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Terry Real has been a family therapist and teacher for more than 25 years. He is an internationally recognized speaker and author who founded Relational Life Institute (RLI), which offers workshops for couples, individuals and parents, and professional training for clinicians. Terry is a senior faculty member of the Family Institute of Cambridge in Massachusetts and a retired Clinical Fellow of the Meadows Institute in Arizona.

Esther Perel is recognized as one of the most insightful voices on personal and professional relationships and is also a best-selling author. Esther has practiced therapy in New York City for 30 years. She also serves on the faculty of The Family Studies Unit, Department of Psychiatry, New York University Medical Center and The International Trauma Studies Program at Columbia University.

The following interview is from the Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter
Volume 36, No 1 – Spring 2016

View the latest Newsletter issue, or browse our Newsletters Archive

Esther Perel: For those of you who have not met Terry, this is an introduction to an outstanding couples’ therapists who has recently done a lot to influence the development of the field. Terry, my late father used to ask me: “What do you do with these people? Do you really help them?”

Terry Real: A great scientist once said to me, “Psychotherapy is really just paid friendship. Isn’t it?” In terms of my work with couples…we do not live in a relationship-cherishing culture. We live in a patriarchal, narcissistic, co-addictive culture. Most of us have not been raised by relationally skilled families and we’re damaged and we don’t know how to be intimate. A lifelong romance is a modern idea, and I don’t think most men and women have the skills and the wisdom to pull it off. We’re not at zero, we’re in the negative numbers. So it’s my job as a couples’ therapist to figure out what each of them is doing that’s blowing their own foot off. And then confront them in a loving and precise way; moving into early childhood wounds that are at the root, but not leave it there. Once that’s on the table, teach them what I call, “a psychoeducational approach to intimacy” — what empathy, or accountability, or increased vulnerability looks like. It’s a loving confrontation — what I call, “joining through the truth.” Whether you’re an angry pursuer, withdrawer, professional martyr, or helpless victim, whatever it is that you’re doing that’s screwing things up — it’s taking a hard look at that. The second phase is moving into inner child and family of origin work. The third phase is: ‘If you don’t want to be an angry pursuer, let me teach you what functional pursuit looks like. Lose the chip on your shoulder and be inviting.’ It’s a three-step process: ‘This is what you’re doing wrong; this is where it comes from; and this is what right looks like.’

You know…stance, stance, dance. In a heterosexual couple, his dysfunctional move and her dysfunctional move and the way those two moves reinforce each other can eat up the intimacy like cancer. It’s my job to crowbar them out of that pattern.

You could go to a trauma weekend and do deep cathartic, wonderful, reparative healing work with your inner child. Then, come home and be the same asshole that you were to your family before your deep cathartic weekend. People need to change their behavior. I don’t think it’s pathology-focused, in that it’s in the nuance of “joining through the truth,” which is self-esteem in action. Self-esteem or appropriate shame means: I feel bad about the bad things I’ve done, and I still hold myself in warm regard as a flawed human being.

Someone asked me to explain Rational Living Therapy (RLT). It’s reaching for the decent person underneath. And if you’re not in a place of scanning for the strengths, loving the decent person underneath — what I call, “connecting with the functional adult part of the person” — then the work will not go anywhere.

EP: That’s interesting, because you go to the childhood not because you’re trying to repair the childhood, but so that you can separate it from the adult who can make choices.

There’s something existential about your thinking. You use the word “behavior,” but stance is more than behavior. Stance is a combination of behavior, attitude, and belief system. And in that sense, it becomes existential.

TR: Right. When people transform and they move out of their stances they become different overnight. I tell a story of a man who was a Type A personality. He was a god — he was handsome, glorious, and rich, and he had two disabled children – and he hated them. They were a stain on his perfection. We talked about narcissism and empathy for several weeks, and he didn’t get it. One day, he took his kid to a baseball game and when they were driving home the kid got sick in the car. And he was so frightened of his father that he was holding in the vomit. The father said, “I looked in my son’s eyes and I was appalled by who I was to him. I said, ‘Oh honey, be sick, be sick.’ From that moment on I knew it was about him; it wasn’t about me.”

