Terrence Real, US: Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship

Terrence Real, US: Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship

Guest host Allison Pataki speaks to bestselling author and renowned marriage and family counselor Terry Real about Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship, a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA TODAY bestselling relationship guidebook that critiques toxic individualism and teaches compassion and collaboration. Terry shares several real client stories to illustrate relational mindfulness, thinking individualistically vs. relationally, trauma triggers, and the inner child. He also shares how he handles his own fights with his wife and hints at his upcoming documentary!


Allison Pataki: Hello, everybody. I am Allison Pataki. I have the privilege and the thrill of being joined by Terry Real — Terrence Real is the nom de plume — author of Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship. Terrence is here now. Terrence, welcome.

Terrence Real: It’s lovely to be here. Thank you.

Allison: Oh, my goodness, thank you for joining. I feel as though this book, Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship, should be required reading for any member of the human race.

Terrence: That’s lovely.

Allison: There is just so much good stuff in here. I wrote at the top, I wept, I laughed, I learned. I learned so much. Can you just start off by telling us and telling readers what this book is and why you had to write it?

Terrence: I had to write it because we’re living in very divisive times. I’m a family therapist. I’ve been a couples therapist for over thirty years. It’s really a critique of the toxic culture of individualism and what it does to us. Here’s the bottom line. Individualism and patriarchy, which I’ve been writing about for forty years, teaches us that we are above nature. We’re separate from nature. That’s what being an individual means. I’m a separate individual. That we are in control, that we dominate nature, that’s deluded. It doesn’t matter if the nature that you’re trying to control is your spouse or your kids or your body — I’ve got to lose ten pounds — or your thinking — I’ve got to be more positive — or the planet or another race. The idea that we’re above it and that we get to control it is one of the great toxic delusions of the human race. The book fades out. I start with neurobiology. I start with what happens in our brains, which I’m going to get to. I fade out to looking at racism, homophobia, our relationship to the planet and to ecology. What replaces the delusion of “I am above it, and I get to control it” is what I call ecological wisdom.

Our relationships are our biosphere. You’re not above them. You’re in them. Wake up. Once you realize the humility of our interdependence — I’m not above it; I’m in it — then we get to learn how to live relationally on this — for example, the relational answer to the question “Who’s right?” is “Who gives a damn?” It doesn’t matter. What matters is, how are you and I going to work this out in a way that’s going to work for both of us? The old terms about right/wrong, win/lose, they’re all losers. We have to wake up. We have to remember that we’re a team. We have to remember enlightened self — I get these big, burly guys, and they say to me, “Why do I have to work so hard to please my wife?” I go, “Knock, knock. Hey dummy, you live with her. That’s why you have to work so hard to please her, because you’ll deal with the consequences if you don’t.” Waking up to relationship and the reality that we’re in relationship, whether it’s our bodies, our kids, ourselves, the planet, is a whole new world. When we do wake up and start living relationally, everything changes. All the skills changes.

Allison: You talk about relational mindfulness. How do we live with relational mindfulness?

Terrence: As a couples therapist, the most important question I ask myself is not, what are the stressors? A good couple can handle stress. It’s not even the thing I teach all students to identify, the more, the more, the dance, the choreography. The more he pursues, the more she distances. The more she distances, the more — that’s important. The most important question is this. Which part of you am I speaking to? Am I speaking to the part of you I call in the book the wise adult part of you, prefrontal cortex in the brain, the most mature part of the brain to develop in a kid, twenty-six years old, the most mature part of the brain to develop in the human species? Am I speaking to a subcortical part of the brain, fight, flight, knee-jerk, me, me, me, me versus you? It goes like this. The autonomic nervous system scans the body four times a second. Am I safe? Am I safe? Am I safe? If the answer’s “Yes, I’m safe,” I stay in my wise adult. I can stop. I can think. If the answer’s “No, I’m not safe,” we get flooded with automatic reactivity. Fight, flight, or fix. Screw me/screw you. You can do fleeing and sit six inches away from somebody. That’s called stonewalling somebody. Men are very good at that.

Fix, which is big for women, fixing is not a thoughtful, hmm, let me figure out what I — fixing is a codependent, compulsive, anxious, “Oh, my gosh, you’re upset. Let me take your upset.” I would like everybody listening to take a moment and ask yourself, when I’m not centered, when I’m — I call it woosh. Woosh. When I’m in reactive, automatic, knee-jerk response, am I a fighter, a flee-er, or fixer? This is the domain of the part of you I call the adaptive child part of you. There’s been a lot of press and a lot of trauma work about the wounded child part, very young, just flooded. Between the wise adult and that wounded child is the you that you learned to be in the face of what was happening to you. In the heat of the moment with your partner or kids or whoever, you lose the wise adult. You move into your automatic response. It has everything to do with what you learned as a kid. You’re on runaway repeating the same damn thing over and over and over again even though it doesn’t work over and over and over again.

