15 Aug “Ask Yourself: ‘What is the Thing I’m About to Say Going to Feel Like To the Person I’m Speaking to?’”: A Review of Us: Getting Past You And Me to Build a More Loving Relationship by Terrence Real

Posted at 11:14 am in Couples Therapy by jlbworks

By Philip Chanin, Ed.D., ABPP, CGP
Board Certified Clinical Psychologist
Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry
Vanderbilt University Medical Center

“Few things can trigger us or make us go crazy like our intimate relationships can.  Love is like a Roto-Rooter—it will push every button you own; it will bring to the surface every unhealed wound and fissure that has lodged inside your body.  Nothing stimulates hurt quite the way love does.  As we shall see, we all marry our unfinished business.” (p. 37)

“First, repair is not a two-way street.  Almost everyone gets this wrong…You must take turns.  Repair goes in one direction.  When your partner is in a state of disrepair, your only job is to help them get back into harmony with you, to deal with their upset, and to support them in reconnecting.  I ask people, when faced with an unhappy partner, to put their needs aside and attend to the other’s unhappiness.”  (p. 208)

“Think of yourself as being at the customer service window.  Someone tells you their microwave doesn’t work; they don’t want to hear that your toaster doesn’t work.  Nor are they interested in your reasons.  They want a new microwave.  Take care of your customer first.  Only once they feel satisfied will there be any bandwidth for you and your experience.” (p. 209)

“When your inner child kicks up (i.e., when you are trauma triggered), put your arms around it, hoist it up onto your lap, listen to what it has to say, be empathic and loving—and take its sticky fingers off the steering wheel.  Demote it.  ‘You are not driving the bus.  I am, the Wise Adult.’”  (pp. 238-239)

“Start with this.  Swear off unkindness; swear off disrespect.  Before you open your mouth, ask yourself: ‘Does what I am about to say fall below the line of basic respect?  Is there a chance the listener will experience it that way?’  I would ask you, dear reader, here and now in this moment, to take the following pledge: ‘Come hell or high water, short of outright physical self-defense, I will not indulge in words or behaviors that are disrespectful to any other human being.  And neither will I sit passively by if someone is disrespectful to me.  I will ask them to speak differently to me, and if that doesn’t work, I will break the interaction and leave.  But I won’t just be silent and absorb it.  In either direction—dishing it out or taking it—I am right now today swearing off disrespectful behavior.  I don’t need it.  I am developing the skills of soft power, speaking up and explicitly cherishing at the same time.”  (p. 253)

As a couple’s therapist, on a weekly if not daily basis, I am sitting with couples who have repeatedly wounded each other with angry words and sometimes destructive behaviors.  Few of us learned, in our families of origin, how to handle conflict gracefully.  It’s not going too far to say that a single episode of toxic anger may destroy a lifetime of good will and permanently damage a relationship.

Terrence Real is a Boston psychotherapist.  For the past 30 years, Real has been developing what he calls Relational Life Therapy, and he has trained thousands of therapists in this model.

In Us, his newest book, which was published last year, he writes, “It has been said there are two types of couples in the world—those who fight and those who distance.  I’d add a third type: those who do both.  One rails while the other shuts down.  Hailstorm and tortoise…Too many couples fight repetitively, resolving not much of anything, or one or both of you backs off, so you begin living ‘alone together.’” (pp. 2-3)

In Chapter 1: “Which Version of You Shows Up to Your Relationship?”, Real describes his approach.  “Relational Life Therapists break many of the rules we learned in school.  We are not neutral, for example.  When it comes to responsibility, not all problems are an even fifty-fifty split.  We take sides.  And we don’t hide behind a mask of professionalism.  We make a point of being real people, sharing when appropriate from our own journey toward wholeness and intimacy.”  (p. 4)

Real describes how conflict escalates: “Your endocrine system is on high alert, pumping stimulants into your blood stream.  Your autonomic nervous system—far below your consciousness—is in fight-or-flight, spurring you on or shutting you down.  The higher functions of your brain (the prefrontal cortex, the reins) have gone completely offline, while the more primitive parts of your brain (the limbic system, particularly the amygdalae) have completely taken over.” (p. 5)

Real addresses the role of trauma in the couples’ dynamic.  He says, “What makes it so hard to keep a cool head is a million or so years of evolution, plus one other powerful force:  trauma.  Trauma pulls you into survival mode, in which you are clenching your fists for the fight or clamping your jaws shut like a fortress.”  (p. 6)

