waves—what I have come to call: connection in the face of disconnection.  The essential ingredient in all relationships turns out to be precisely the one Dan and Judy, Lester and Carolyn, were never taught: repair.”  (pp. 167-168)


In Chapter 11, “Love’s Assassins:  Control, Revenge, and Resignation,” Real is concerned with the stages of relational decline and despair.  He writes, “If the healthy rhythm of relationship is one of harmony, disharmony, and repair, if disillusionment is a kind of relational purgatory leading back to resolution, even transformation, most of the couples that contact me have not found the means to push all the way through.  Devoid of the skills necessary to hold on, incapable of connection in the face of disconnection, instead of the healing phase of repair, these couples deteriorate.  If relational recovery is medicine, such stalled intimacy, the inability to push through disillusionment to repair, is the disease.  As we head toward restoration, it is necessary to understand the process of decline.  Couples who don’t make it through disillusionment tend to get snared by one or all of three phases of intimacy’s erosion—control, retaliation, and resignation.” (p. 186)


Real describes his work with a couple he calls Rachel and Steve: “Rachel, like many wives, tries to ‘get’ her husband to change, never realizing that no one ever has the power to ‘get’ anyone to do anything in this world, short of outright coercion—least of all women in relationship to men.  In her day, Rachel has reasoned, pleaded, threatened, and cajoled.  She has spoken rationally and with wild desperation.  Steve’s basic take on all this, although he is far too political to speak it, is that Rachel is a controlling witch…The bottom line is that people don’t like to be controlled.  Sooner or later it becomes evident that efforts to restore that first blush of happiness through control are doomed, at which point the frustrated partner often moves from control into the next phase of the downward spiral, revenge.” (pp. 188-189)


Real continues this line of thought: “Failing in our attempt to ‘make the person better,’ we then lose all patience and just want to hurt them.  Maybe this will get through, we might think. Beneath the impulse to hurt the other lies a deeper impulse to heal.  Revenge is really a perverse form of communication, a twisted attempt to repair.  We want to ‘make the person feel’ what they made us feel.  Why?  Though we rarely admit it, it is so that they might understand.  So they might ‘get’ what they’ve done and feel remorse.” (p. 189)


Real’s analysis of this continued downward spiral is as follows: “At some point, usually short of the police being called, one or both partners realize that the escalation of revenge is getting out of hand, that the impulse is simply too destructive.  The plutonium rods get pulled.  At that moment, the critical mass often begins to shift from revenge to the final stage of intimacy’s deterioration, resignation.  Research informs us that the state of worn-out disengagement is the surest predictor of eventual divorce.” (p. 190)


In Chapter 12, “Intimacy as a Daily Practice,” Real cautions marital therapists about trying to fix a marriage when certain obstacles exist: “Clinicians must address three domains before work on the couple’s relationship is appropriate: addiction, violence, and psychiatric disorders.  If one or both partners are self-medicating, physically or psychologically threatening, or subject to a serious emotional disorder, the marital system is out of control, and no amount of coaching or good intentions on anyone’s part will yield results.” (p. 200)


In this chapter, Real outlines the critical capacities a couple must develop if they are to heal:

“I have distilled five essential capacities: How to hold the relationship in warm regard despite its imperfections.  How to speak. How to listen.  How to negotiate.  And how to stay on course independent of your partner’s response.  Each of these five skills breaks down a fundamental pillar of patriarchy and replaces it with a relational approach, a new way of thinking, feeling, and behaving.  Taken together, these five skills operationalize the new vision of love.  They transmute relationality from a way of thinking to a way of life. (p. 202)


Real begins Chapter 13, “Relational Esteem,” by defining relational esteem: “Self-esteem is one’s capacity to hold oneself in warm regard in the face of one’s own imperfections and limitations, one’s capacity to cherish oneself as a flawed, flesh-and-blood, human being.  Relational esteem is the capacity to hold the relationship in warm regard in the face of its imperfections and limitations, to cherish the relationship as the union of two flawed human beings.  I have referred to this capacity throughout as an aspect of repair, as embracing the whole dance, as connection in the face of disconnection.” (p 207)


