Terry Real is an internationally recognized family therapist, speaker, and author. He is the founder of the Relational Life Institute and wrote I Don’t Want to Talk About It, the quintessential book on male depression. He is also the marriage counselor Ester Perel turns to and Bruce Springsteen and Bradley Cooper are among his clients and fans.
In his newest book, Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship, Terry reveals how individualism and patriarchy poison our most intimate connections.
With all of this in mind, I invited Terry Real for a conversation. It was such an honor to talk with him. Read below for excerpts of our very interesting and enlightening discussion:
Meeting Terry Real
Idit: Hi Terry…You meet people in different capacities, such as your therapy clients, your students, or your readers. What are the reasons behind your choice of these specific avenues for connecting with people? Is there a favorite?
Terry: Wow! What a great question. I’ll start with a Shelley poem: “Most wretched men are cradled into poetry by wrong: They learn in suffering what they teach in song…”
I started being a family therapist at about the age of four, trying to desperately regulate my out-of-control, depressed, angry, violent father. I was a writer ever since I was a little boy, I think. Dad was the long-suffering artist. He was a sculptor and I was the writer.
I spent 4 years in a doctoral program in literature, left it, came to Boston to drive a cab, and wrote a novel. One of my great humanitarian acts was never publishing that novel. It was not very good!
After being shot at a couple of times, I left being a cabbie and got a job as a mental health worker in a “loony bin.” When I sat down in my first role play as a therapist-in-training, I knew what to do better than I knew what to do in 4 years of comparative literature. I knew just what to do. Thus, I emerged from that experience with the conviction that I was born to be a therapist.
Understanding Wounds of Disconnection
As we talked more, Terry shared how he moved forward in his education and career, with the guidance and support of important mentors.
Terry: The great feminist family therapist and one of the terrific mentors of my life, Olga Silverstein of the Ackerman Institute for the Family, spoke to me one day. She said, “I’m going to change your life. I’m writing a book on mothers and sons. My agent wants someone to write a book about men and depression. I want you to meet with him.”
On the plane down to speak to the agent, I thought, “Man, what am I doing? I don’t think of depression, my depression, as a biological issue. I think of depression as a relational disease.” Men are depressed because our socialization knocks us out of being connected and related.
Then the light bulb went off. I decided to write about that. My first book, I Don’t Want to Talk About It, is largely biographical…
Idit: Yes! thank you for writing about that! That was so helpful. You know, many times therapists are women. In couples therapy, there are often two women in the room and one man (if a heterosexual couple is involved). Sometimes I feel that men really need to be understood beyond our point of view. The book was enlightening and so helpful for me as a therapist and as a colleague.
Terry: If you read many women feminist writers, the thought is that the wound to women, traditionally, is a wound to their power. They are disempowered and lose their voice at the edge of adolescence.
For boys, the wound is much earlier, around three, four, or five years old. It’s almost pre-verbal. The wound is not disempowerment. Boys are falsely empowered. The wound is disconnection. We “turn boys into men” by disconnecting them from their vulnerabilities, their hearts, their desires, and from others.
Terry’s Couple’s Experiential for Reconnection
Terry explains that he’s been working on the cure to relational disconnection for 40 years. He maintains that the answer is a reconnection to ourselves and those we love. He began approaching men in their relationships because he believes restoring relationality is crucial. This led to his current couples and gender therapy work.
Terry: I am very proud of my writing but I think my favorite way of teaching is what we call the Couple’s Experiential. I do about four per year. It’s two days with 5 couples, live. There are up to one thousand mental health observers in the background.
Basically, I work with couple number one and do a one-shot consultation. The rest of the couples give feedback. Then, I’m on to couples number two, three, four, and five. Then, I debrief with the therapists at lunch and the end of the day. So, it is 5, “live-ammo” interviews. They’re all relational life therapy and they’re all different.
How Individualism Breaks Relationships
With the focus on relationships being so vital, Terry’s background and thoughts regarding emotions and connection are worth exploring in depth. So, I steered our conversation toward his new book, Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship:
Idit: When I started reading “Us…”, I felt a sense of gratitude: gratitude to you for writing it and gratitude for noticing and making sense of our human experience. I also thought everyone should read the book. Can you tell us a little bit about what the book is about and who it is for?
Terry: Well, the book is for the general public as well as therapists. All of my books are for people who want to help people; for what one of my clients calls “normal people.” The book is a critique of the toxic culture of individualism and what individualism does to our relationships.
It starts with our biology. When I’m sitting with a couple, the first question that comes to my mind is not “what are your stressors” (the money, the kids, the pandemic). Good couples handle stress. It’s not even the choreography between the two (who is in pursuit and who is distancing).
The first question is, “Which part of you am I speaking to?”
- Am I speaking to the prefrontal cortex, the most mature part of the brain, that develops last in us? That part of the brain can be thoughtful, present (based here and now), deliberate, compassionate, and intentional.