Real continues, “The critical question I think about is not even What is the dynamic, the choreography between you?  That’s an important question, but it’s not the most essential.  The central question I ask myself during a therapy session is simply this one: Which part of you am I talking to?  Am I talking to the mature part of you, the one who’s present in the here and now?  This is the part I call the Wise Adult.  That’s the part that cares about us.  Or am I speaking to a triggered part of you, to your adversarial you and me consciousness?  The triggered part of you sees things through the prism of the past…The past superimposes itself onto the present, fundamentally confusing the mind.”  (pp. 6-7)

Real then describes the origins of what he calls the Adaptive Child: “But most of us do not reenact the experience of the trauma itself.  Instead, we act out the coping strategy that we evolved to deal with it…The Adaptive Child is a child’s version of an adult, the you that you cobbled together in the absence of healthy parenting.”  The traits of the Adaptive Child are described as “Black and White, Perfectionistic, Relentless, Rigid, Harsh, Hard, Certain, and Tight in the body.”  The traits of the Wise Adult are described as “Nuanced, Realistic, Forgiving, Flexible, Warm, Yielding, Humble, and Relaxed in the body.”  (pp. 7-8)

Real says that the Adaptive Child “whether it’s more dominating or withdrawn, will react pretty much the same way whenever you’re triggered.  This set point reaction, this relational modus operandi, is your relational stance, the thing you will do over and over again when you are stressed.”  (p. 10)

Real continues, “’Adaptive then, maladaptive now.’  The same strategy that kept Dan sane and preserved him as a child is about to sink his marriage…One of the telltale characteristics of the you and me Adaptive Child is that it is automatic, a knee-jerk response.  It’s the…visceral reaction that comes up from the feet and washes over the body.  I speak of it as our first consciousness, and I divide it into three sections—fight, flight, or fix.”  (pp. 14-15)

Real often draws upon the teachings of poets and mystics.  He writes, “The great spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti once said that true liberation is freedom from our own automatic responses.”  When we become reactive to our partners, Real explains, “The present-based, most mature part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, has lost connection with the older fast brain, the subcortical limbic system.  Without that connection, you lose a pause between what you feel and what you do…Over time, with training and practice, we can change our responses.  We can shift from being reactive individuals to being proactive teammates who, in cooperation with our partner, intentionally shape the transaction between us.”  (p. 17)

Real continues, “In your close relationships, urgency is your enemy, and breath is your friend.  Breath can change your heart rate and your thinking physiologically…The real work of relationships is not occasional, or even daily: it is minute-to-minute.  In this triggered moment right now, which path am I going to take?  Rather than being overridden by your history, you can stop, pause, and choose.” (p. 18)

In Chapter 2, “The Myth of the Individual,” Real continues his exploration of “you and me” consciousness versus “us” consciousness.  He says of one client, “Ernesto shifted from his Adaptive Child—the immature part of him that absorbed his stepmother’s rage and discharged it—into his Wise Adult.  He borrowed my prefrontal cortex until he woke up his own.  Put most simply, he borrowed my brain.  We do this for one another all the time.   Current research clearly indicates that we are not walled-in, freestanding individuals.  Our human brains—in fact, most mammals’ brains—are built for co-regulation.” (p. 25)

“Are we individuals?” Real asks.  “Yes” he answers, “In a way, but at the same time we are utterly interdependent, neurologically entwined.  We are individuals, yes, but individuals whose lifeblood is connection.  As the neurobiologist Dan Siegel puts it, ‘The brain is a social organ, and our relationships to one another are not a luxury but an essential nutrient for our survival.”  We are individuals whose very existence is predicated on belonging.’”  (p. 31)

Real adds, “Our nervous systems were never designed to self-regulate.  We all filter our sense of stability and well-being through our connection to others.  And yet the culture of individualism saturates our society.  The idea of a freestanding rugged individual is a cultural story having little to do with the truth.”  (p. 32)

Real continues, “The Wise Adult, the prefrontal cortex led by the right hemisphere of our brains, recognizes the whole and understands how interdependent we are.  But when we are under stress—and for some of us, that is most of the time—the protective Adaptive Child muscles in and takes over…Because I see mostly extreme cases, almost everyone I’ve met has lived much of their lives using the Adaptive Child parts of the brain…people who primarily live from their Adaptive Child parts are generally great successes in the world financially and professionally.  Meanwhile they make a hash of their personal lives.”  (pp. 37-39)

In his 3rd book, The New Rules of Marriage, Real described “needing to be right” as the foremost losing strategy in marriage.  In Us, he returns to this theme: “I ask couples I work with to swallow a few important bitter pills.  Here’s the first: There is no place for objective reality in personal relationships…there’s no way out (of an argument) because the assumption of objective facts is wrong to begin with.  In intimate relationships, it’s never a matter of two people landing on the one true reality, but rather of negotiating different subjective realities.” (p. 44)