Real has a rebuttal to the idea that good relationships make us happy: “The truth is that relationships do not make us happy.   Relationships are the crucible in which we get to work on ourselves, in which we have the opportunity to stretch, grow, and, if we are fortunate, thrive

Perfect intimacy, just like distant love, is an oxymoron.  Just as healthy self-esteem evolves not from fleeing one’s humanity but by cherishing oneself in the face of our flaws, so, too, real intimacy is not an escape into unbroken harmony; it grows precisely in the difficult and yet endlessly creative clash of your imperfections with mine.” (p. 209)


Returning to the relationship between Rachel and Steve, Real writes, “Rather than meeting Steve’s disappointing response with ineffective silence or equally ineffective criticism, Rachel coached Steve on how best to deliver for her.  When we want to work the change side of the serenity prayer, we ask: ‘What can I do to help you give me more of what I’d like?  How can I move differently on my end of the seesaw?” (p. 212)


In describing an element of his own marriage to Belinda, Real states, “What works is her flexibility, her willingness to try different tacks coupled with responsiveness.  A readiness to shift one’s position is one of the great, unsung skills of relationship…Sometimes flexibility requires you to shift from acquiescence to confrontation; sometimes the reverse.  You don’t lie; you don’t deliberately distort; you don’t necessarily give in.  You just jump out of your accustomed track.” (p. 214)


Real asks, “What if nothing works?  What if even a therapist cannot redirect the destructive dynamic?”  Real suggests that “You draw up a list of the needs that are being met in the relationship…and you draw up a list of the needs that are not being met.  Taking stock, you ask yourself—either alone, with friends, family, or your therapist—the following question:  Are enough of my needs being met in this relationship that it is worth my mind to grieve those needs that are not?…The profound truth that the culture at large hides about acceptance is how much it hurts.  Some of the things you don’t get in your relationship hurt a little, others hurt a lot.” (pp. 214-215)


Real closes this chapter with a profound statement about grief in relationship, that I have shared with so many patients who have been struggling with whether or not to stay in their marriages: “There are things you get in a real relationship, and things you do not get.  The character of the union is determined by how the two partners manage both aspects of love—the getting and the not getting.  Moving into acceptance means moving into grief, without being a victim.  You own your choice.  ‘I am getting enough in this relationship,’ you say, ‘to make it worth my while to mourn the rest.’  And mourn we do.  Real love is not for the faint of heart.  What we miss in our relationships we truly miss.  The pain of it does not, and need not, go away.  It is like dealing with any loss.  I object when people, especially therapists, talk about ‘resolving grief,’ as if grief could ever be so compliant.  We humans don’t ‘resolve’ grief; we live with it.” (p. 224)


In Chapter 14, “Learning to Speak Relationally,” Real describes his approach to helping each partner to speak to the other partner from a “soft, open place.”  “Even more than his wording, the warmth is Steve’s voice augurs well for a shift toward repair.  This is a technique I use often, asking a partner to summon the energy of warm regard for his partner before speaking.  ‘Remember,’ I advise in such moments, ‘that you love her.’  When addressing difficult matters, changes in tone can do wonders.  I ask partners to attend to whether they feel ‘hard’ or ‘soft,’ behind a wall or a permeable boundary.  You can hear the difference in one’s voice, and partners react at least as much to the quality of the sound as to the spoken content.” (pp. 233-234)


Chapter 15 is titled, “Learning to Listen:  Scanning for the Positive.”  I keep copies of this chapter in my office, and I have given hundreds of individuals and couples the entire chapter to read and reread.  In this chapter, Real describes how everyone needs what he calls an “internal boundary,” which is a kind of “emotional insulation,” in all of our relationships. He writes, “A poor internal boundary allows other people’s feedback, beliefs about you, even, at times, their emotional state to pierce you to the quick. ‘How could you think that of me?’  ‘I’m so hurt that you feel that way!’ or ‘It depresses me when you get so sad,’ are hallmark sentiments of someone with a ‘thin skin,’ a poor internal boundary.”