That was a watershed moment in this man’s life, and I see this all the time.

EP: I think you have an “in” with men who were mistreated by their fathers. A beautiful term that I learned from you is, “intrusion trauma.” Basically, it’s the shame that the boy experienced at the hands of his father, which becomes the glue that holds the narcissism together. Hence the need for perfection, because anything short of perfection is a stain — and the stain is shaming. The work that you do not only relates to another person’s need, but is also a cleansing of the shame.

TR: There’s an AA saying: Hurt people hurt people. Therapy is not as effective as it could be when it deals with only one or the other of that sentence.

EP: If you focus on someone who is hurt and their own self-pity, and you don’t look at the aggressive side of them, from that place of hurt they can wound others. If you only look at the aggressive side, but you don’t look at the wound, then you’re missing an essential part of the dynamic.

TR: There’s also two ways to wound a child, particularly a father to a boy. You can disempower the child and wound him directly by making him feel less than, or unlovable, or defective. But you can also pump up a child’s grandiosity. I had a violent, abusive, narcissistic father. I came home one day with bad grades and my father threw the report card on the ground, laughed, and said, “That’s only because those assholes don’t know how to deal with you, you’re so bright.” We call that “false empowerment.” A lot of the guys I see have the double one-two punch of abuse and wound, coupled with various forms of false empowerment, so there’s a flight of shame into grandiosity — from feeling bad about yourself, to controlling or attacking someone else. I help men return to that little boy who was either abused or falsely empowered. But not just with the healing impulse of releasing the energy of that boy. There is that…but that’s not enough. The next piece is to put the grown up man in charge of that boy. Let him give the boy what the boy didn’t get. Let him contain that boy so the boy isn’t wreaking havoc on his relationship. Maturity comes when we handle our inner children and don’t foist them off on our partners to handle them for us. It’s about empowerment.

EP: Those men who had those kind of fathers often became emotional caretakers for their mothers, who were often in bad situations in relation to those men. They promised themselves they would never be like their fathers, but often ended up doing some of the things their fathers had done. Part of what these men struggle with is what to do with their aggression. If they had an aggressive dad, they often don’t know how to connect between tenderness and assertiveness. They compartmentalize their sexuality. They are loving husbands and fathers, but unable to be sexual with their women. While at the same time, they are involved elsewhere in hardcore, lustful, high intensity, low emotion sexuality.

TR: Both sides of them are wounded. No one taught them how to be constructively assertive or even constructively dominating in a consensual relationship. That’s part of the punch. And then they’re enmeshed with their victim mothers. In my second book, How Can I Get Through to You? I say that the nastiest words in the English language are: Please don’t tell your father. Enmeshment with the mother leads to compartmentalization and cut-off. It’s a good boy/bad boy dichotomy that got set up both by the father and his aggression, and by the mother in her enmeshing victimhood.

EP: So what new ideas and thoughts have recently entered your work?

TR: I’ve never said this in public…but the new ideas that are coming to me are spiritual. Normally, we think about autonomy and differentiation from our development from our parents. As a marital therapist, I think about autonomy and differentiation from these kinds of stances – these MOs – that you inherited from your family of origin. But what I call, “second consciousness” or “relational mindfulness,” gives you choice, so that you’re not the fixer, the flee-er, the fighter you grew up being. That’s liberation or freedom.

The ultimate differentiation or autonomy is autonomy from our own reactivity — at the highest level what the Buddhists would call, “attentional.” I was with my spiritual teacher last summer in a group of 800 people and the first words he said were: “You are not who you take yourself to be.” There’s a liberation that goes beyond the developmental, beyond the marital, beyond the psychological — to deeper levels of existential freedom.