Most of the couples I work with struggle greatly to repair their relationships after a conflict.  Real describes his approach: “I turn to Lucy, role-playing Stan…’Honey,’ I say gently, ‘I’m sorry you felt bad.  I didn’t mean to make you feel that way.  Is there anything I can say or do right now that would help you feel better?’  Then I turn to Stan.  ‘I’m sorry you feel bad,’ I repeat.  ‘Is there anything I can say to help you feel better?’  Stamp that on your forehead,’ I tell him.  ‘Put it on your mirror when you shave in the morning.’”  (p. 46)

Real continues to describe what he is trying to teach this couple: “What Lucy wants is nothing less than a whole different Stan.  Most couples therapists back away from such bold aspirations, but in Relational Life Therapy we embrace it.  ‘I’m in the personality transplant business,’ I tell Lucy, then turn to Stan.  ‘Wanna try it?’…’Turn to your wife right now, and tell her something from the heart,’ I coach him, and bless him if, with a bit of encouragement, he doesn’t comply.  ‘Lucy,’ he takes her hand.  ‘I’m sorry you felt abandoned that day.’  ‘And you’re sorry you didn’t hear her,’ I add.”  (p. 47)

Chapter 3 is entitled “How Us Gets Lost and You and Me Takes Over.”  He begins by describing what happens to couples when a conflict begins: “When we get trauma-triggered in our close relationships, our Wise Adult shuts off, and we are seized by our Adaptive Child.  We feel ‘taken over.’…Your dysfunctional stance is what your Adaptive Child keeps repeating, unconstructively, in relationships—pursuing, withdrawing, pleasing, complaining, controlling.”  (pp. 53-55)

Real describes his approach: “You can come up with dozens of dysfunctional stances if you just take a moment.  Martyr is one, tyrant another, victim yet another…Once a Relational Life therapist gets each partner’s dysfunctional stance, the next question is, ‘Where did it come from?’  Ask about yourself and your partner, what was that little boy or girl adapting to?  After you have a fair idea what your repeated stance looks like, here are three questions to ask yourself:  Who did you see do this?  Who did it to you?  Who did you do it to, and no one stopped you?”  (pp. 55-56)

Real then describes what he calls a “relational trauma wound.”  “Abandonment is a child ego state.  ‘Adults don’t get abandoned,’ I tell Joe.  ‘Adults get left, or even, if you want, rejected.  But they survive.’  Abandonment means, ‘If you leave me, I die.’  Children get abandoned.  When you feel that petrified, desperate feeling, you are no longer in your adult self.  You are in a child ego state.  Joey wants Linda to care for that hurt, angry seven-year-old.  We all want that.  We all want our partners to reach in and heal the young wounded parts of us with their love.  And they always, to some degree, fail usthe only person who can with absolute consistency be there for our inner children is us.  And that’s okay.  That’s enough.  Once we learn how to do it.”  (pp. 60-61)

Real continues to describe the formation of the Adaptive Child state: “While reaction to trauma tends to resist it, the second mode of Adaptive Child formation, modeling, tends to internalize it.  Everyone does both.  Whenever a young person encounters trauma, they react to it and they also repeat it.  Modeling has elements of identifying with the aggressor.  In modeling, you don’t resist the dysfunctional mores of your family—you re-enact them…The Adaptive Child is who we revert to when we are triggered.  It is an immature ego state, frozen at about the age of the (violating and/or neglectful) injury.  Most of us flow into and out of these states fairly regularly.”  (pp. 70)

Real takes traditional psychotherapy to task: “One thing that distinguishes Relational Life Therapy from other forms of therapy is the attention it pays to grandiosity in partners.  For well over fifty years, psychotherapy has struggled mightily to help people rise above their feelings of inferiority and shame.  But what about the other self-esteem disorder?  So far, we’ve done a terrible job at helping people get over their sense of superiority and grandiosity.  Superiority and grandiosity are flip sides of the same coin; most people have both disorders…Research shows that about half of all people classed as narcissistic are driven by inward shame.  The other half simply think that they are better than everyone else.”  (pp. 71-72)

Real shows his clients how to stop having their Adaptive Child drive their conflicts:  “I tell my clients that whenever one of their inner children kicks up, they should put the child on their lap, put their arms around them, listen compassionately to whatever they need to say, and take their sticky fingers off the steering wheel.  They are not driving the bus; you are, the prefrontal cortex, the Wise Adult…Teaching someone how to work with their triggered inner child represents a helpful, easily grasped method for working with their activated trauma states.  Cultivating an ongoing practice of recognizing these states (the children in us) and working with them has the power to transform individuals and their relationships.”  (pp. 76-77)