Real continues, “A healthy boundary is supple; it allows you to be both protected and yet connected at the same time.  As your partner speaks, whatever emotion she throws at you goes splat on the outside of your internal boundary.  Imagine this psychic shield as resting about arm’s length away, encircling you.  Safely ensconced within your boundary, you cast a cool eye on what’s being asserted, point by point.  If the material rings true for you, or if some portion of it seems true, you relax your boundary and let that in…That portion of the material that does not seem true you simply let drop, like an egg sliding off glass and landing on the floor.  You understand that such inaccurate descriptions of you are important information about the speaker.” (pp. 238-239)


Real adds, “Be certain that your internal boundary remains impermeable; nothing can get past it unless you choose to let it.  The nastiest comment, the most raw feeling—an emotional atom bomb could go off and you would remain unfazed.  Inside your circle you can afford to be open, spacious, curious, relaxed…The lack of an internal boundary inevitably leads to control or withdrawal.  If there is no membrane between you and whatever external stimulus gets thrown at you, then you attempt to regulate your own level of comfort or discomfort by managing the stimulus. (‘I could be happy, if only you were less angry.’ )  When control fails, the only other option is withdrawal.” (pp. 240-241)


In this chapter Real introduces a wonderful concept, “relational heroism,” which has been so helpful to many of my patients.  He writes, “I have been speaking of intimacy as a daily practice, but a more precise description would be intimacy as a moment-to-moment practice.  Any occasion when a more mature part of oneself cuts into an habitual, dysfunctional reaction is an instance of recovery.  It is an example of what Belinda has called relational heroism, those moments when every muscle and nerve in your body is pulling you toward your old set of responses, and yet a new force lifts you up off the accustomed track toward deliberate, constructive action—toward repair.  Just an intimacy’s degenerative course is comprised of thousands of small moments of disconnection, relational recovery is comprised of such moments of grace.  They are the atoms of regeneration.” (pp. 243-244)


In this chapter Real describes again why men struggle so much in their marriages.  He writes, “When men speak of fearing intimacy what they really mean is that they fear subjugation.  In a visceral way, most men in our culture experience vulnerability as opening themselves up to be overrun…acquiescing at such moments goes against men’s most fundamental training—as though, by not ‘standing up for themselves’ they collude with their own castration…listening requires the courage to receive.  And emotional receptivity is the antithesis of traditional masculinity.  Helplessness, weakness, dependency—these are the qualities men are taught to fear and despise, particularly within themselves.”  (p. 245)


Speaking relationally,” Real suggests, “requires us to have a firm sense of self to bring to the table…The fundamental issue in listening is surrender.  Using a boundary, instead of a wall, means you choose, at times, to drop your shield, take in.  Loving passionately means having the capacity to protect yourself and yet also the willingness to deliver yourself into someone’s hands, trembling and vulnerable, open to hurt—to being left, betrayed…Learning to listen relationally, listen with cool heads and clear boundaries, listen with the quietness of the heart and the gentleness of the body, means having a self so developed it can afford to yield.”

(p. 246)


Real begins Chapter 16, “Staying the Course:  Negotiation and Integrity,” stating, “I ask the couples I work with to distinguish between three modes of negotiation: invitation, request, and demand…An invitation asks, ‘Would you like to?’…requests translate as ‘Would you do this for me?…Of the three modes of negotiation, demand is the most restrictive.  Here, declining is not an option.  Healthy couples reserve demand only for emergencies—’Grab that kid off the balcony!’ or bottom lines—‘You can never strike me again.’…Many women partners, who are used to having to turn up the volume in order to get their wants attended to, speak the language of need when they really mean want, and their men—ever sensitive to the issue of subjugation—instinctively react to the implicit pressure rather than to the nature of their partners’ requests.”