- Am I speaking to some subcortical, more primitive part of the brain, which gets us through trauma?
We know that, biologically, the autonomic nervous system scans the body 4 times a second, asking, “Am I safe? times four.
- If the answer is, “Yes, I’m reasonably safe,” you can stay in that prefrontal cortex. I call this the “Wise Adult” part of us.
- If the answer in your body is, “No. I’m in danger” fight-or-flight sets in. The limbic system gets triggered and flooded with a bunch of hormones and chemicals. You’re ready to take off or you’re ready to hit somebody. What happens then? We literally “lose the whole.” We lose the appreciation of the context. It stops being us, “we’re a team.” Instead, it becomes “you and me” as win-lose adversaries.
That negative shift has nothing to do with reality. It has to do with our neurology and how we experience ourselves. In that “you and me” mode, we’re screwed. We will never negotiate anything or resolve anything. Nothing good can happen in that adversarial part of yourself.
The Cure for Disconnection: Remember Love
Terry clearly states that the path back to love is intentionally bringing the relationship to mind when difficulties arise. Purposefully prioritizing your relationship should lead your decisions and discussion.
Terry: A lot of the work that I do with couples, and in the book, teaches how to “remember love” when you’re in the heat of the moment. How to remember that the person you’re speaking to is someone you care about. They’re not the enemy. The reason you’re speaking is to make things better, not worse. If you’re centered in that Wise Adult place inside you, go ahead and negotiate or fight or whatever you need to do.
If you’re not in that place, if you’re in a triggered, immature place, you will be taken over by a less mature agenda (being right, controlling your partner, unbridled self-expression, retaliation, or withdrawal). None of those will ever get you more of what you want.
The first skill? Getting settled into the part of you that will use skills to begin with…
How Relational Mindfulness Helps
This concept was important. I asked Terry what happens when that triggered, immature part is activated?
Idit: I think you call this the Adaptive Child. This part of you is uninvited and the other side of you, the Wise Adult part of you, is just not available. So, what do you do?
Terry: Take a break, take a break, take a break. While you’re standing there, if you’re good at it, let triggered feelings wash over you. Don’t try and control them.
Do what I call relational mindfulness. It’s a practice, just like meditation is a practice. The idea is to remember the whole, remember the context, and remember that this person is not the enemy.
My whole book teaches you how to think relationally. It is important to remember that the essence of patriarchy and individualism is the delusion that we stand apart from nature (that I’m an individual and I stand above nature controlling it). I think I should control my wife and kids, someone at work, a patient, my own body, or my mind. That power and control model comes out of the fear-driven part of our own bodies.
When you take a breath, you understand that fear. You wake up to it and reach for a different part of yourself. Of course, the first time you do that, you’ll be very weak at it. You’ll be run over by your automatic response. What happens by the 400th time you’ve done that? Then things can settle down. I call this Second Consciousness.
Your first response is a knee-jerk response, it comes directly out of your adaptation to childhood. The Second Consciousness lets you take a walk around the block, get centered, and remember that you’re in this relationship (not above it). From this place, you can see if there’s something you can do…
Here’s an Example
To illustrate, Terry shared that he and his wife, Belinda, often argued when their children were young. They disagreed, like many couples, about their work schedules, exhaustion, expectations, and relationship expectations. Terry explained that taking a step back to take a “blessed breath” and remember their love and relationship was vital “in combat.”
Terry recalled being influenced by his friend and German mystic, Thomas Hubl. Hubl noted that urgency is our enemy and breath is our friend. Terry emphasizes that the first skill of reconnection is getting seated in the part of you that can be skilled. That’s where he focuses first with clients in Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship.
Terry: We do a lot of breathing and relational life work… I breathed myself down from rage. In my relationship, I remembered that Belinda is not my enemy. She is the woman I love. Then, I would be compassionate to her experience and put myself aside. I can say, “I’m sorry. I know I left you here with the kids. You put your feet up. I’ll put the kids to bed. Then, let’s talk.”
The triggered part of me was no more capable of such a mature response than flying to the moon. The first skill was getting seated in the part of me that could be skilled.
Does Our Culture Work Against Reconnection?
As our conversation progressed, I wondered if relationship disconnection wasn’t really our fault. Why? Often we don’t have the internal skills to stop for a second and reach the parts of us that are more loving, wise, and calm.
This is not just because of how we were raised but because U.S. culture encourages us to trust only ourselves. There’s a lot of self-care, and self-oriented thinking. Terry noted that the focus is constantly “me, me, me.”
Being from a different culture, I see that many of my clients have difficulty finding the mature, loving part inside. I shared with Terry that it can be difficult to explain the need to tap into that part. For me, the book was exciting because Terry related this idea so well.
Terry: I try to give people a map and a set of skills. Your relationships are your biosphere. You know, in the Bible, God gives Adam dominion over the earth. Bad idea.