Chapter 4 is entitled “The Individualist at Home.”  Here he is interested in confronting grandiosity in both men and women: “Generally speaking, grandiose women are even more difficult to treat than grandiose men.  Not always, but quite often, grandiose women have advanced degrees in offending from the victim position: ‘You hurt me, so I have no shame or compunction about hurting you twice as hard back because, after all, I’m your victim.’  Grandiose women often inhabit the role of angry victim, a righteously indignant avenging angel.”  (p. 87)

Real continues, “I often confront grandiose men pretty directly.  ‘You’re a verbal abuser,’ I might say.  ‘Yelling, screaming, shaming someone.  Those are all forms of verbal abuse.  What’s it like to hear that?’  But with a woman, I tend to be less direct.  Remember, any fool can clobber their client with the truth.  But a therapist who joins through the truth takes the client along, helps them see where they’ve veered off track.  In order to accept the therapist’s confrontation, the client must feel that they are on their side.  That’s what joining with them means.  And the best way a therapist can help a grandiose woman client feel heard is to prove their usefulness by taking on her partner.”  (pp. 87-88)

Chapter 5 is entitled “Start Thinking Like a Team.”  Here Real encourages his clients not to try to repair a relational rupture from the Adaptive Child position: “Remember your first skill…relational mindfulness.  Take a break, throw some water on your face, take cleansing breaths with long exhalations, go for a walk.  But don’t try to grapple with relational issues from your Adaptive Child.  Get yourself reseated in your Wise Adult before attempting repair.  Ask yourself which part of you is talking right now, and what that part’s real agenda is.  If your agenda in that moment is to be right, to gain control, to vent, retaliate, or withdraw—then stop, call a formal time-out if need be, and get yourself re-centered.”  (p. 123)

Real continues: “Everyone gets to go crazy in long-term relationships, but you have to take turns.  I call this relational integrity.  It means that you hold the (Wise Adult) fort while your partner goes off their (Adaptive Child) rails.  It’s not an easy practice, but it builds strong relational muscles.  If you behave well, and your partner responds in kind, that’s a good day for everyone.  If you behave well, and they don’t—and you manage to stay in your Wise Adult self despite your partner’s provocations—that’s a bad day for your partner, a mixed day for the relationship, and a stellar day for you.  You may not have achieved the result you wished for but you remained steadily in the you that you wish for.”  (pp. 123-124)

Real is greatly concerned about the impact of parental conflict on the children in the home: “I take a moment to explain the concept of witness abuse.  ‘Children have no boundaries,’ I tell Darlene.  ‘They’re wide-open systems.  When (your daughter) hears you scream at William, it goes into her as if you were screaming at her…We have a lot of options.  You can take a time-out.  You can do an anger management course.  You can try a little medication…Thirty days,’ I tell her.  ‘You have thirty days to stop this, or one of you has to move out for awhile…As we speak, you are traumatizing (your daughter).  She’s my priority, to be honest.”  (pp. 129-130)

Here Real give a summary of this approach: “Partners may say they want better communication or some other mechanical skill, but in almost all cases what they really want is major change in their spouse’s brain; they want a more relational person…My job as a therapist is to slip past the Adaptive Child and call out the Wise Adult self.  That’s the part I need to join with.  I see things that you, the client, don’t see yet.  But you can borrow my prefrontal cortex until you grow your own new neural pathways.  Together we will awaken the observer in you, the one with the reins, the one whose sight is undistorted: the one who can think, decide to act, and change.”  (pp. 130-131)

Real concludes this chapter with the following challenge: “I’d like everyone reading this chapter to commit to changing one relationally habitual behavior—complaining, controlling, shutting down.  Hold a moratorium on your vain attempts to get the other person to change, and try something that will surprise yourself…if you want to break up your pattern and get more of something in your relationship, try giving it…Experiment with new moves and see what they bring you…Ask your partner what you might do differently to evoke a different response from them…You can use the relationships in which your find yourself as crucibles for your own change and transformation, and as sources of support and deep healing.”  (pp. 132-133)

Chapter 6 is entitled “You Cannot Love from Above or Below.”  Here he returns to his emphasis on addressing grandiosity: “Here’s a few things to know about grandiosity and, in particular, about the difference between grandiosity and shame.  First of all, they are both lies; they are purely delusional.  One human being cannot be fundamentally superior or inferior to another.  Not fundamentally.  Whether you’re a serial killer or a saint, Mahatma Ghandi or a homeless alcoholic, all people have equal essential value, worth, and dignity.  Your essential worth comes from the inside out; it can’t be earned or unearned.  It is yours at birth, and it’s yours unto death.”  (pp. 143-144)