Real concludes, “A complaint is not a request.  Moving partners from complaint to request is often a huge step toward furthering their capacity for repair.  I call complaint a negative past focus.  It tells your partner what you didn’t like about what he has done.  Request, by contrast, represents a positive future focus.  Instead of trying to satisfy your desires by criticizing what you did not get, you ask, simply and directly, for what you want.” (p. 248)


Real describes what it means to act relationally in the most difficult moments.  “Anyone can behave with skill and integrity when their partner is doing the same.  What makes us grown-ups is the capacity to remain skillful, even when our partners act like full-fledged lunatics…Staying seated in maturity when your partner is acting like a big baby is like riding uphill.  In the blast of his yelling, withdrawal, distortions, you dig down deep, switch into low gear, and crank.  It isn’t particularly pleasant.  You may not even be sure how much longer you can keep going.  But the exercise builds great relational muscles.” (p. 255)


Real is explicit about those times when it’s useless to continue a conflict: “When closeness triggers trauma most of us are flooded with the feelings we had when the injury first occurred—the wounded child—or we may respond by shifting to that young part of ourselves that compensated for the hurt—the adapted child…It is useful to understand that when you or your partner are in one of these immature states nothing will be solved.  The only issue, when one or both of you flies into an immoderate response, is shifting back into the functional adult.”


Real continues, “Don’t be seduced by the content.  I tell my clients ‘You don’t argue with someone who’s drunk.’  First you wait for them to sober up, and only then should you deal with the issues.  Trying to resolve matters in such heated moments is a fool’s errand because the part of the person who’s fighting with you has no real interest in resolution.  Relational integrity means learning to back off at such times.  Give your partner the space to recoup.  And then, when you can both remember that you love each other, or, at the least, can treat one another with respect, try again.” (pp. 256-257)


Sometimes I work with patients who say they are desperate to “feel understood” by their partners.  Real speaks to this desperation: “Cultivating an internal boundary allows intimacy precisely because it affords distance, protection…Scanning for the positive requires us to live in the little grief of not ‘being understood’ by our partners as we choose instead to help them feel understood by us.” (p. 258)


The 17th and final chapter of his book is titled “What It Takes to Love.”  Here Real describes why the wife needs to be able to respond affirmatively when her husband moves toward her: “Men must recover the relational skills and appetites that they were deprived of, and then women must respond when they do…There are a lot of understandable reasons why sincere partners, begging for change, are loathe to acknowledge the miracle when it actually occurs.  They’ve been duped before and they’re tired of feeling like suckers.  They’ve built up their hopes countless times and don’t want their hearts broken again.  They fear that if they relax their grip on their partner’s throat, he’ll ‘get comfortable’ and stop working…(however) no woman can reasonably expect her man to sustain his efforts at reconfiguring virtually everything he has ever learned while she remains cold and unmoved.” (pp. 268-269)


Continuing with this line of reasoning, Real writes, “’You’re behind a wall,’ I tell Judith, ‘a wall of mistrust and anger.  That’s okay.  It is functional to put yourself behind a wall for protection when someone is being offensive.  It’s like the principal of self-defense.  But, like self-defense, when the attack stops, you need to stop.  It’s time to let the wall soften back into an internal boundary, something supple, responsive.’  She shifts in her chair.  ‘See, Judith, once the offending behavior has stopped, if you choose to remain behind your wall that’s no longer about protection.  It may masquerade as security, but it’s really covert revenge.’” (p. 270)


Real concludes his book saying, “It is a tough, anti-relational world out there.  The old terms have been with us for a long time.  We should expect to get caught up in them sometimes, losing our way…The couple is this final phase (of healing) transitions from the acute work of restoring intimacy to the lifelong challenge of preserving it.” (p. 277).  And I will return to Real’s earlier suggestion: “The truth is that relationships do not make us happy.  Relationships are the crucible in which we get to work on ourselves, in which we have the opportunity to stretch, grow, and if we are fortunate, thrive.” (p. 209)