Idit: Yes, that’s where it starts!
Terry: We’re not above our relationships. We can’t control our relationships. Have some ecological humility. Understand that you’re in a relationship. You can choose to pollute your “relational biosphere” with temper tantrums. However, you are going to breathe in that pollution as well as your partner’s resulting distance and coldness. Once we deconstruct individualism and patriarchal delusion, everything changes.
Here’s an Example of This
For example, from a relational perspective, the answer to the question of who’s right and who’s wrong doesn’t matter. What matters is what we’re going to do to make this work in a way that works for us. If one partner wins and the other loses, we both lose. The loser will make the winner pay. I guarantee it.
Once you realize that you’re connected in a context called “your relationship,” it is in your interest to make that relationship work. Everything changes. It’s no longer a zero-sum game. It’s all about abundance, win-win, and working together.
Next, I was very interested in sharing how Terry’s new book offers key insights for those coping with the aftermath of infidelity. I asked Terry to share how his relationship model can be applied to couples I work with, most of whom are experiencing a post-affair crisis.
Acute Care is the Top Priority
Terry: The trauma of infidelity is unspeakable. What an incredible wound. Of course, as our mutual friend, Ester Perel, pointed out, back in the day [discovering an affair] was a little lipstick on the collar. Nowadays… you have a front-row seat to every graphic detail. It really is horrible to live through.
So, the first thing I wanted to do is respect the trauma of infidelity. It really is a trauma. The first question I ask is, “are you eating?” Then,
- Are you sleeping?
- Do you need a little anti-depressant, in the short run, to help you not be so distraught?
- Do you need some EMDR (eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing) to get those awful images out of your head?
The first order of business is acute damage control.
Then Comes “Post-Affair Triage”
First: The Unfaithful Partner or the Relationship the Real Problem?
Terry: …I ask myself, “why did this happen?” Sometimes it is true that there are what I call “existential affairs.” There’s no reason why it happened. They’re weak or shellfish. It was a one-night stand, somebody got drunk, they were on the road… whatever. More often, there are reasons. I tend to think of two:
- Is this primarily about the immature narcissism of the faithless partner? Did they have an affair because, basically, they were selfish and thoughtless? Were they entitled?
- Is this affair occurring in a relationship that really needs to be shaken up? Is the marriage stultifying, dead, or highly conflictual?
Terry notes that you don’t have to ask people why they had an affair. He asserts that the why is obvious. He acknowledges that having an affair is “…exciting, it’s sexually gratifying. People are kind to each other when they have affairs in ways that they are probably less kind in their living rooms.”
Second: Determine the “Infidelity Why”
Real maintains, “You don’t answer somebody why they have an affair, you ask them why they don’t.” When asked why he doesn’t have an affair he comes up with several relatable reasons of what he doesn’t want:
- hurt his wife.
- deal with his children asking why…
- mess with his sense of integrity.
- deal with the consequences to his reputation.
Terry says that if a person has an affair, their own reasons for maintaining the commitment have been overridden. Why? One or both of two things has occurred:
- Their reasons aren’t compelling enough and they are selfish. (I deserve what I want).
- The relationship is so worn down and depleted that the instinct to protect it is gone. (If I get caught, I get caught).
Third: Learn to Be Less Individualistic & More Relational
Terry made a point of sharing that answering those questions is just the beginning. Understanding the why then helps couples to begin the work of restoration and transformation.
Terry: If [infidelity] is about the cheating partner’s selfishness, then we go about teaching them how to be relational. They’ve been too individualistic. If it’s about the relationship, then we restore the vitality of the relationship that’s been missing. Both of these things are curable. Most couples do survive infidelity.
Yet, I’m not interested in survival; I want to use this crisis as an opening for transformation in each partner and in the relationship itself. It’s not about restoring them back to what they were. I actually prefer to move them toward the superb relationship that they’re longing for.
Idit: Yes! I can’t remember the exact title that you have in your book… something like, “The Delusion is Over, Welcome To Reality” or something like that?
Terry: Yes, it’s “You’ve Lost Everything, Welcome to Your Real Marriage.”
How you engage your partner matters. Terry notes that there is a big difference between demanding what you deserve and seeking mutual satisfaction.
Watch this Interview on YouTube:
Being our Infidelity Recovery Program
Thank you for taking the time to read this post! If you are in need of support, we would be happy to help repair your relationship! Please consider a 45-minute free consultation to see if our infidelity recovery program can help you heal and regain trust. We offer support globally from our Miami, FL-based counseling practice. To start your recovery journey, please follow these simple steps:
- Visit here to pick a time.
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- Start having your pain heard, and overcome infidelity!
Other Services Offered with Relationship Experts by Idit Sharoni
Our infidelity recovery coaching program isn’t the only service offered at our Miami FL-based counseling practice. Other therapy services our team offers include affair counseling, communication counseling, and online therapy. For more useful relationship information, please visit my podcast.