Real describes the toll that a violent, grandiose father has on his son: “We all marry our unfinished business.  We all marry our mothers and fathers.  And in our closest relationships, we become our mothers and fathers…Bruce was also being spoon-fed a message: ‘When you grow up and become a man, you get to indulge yourself the way I do.’  Bruce was simultaneously overtly disempowered, which led to his underlying issues of great shame, and covertly falsely empowered, which led to his grandiosity, his sexual entitlement, cruelty, and attacks.  Bruce’s shame was hidden, tucked inside his drinking and acting out…Consciously, Bruce despised his wretched father, but unconsciously he joined him, lived in the same world his father inhabited.  I call this keeping a parent spiritual company.”  (p. 149)

Real continues his understanding of Bruce’s grandiosity: “Leaving the grandiose relational stance behind often means separating from the early relationship in which the stance was embedded.  Bruce was enmeshed with his father…You can always tell if a client is enmeshed with a parent because they report that, as a child, they felt sorry for the parent.  ‘Children aren’t supposed to feel sorry for their parents,’ I tell Bruce.  ‘Parents are supposed to be big enough to take care of themselves.’  The open secret among therapists is that when you’re in a grandiose state, half the time you don’t realize it, and even when you do, it doesn’t feel bad.  In fact, in the moment, it feels pretty good…It feels good, but it just may ruin your life.”  (p. 153)

Real continues, “You have to think yourself down from grandiosity…You have to reach past the short-term hit of pleasure, for the sake of that longer-term, deeper pleasure called your family, or connection, or health.  For your sake.  Coming down from the one-up of grandiosity is a capital investment in your own long-term happiness.  Do it for your family certainly.  But even more, do it for you.  I tell the grandiose men like Bruce that entitled privilege is like a knife that’s all blade—it cuts the hand that wields it.”  (pp. 153-154)

Real describes “full respect living” as a “minute-to-minute attentional discipline.  Before words leave your mouth, you pause and ask yourself: ‘Does what I’m about to say fall below the level of basic respect?’  If you judge what you’re about to say as disrespectful, I have great advice for you.  Shut up.  And pledge, sincerely, from this moment forward, to do your best to curb actions and words that shame another.”  (p. 155)

Often I talk with patients who describe their harsh “inner critic” voices, and their struggles with self-esteem.  Real writes, “We tend to hold ourselves the way we were held.  If you were treated harshly, odds are your self-talk will be harsh…To me, healthy self-esteem means exactly what it says: it is our capacity to esteem ourselves—to hold ourselves warmly, tenderly—in the face of our screw-ups and imperfections.  You are perfectly imperfect, as Pia Mellody would say.”  (p. 157)

Chapter 7 is entitled “Your Fantasies Have Shattered, Your Real Relationship Can Begin.”  Here Real is interested in the cycle of harmony, disharmony, and repair.  He writes, “In Relational Life Therapy, we’re distinctly uninterested in helping a couple who have been devastated by betrayal get back to the old equilibrium.  Our aim is higher than that.  I’m not interested in merely helping Mike and Angela survive the crisis.  I want to use this crisis as a springboard for fundamental transformation—in each of the partners and in the marriage itself.  As a family therapist, trained in general systems theory, I know that in crisis lies opportunity.  Both transformation and dissolution begin with crisis, with disequilibrium.”  (p. 167)

Here Real elaborates: “While we may long to be married to perfection, it turns out it is precisely the collision of your particular imperfections with mine—and how we as a couple handle that collision—that is the guts, the actual stuff of intimacy.  Harmony, then disharmony, then repair is the essential rhythm of all close relationships.  This cycle…begins when you are a baby…it took researchers…to actually stick a video in front of mothers and their babies and observe the real story of finding connection, losing it, and finding it again.”  (pp. 168-169)

In this chapter Real describes his work with a couple in which the husband has had an affair.  “’Mike, we don’t ask someone why they cheat—that’s obvious.  Affairs are flattering, new, exciting, sexually pleasurable.  We ask someone why they don’t cheat.  What makes someone say no?  I’m saying no these days and have for quite some time.  Can I tell you why?’  Mike nods. ‘ Because I don’t want to hurt my partner.  I don’t want to look into my kids’ eyes and explain why Daddy screwed around on Mom.  I don’t want my reputation ruined.  And believe it or not, I’d rather live in a state of integrity…But something in you overrode your no.  It’s our job to figure out what that was.’”  (pp. 175-176)