Allison: Why do the people that we love the most have the ability to trigger us the most, to bring up that traumatized child self?

Terrence: Well, we picked them, didn’t we?

Allison: Yeah, we did.

Terrence: That’s why. It’s what I call the the marriage. Falling in love means that this person is going to deliver me from all those old wounds. The reality of marriage is this person is precisely designed to reopen all of those old wounds. I think at the deepest level, our soul knows that, picks them for that. That doesn’t mean you’re in a bad marriage. What matters then is, what do you do in that dark night of the soul? Do you just replay the same old, same old, or do you do something new and heal? In order to do something new and heal — you asked about relational mindfulness. You have to move out of that automatic adaptive child into the thoughtful self. That’s what this book teaches. When you’re flooded in the heat of the moment, how do you take a breath or a break or walk around the block and get yourself recentered in the part of you that wants to make things better? The adaptive child doesn’t give a damn about making things better. The adaptive child is about proving they’re right, controlling their partner, ventilating, retaliating, or withdrawal. These are the five losing strategies I go through. The first order of business is getting centered in the part of you that even gives a damn about making things better to begin with. That moment is a moment of healing. Can I tell you a story?

Allison: Please do. That’s why you’re here.

Terrence: This is a story I’ve been using to illustrate. It’s a true story. This is a couple on the brink, which is my beat. I deal with couples on the brink of divorce that no one else has been able to help. A couple on the brink of divorce. The guy is a chronic liar, lies about everything. He’s one of these guys — for the therapists listening, you know these guys. I say to him, “The sky is blue,” and he says, “It’s aquamarine.” In fairly short order, what I get is what his adaptive child does. We call it his relational stance, his shtick, what he does over and over again. He is a champion evader. He’s got a black belt in evasion. I don’t think individualistically. I think relationally. If that adaptive child learned to evade, who was he evading? I say to him something that sounds brilliant if you don’t think this way, but the minute you think this way, you get it. “Who tried to control you growing up?” His father, military man, how to sit, how to eat, who his friends — what courses, everything. I said, “How did you deal with this controlling father?” He looks at me and smiles. That smile’s important. That’s resistance. He looks at me. He smiles. He goes, “I lied.” Brilliant. Brilliant little boy. I teach my students, always 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 wholeness and get by. Good, but adaptive then, maladaptive now. You’re not that four-year-old boy. Your wife is not your father. That’s it. That was the whole session. They came back two weeks later — this is absolutely true — hand in hand, all smiles. They were cured.

Allison: Cured, I love it.

Terrence: I said, “Okay, there’s a story here. Tell me the story.” He said his wife sent him off to the grocery store over the weekend to pick up, say, twelve things. True to form, he comes back with eleven. She says to him, “Where’s the pumpernickel?” Everyone listening can relate to this. Every muscle and nerve in his body was screaming to say, “They were out of it,” to lie and protect themselves. He said, “I took a breath. I thought of you, Terry.” We therapists do that. We lend our prefrontal cortex to our clients. “I thought of you. I looked my wife in the eye. I said, ‘I forgot the damn pumpernickel.'” She burst into tears. She said, “I’ve been waiting for this moment for twenty-five years.” That’s recovery. That’s intimacy. That’s moving beyond your childhood trauma. That’s what this book is all about, how to do that.

Allison: You write that it’s not that we never fight. It’s not that there’s never disharmony. You say there is harmony. There’s disharmony. Then the critical piece here is the repair. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Terrence: All relationships are an endless dance of harmony, disharmony, and repair, , disruption, and a return to — I first got this from the work Ed Tronick, infant observational researcher who plugged the camera and filmed mothers and infants. The infant is molded. Then there’s gas or — the infant’s freaking out. The mother’s freaking out. The mother gets mad. The infant goes like this. We’re back to molded again. Harmony, disharmony, and repair is the essential rhythm of all relationships. It’s like walking. Balance, balance, balance. The problem is that when we move into that disharmony phase, we often get trauma triggered. Instead of staying in our adult selves, we move into the knee-jerk response that we learned as kids. Goddamn it, I’m going to not let you — I’m a fighter. I can’t listen to this. I’m a flee-er. Oh, my god, I’ll put up with any behavior because I’m a fixer. We just repeat the same things. We have to learn to take a breath, take a break. I’m a big fan of physical break. Take a walk around the block. Get centered in the part of you — I call it remembering love. Remember that the person you’re speaking to is someone you care about. The reason you’re speaking is to make things better, to get rid of all those ridiculous agendas of revenge and control and expressing yourself. Keep your eye on the prize of, okay, honey, let’s talk about what’s going to make this work. You lose the “I versus you.” It’s, what are we — can I give you another example?