EP: That’s beautiful. What would you want people to say about you? What’s the legacy?

TR: I’ve been thinking about what I call, “fierce Intimacy” – keeping passion alive by telling each other the truth. If I had a legacy, it would be about loving fierceness. Daring to tell the truth to yourself and to the people around you, in a way that it’s clear you’re rooting for them and for the relationship but not backing away from telling the truth. My brand or mark would be: Terry Real – the guy who can tell the truth, particularly to men. And, the guy who can tell the truth with great love and honor.

EP: Do you think our students have changed – and how?

TR: Yes. I’ve seen some change. There are lots of therapies that suggest that you can do the thing that you’re teaching others to do. But in RLT it’s about living that self-esteem; holding the person in warm regard, and holding them with utter truthfulness at the same time. You cannot do that if you’re in a one-down or one-up position. You cannot do my therapy if you’re in a shame state, and you can’t do it from a one-up judging state because the person will smell it and they won’t listen to you. So you have to be in a spiritually centered place in order to see the person the way God sees the person. You see them whole — with all their warts and moles — and you choose to love them in their humanity anyway.

My students take on their partners in ways that they hadn’t before. Sometimes that leads to divorce. But most often, it leads to a transformed marriage. Very few people learn this work and stay the way they were.

EP: It’s like when we discovered systemic thinking — a completely different way of understanding the world.

TR: Yes. And my language for that now is relational. To see things relationally and ecologically, instead of linearly. It’s about teaching people enlightened self-interest. It’s in your interest to do what needs to be done to make this relationship work.

EP: How do you help people leave, or end their relationship?

TR: A friend of mine said that he found firing people a spiritual experience. I thought he was full of it until he told me what he said: “You don’t belong here. There’s a place where you do belong, in which you can be fully realized and be yourself and be happy. This isn’t that place. I think you should be freed up to go find that place.”

There are many examples of ongoing abuse, addiction, or one of the two parties is insufferable and has no interest in changing. We therapists often throw the other partner under the bus, when, in fact, it’s no service to them to keep them in an abusive relationship.

EP: What’s the question people should ask you that is often not asked?

TR: A question that is often asked is: “Can I do this work with men only because I’m a man?” The answer is no. Competence trumps gender. I think the question not asked is: “How do you get away with doing this work?” The answer is because I love the people I’m working with. And, if they’re not loveable when I start with them, I render them more loveable by the time I’m done. When I’m with someone I find the part of me that’s just like them. That’s how I can be empathic and finish their sentences. It’s that connection that make things so powerful, along with detachment from outcome. It’s your life, not my life. I’ll hold the mirror up, but it’s up to you to choose what to do.

EP: I identify with you to the point where I can finish your sentences. And I differentiate from you in that I cannot want more for you than you want for yourself.

TR: Yes. Don’t be ambitious for your clients, or you’ll wind up with a headache. I’ve said to patients who don’t want to do anything I say and just give me a hard time: ‘You’ll go home to your misery and I’ll go home to my happy family. And the only reason my family is a happy one is because I clawed my way there. No one gave it to me. I can help you make your family happy, but it’s really not my business, it’s yours.’

EP: Your language mirrors your approach. When you talk about fierce intimacy, for example, you talk about “clawing my way.”

TR: I come from a difficult, violent background, as does Belinda. Every inch of the learning that we’ve done in this field has been for our own healing, as well as for others. My path has been fierce and my therapy is a fierce because, of course, it always reflects the person who created it.

I’m going to be utterly pretentious and misquote Shelley: Mighty poets are cradled forth in wrong. They learn in suffering what they teach in song.

EP: Ending with a poet is always the best way. Thank you.

TR: Thank you Esther.

The above interview is from the Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter
Volume 36, No 1 – Spring 2016

View the latest Newsletter issue, or browse our Newsletters Archive


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