Real explains that “affairs happen when either 1) The unfaithful partner has insufficient constraints in themselves.  In other words, their selfishness trumps their relationality.  Sooner or later they’d cheat on anyone.  The issue in these cases is narcissism and entitlement.  Life is short.  I deserve it.  Or, 2) The relationship has become so unsatisfying—so contentious, or distant, or dead—that the cheater feels there isn’t enough worth protecting.  If I’m found out, well, it’s not so great in this marriage anyway…I usually make a determination whether the primary problem is the character of the cheater, or the state of their union, or both.”  (pp. 175-176)

Here Real further describes the cycle of harmony, disharmony, and repair: “I call the harmony phase of a relationship love without knowledge; I call the disharmony phase knowledge without love.  Now you know exactly and precisely all your partner’s flaws and blemishes.  You see them all.  But you don’t love your partner very much…Repair is the final third of the cycle of harmony, disharmony, and repair.  I call the stage of repair knowing love.  Here you are utterly aware of your partner’s failings and shortfall—the temper that’s too big, the affection that’s too small, the sloppiness, or stinginess, or impulse to control—and yet you choose to love them anyway.  What the relationship gives you far outweighs what it lacks.  And you embrace those parts of your partner that, left on your own, you might avoid.”  (pp. 181-183)

In this chapter Real describes how a Relational Life therapist operates differently from a conventional therapist: “In subsequent months, I stagger their sessions.  One week with the two of them, one week with Mike alone—sideline coaching sessions in relational skill, in stepping into the role of husband and father.  I become not only Mike’s therapist but also his mentor…Relational Life therapists…explicitly step into a mentoring relationship.  We speak with the authority of our training and clinical experience, to be sure, but we’re grounded more deeply in our own relational recovery.  We’re more like twelve-step sponsors than blank-screen traditional therapists.  (p. 185)

Real speaks to Mike in this manner: “’If you come from a dysfunctional individualistic, patriarchal culture, Mike,’ I say, ‘so do I.  If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, so did I.  I used to be my version of you, Mike.  Hurt, hurting, entitled, clueless.  But with the right help, I grew up.  And you know what, dear man?  If I can do it, you can do it.’”  (p. 185)

Real is interested in the question of how much relational attunement is needed to sustain relationships: “Listen, all ye anxious helicopter parents:  resilience originates not in the absence of disharmony and discord but in its survival in you as a pair.  Life is messy, but you’re in this together.  You experience disharmony, mismatch, and failures in attunement as disruptions in the relational field but not as unbreachable ruptures…What proportion of attunement and mismatch breeds a healthy child?  How much disharmony can a relationship bear and still be agood enough’ holding environment?  Seventy-thirty is the principle that researchers use.  Seventy percent misalignment to thirty percent alignment—as long as the misalignment gets repaired.”  (pp. 187-188)

Here Real is writing about what creates a sense of safety in a primary relationship: “The neuroscientist Stephen Porges posits that feeling safety in another person with whom we interact consists of two important qualities—the absence of an agenda, and the absence of judgment.  I will neither intrude nor disappear…Partners in couples routinely self-regulate each other…Partners in healthy relationships push each other back or pull each other in.  They regulate each other’s distance.  And this is the other great gift of discord; it’s the chance to speak up and reshape the relationship.”  (p. 189)

Real returns to the Wise Adult perspective: “Even while you are triggered, you can take a moment, or twenty, and access your Wise Adult self, the part of you that can stop, think, observe, and choose.  Disharmony is to your relationship as pain is to your physical body.  It’s a signal that something is wrong, that someone needs to get their hand off the stove…When we are triggered, injuries from the past get activated.  Our neuroceptive body scan (Am I safe?  Am I safe?  Am I safe?) says no…What renders a relationship bad or good is not the depth of disharmony, but the presence or absence of repair.”  (pp. 189-190)

Real concludes this chapter with “We all marry our unfinished business.  Most of us wind up partnered with an all-too-familiar failure, limitation, or offense.  We are thrown back in the soup of our relational traumas from childhood…To use the crisis rather than be buried by it, however, you have to keep yourself above the flood of reactivity that threatens to sweep you away.  You have to have a skill that can be cultivated and made stronger—the skill of self-regulation…(which) emerges from successful experiences of repair…that’s how it is, being human.  A hurt worth bearing.  We stand grounded in the humility of our own imperfections…the critical first step is remembering love, getting seated in a part of you that wants to repair to begin with.”  (pp. 191-192)