Allison: Yes.

Terrence: Quick one. I’m sure people can relate to this. I’ll make it a classic heterosexual pair. Not to exclude anybody. She says to him, “You’re a reckless driver.” He says to her, “You’re overly anxious.” They get into what I call an objectivity battle. Is she overly anxious? Is he a — “No, I’m not a –” “I have a speedometer.” This is bullshit. Objective reality has no place in personal relationships. It doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong. Now she’s been working with me. She says to her husband, “Listen, whether you’re a reckless driver or you’re not, let me tell you what happens. When you go twenty miles above the speed limit, move lane to lane, tailgate cars, I’m sitting next to you like, we’re going to die. Call me — maybe I am. I don’t know. You love me. You don’t want me to be miserable every time I’m in the passenger seat next to you. As a favor to me, could you slow down when I’m in the car and drive more conservatively?” He says — true story — to his own amazement, “Yeah, I can do that.” End. A fight that could’ve lasted forty years is done in ten minutes because they stopped thinking individualistically. They start thinking relationally.

Allison: Terry, you’re very open and candid in this book about your own experience and the own maladaptive strategies. You have your own inner child, your own relationships. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Terrence: Yeah. There’s a documentary being made about me and my family that will be out in about a year and a half.

Allison: Oh, great.

Terrence: I was just doing inner child work with a friend and college, Thomas Hübl, a great healer, on film.

Allison: I can’t wait to see that.

Terrence: When Belinda, my wife, and I have a fight, I have a deal with little Terry. I have a composite. He’s about eight years old. I’ve worked with him a ton. I put him behind me, physically behind me. He’s holding onto my shirt. I say to him, “Look, I will protect you. The blast of anger or upset or whatever coming our way, I’m like Superman, I’ll take the hit. The explosion stops here. Behind me, you are completely protected. That’s my part of the deal. Here’s your part of the deal. You let me deal with Belinda. Don’t you try and deal with Belinda. You’ll make a mess of it.” That’s how it goes. One of the things I say is maturity comes when we manage our inner children, which is really just a fanciful way of talking about our trauma triggers. When we manage our inner children and don’t foist them on our partners, manage little Terry — my little Terry’s a fighter. You don’t mess with him. That’s fine, but he’s gotten me into a lot of difficulties over the years in a variety of relationships. Listen, buddy, I love you. I get it. I’ll take care of it. One of the things I say is when an inner child kicks up in us — you’ll know that because you’ll be reactive. When an inner child kicks up, put them on your lap. Put your arms around them. Hear what they have to say. Take their sticky hands off the steering wheel. You’re not driving the bus. I am. You’re in the backseat. That’s the work.

Allison: Compassion for that inner child and also managing it. What was it like for you writing this book? What was your process? How long did it take? How did you decide which anecdotes to include?

Terrence: I’ve written four books. My first book took me eight years to write. I was really teaching myself how to write. This one was a gift from God. I got up every morning at five in the morning, which I don’t usually do. For a year, I got up every morning at five. I wrote from five to ten. It just came out of me. It’s really the culmination of my life’s work.

Allison: A gift from God, you say, a gift to us all to read and dogear and reread over and over again, Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship. Terry, how can readers connect with you to find out all about the book, about your documentary, all the amazing work you’re doing?

Terrence: Let me say I’m doing a fair amount of online courses on relationship skills for the general public. I’m just finishing up a course on relational parenting, how to raise relational kids.

Allison: Can you write that book next? I bet a lot of people on here would be interested in reading that one.

Terrence: You can still take the course. Most people don’t do it live. They review it afterwards. That’s available. I have a course, the Us workshop. Just go to terryreal.com. I’ve got all sorts of cool things on the website to offer.

Allison: Great. Terryreal.com to find out more. The book is Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship. Terry, thank you so much. We will be following you and looking forward to all that is to come.

Terrence: Thank you. It was a pleasure talking.

Allison: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Terrence Real, US: Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship

US: Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship by Terrence Real

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