Chapter 8 is entitled “Fierce Intimacy, Soft Power.”  He introduces us to the couple Liz and Phil: “Like virtually all the couples I encounter, Liz and Phil simply did not possess, in their relationship, a mechanism of correction.  Good couples regulate each other—conflict erupts, or distance feels oppressive, but they talk things out, and things get better…Real passion comes right out of real conflict, full engagement, taking each other on…Fierce intimacy is the essential capacity to confront issues, to take each other on.”  (pp. 200-201)

Here Real elaborates about what he means by “taking each other on.”  He writes, “Airing your dissatisfactions, articulating your desires, making concrete suggestions about how things might work better for you, and then, if all goes well, working like a team to make things right.  Repair demands assertion (not aggression) from the unhappy partner met with care and responsiveness (not defensiveness) in the other.”  (pp. 206-207)

Like the marriage researcher John Gottman, Real puts a great deal of emphasis on the importance of couples learning how to repair when there’s been a conflict.  Real states, “To be truthful, most couples are not utterly devoid of repair—they’re just not very good at it.”  He adds, “Like the large guy on the seesaw, shouting at his wife to get down, we frontload our attention on what our partners are doing wrong, not on how we might be contributing.  We focus on how unheard we feel, not on how we might speak more effectively.”  (p. 209)

Most couples come to couples therapy desperately hoping that their partner will change.  Real’s response to this situation is as follows: “You can start by pulling your accusatory finger away from your partner’s face.  I can’t tell you how many times someone steps into my office saying, ‘I’ve got to get some feelings off my chest,’ followed by ‘You did this, and then you did that.  You never.  You always.  You, you, you.’  Whenever that happens, I tilt my chair back, stretch, and say, ‘Tell me when the feelings are going to start.’  Stay on your side of the street.  Don’t accuse them—talk about yourself.  Not ‘Liz, you’re avoidant,’ but rather, ‘Liz, I don’t feel met.”  (p. 210)

I encourage couples I work with to put forth a hypothesis about their partners, and not insist that their view or memory is “correct.” In this vein, Real states: “’What I make up’ is a phrase I ask my clients to use.  What I make up is that you’re being sarcastic.  What I make up is that under your anger, there’s hurt.  We are not clairvoyant, and neither are we the authoritative voice of objective reality.  Keep it subjective; keep it humble.  ‘This is my experience, right or wrong.  This is how I recollect it.  This is the story I tell myself about it.’”  (p. 211)

Real invites us to use the feedback wheel…”a structure you can use to organize your thoughts and more skillfully speak up when you are hurt.”  The steps in the feedback wheel are:

1)This is what I recollect happened.

2)This is what I made up about it.

3)This is what I felt.

And that all-important fourth step most speakers leave out:

4)This would help me feel better.”  (pp. 211-212)

Real adds, “You have to help your partner come through for you.  Tell them how you’d like them to be.  Help them win.  Help your partner succeed, because it’s in your interest to act like a team…’What can I do to help you come through for me?’ is an entirely relational question.  Thinking like a team is the clear antidote to thinking like two individuals…It’s a shift from… ‘I need more sex’ to ‘We both deserve a healthy sex life.  What should we do about it?’” (p. 212)

Real describes an approach that’s centered on “remembering love.”  Here he describes it: “When you need to speak up, be artful.  Take care of your partner as best you can by explicitly cherishing them and your relationship.  Start by letting them know you need repair, is this a good time?  If your partner agrees to talk, thank them, start off with an appreciation—something you are thankful for that your partner has said or done, even if it’s just that you appreciate their willingness to sit down and talk.  Then state your intentions—a good thing to do, generally: ‘I want to clear the air between us so that I can feel closer to you.’  Center yourself in your Wise Adult, prefrontal cortex, and remember love.  Recall that the person you’re addressing is someone you love, or at least care for, and in any case, you will have to live with them.  Remembering love is a re-centering practice.  You’re speaking to someone you care about in the hopes of making things better.  If that is not your intention, you are probably in your Adaptive Child.  Stop!  Take a walk around the block, journal, and splash some water on your face.  This won’t go well until you are self-regulated.”  (p. 217)

At this point Real gives an example of how his wife might have used the Feedback Wheel when she was upset with him.  He adds, “Notice that each step of the wheel is complete in just a few sentences.  Be concise…when you share your feelings, be sure to share your feelings, not your thoughts…There are seven primary feelings: joy, pain, anger, fear, shame, guilt, love.  Stick with those…When you share your feelings, skip over the emotion that first comes to you, your go-to emotion, and lead with others…if you are used to leading with big, powerful feelings, like anger, or indignation, soften up…reach for and lead with your vulnerability.  Find the hurt.”  (pp. 218-219)

Real challenges us to speak from our Wise Adult self: “Changing your stance changes the dance between you.  The shift from indignation to hurt, like the shift from tepid complaint to empowered assertion, will quite often evoke a different response from the usual…Take the risk of leading with a different part of you—vulnerability for the righteous, assertion for the timid—and then step back and observe.  Once you’ve given your feedback, you’re finished.  Let go.  Detach from outcome…don’t focus on results.  Instead, focus on how well you handle yourself.  Focus on your own relational performance.”  (p. 219)

Real also describes how to respond if you are the one hearing feedback from your partner.  He writes, “Yield.  Don’t get defensive, or go tit for tat, or any of that Adaptive Child behavior.  You, the listener, also need to be centered.  You need to remember love.  What can you give this person to help them feel better?  You can begin by offering the gift of your presence.  Listen.  And let them know they’ve been heard.  Reflect back what you heard…Some couples therapies call for exquisite reflecting.  We don’t.  If you are the speaker, and the listening partner has left out important things or gotten something seriously wrong, help them out.  Gently correct them, and then have them reflect again.  But don’t be overly fussy.  Serviceable is good enough.”  (p. 220)

Here Real focuses on “letting the repair happen.”  He writes, “Don’t discount your partner’s efforts.  Don’t disqualify what’s being offered with a response like ‘I don’t believe you” or “This is too little too late.’  Dare to take yes for an answer.  If what your partner is offering you is at all reasonable, take it, as imperfect as it may be, and relent…Allowing your partner to make amends and come back into your good graces is more vulnerable for you than crossing your arms and rejecting what they’re offering.  Let them win; let it be good enough.  Come into knowing love.”  (pp. 222-223)

Chapter 9 is entitled “Leaving Our Kids a Better Future.”  Here he elaborates on what he calls “keeping spiritual company” with a difficult parent: “The often unconscious replay of the parent’s dysfunction represents a way of being in the relationship.  For many clients, keeping spiritual company with their problematic beloved parent is their only way of feeling close to the parent.  Repetition of the parent’s dysfunction is a form, sometimes the only available form, of attachment.  But as you free yourself from this form of attachment to a parent, you must allow yourself to grieve the loss.”  (p. 236)

Real challenges us to stay in our Wise Adult self and speak to our partners with respect: “I have a deal with the universe: if it’s unkind, I’m not interested, whether it’s unkind between others, between others and me, or between me and me.  You may have a point, and I’ll try to listen to it even in the midst of a bad delivery.  But I don’t have much bandwidth for anything said unkindly, so do us both a favor and think about how you want to talk to me.  I will do the same for you.  As they say in medicine, first do no harm…The next time you are triggered, take a breath.  Get centered in your Wise Adult—if it takes one moment or twenty—and use your skills.”  (pp. 254-255)

The 10th and final chapter of the book is entitled “Becoming Whole.”  Here we are introduced to the couple Charles and Diane.  Real describes Charles behavior with his wife: “While at home he has a depressive, passive-aggressive style—he only rarely becomes overtly angry—he nevertheless punishes Diane with his moodiness and ill-temper.  He does that particularly male routine that my wife, Belinda, calls putting up a stink.  You don’t say a word, but the people around you wind up with a headache.  Passive-aggression means punishing people by what you don’t do, by how little you give.”  (p. 264)

I talk a lot with couples in my office about letting go of the need to be right.  Real elaborates on this, saying “You can learn to let go of the trap of ‘objective’ reality and tend, instead, to your partner’s subjective hurts or longings, listening, really listening, with compassion and generosity rather than defensiveness and self-centeredness.  ‘I’m sorry you feel bad.  Can I say or do anything now that might help?’”  (p. 282)

The final section of the book is “Epilogue: Broken Light.”  Here Real addresses the necessity of healthy boundaries in our relationships: “As a psychotherapist, I find myself often in the position of being a kind of boundary merchant.  Couples who have weak or missing psychological boundaries are marked by reactivity or volatility.  But with practice, they can work on their psychological boundaries, thicken their skin, and become less reactive…those who live behind walls—particularly emotional walls, letting out or taking in too little—need to practice intentional receptivity, deliberately relaxing, breathing, and taking in what’s presented to them.

Real concludes this line of thought with the following: “A healthy psychological boundary, like healthy self-esteem, lies in the middle—neither too open and porous nor too closed and walled off.  How we take in, or keep out, others’ judgments is a huge psychological issue.”  (p. 286)

As a couples’ therapist, one of the first things I try to teach couples is how to listen more receptively and with less reactivity.  As Real has suggested at various points throughout this exceedingly helpful book, it’s critical that couples recognize when their reactivity is making it impossible for them to have a productive conversation, and that they be able to take a time-out until both partners are more able to listen constructively.