The final portion of my conversation with the founder of the Relational Life Institute and well-known family therapist, speaker, and author, Terry Real, is located below. His newest book, Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship details how Relational Life Therapy helps hurting couples heal and move forward together.
Why Individual Therapy is Unhelpful After Infidelity
As we continued our discussion, I noted how quick therapists are to send people to individual therapy in the aftermath of infidelity. I don’t understand this, but it happens 80-90 percent of the time.
Idit: Most of the couples that see me have been in individual therapy regarding infidelity. “How can you heal alone?”
Terry: It’s ridiculous! We have an individualistic bias in the culture. That is true for psychotherapy. It’s true for 12-step. It’s true for feminism. One of the things I say is, “what is the one value shared by mainstream culture and by almost all of the growth and development subcultures?” It is the value of the individual.
Personal growth is personal growth, not relational growth. This has very real consequences. People going into individual therapy when an explicit relational problem exists is one of the best predictors of divorce. The problem is not the individual. The problem is the relationship. Work on that.
Idit: Right! The healing power that you have over your partner is not going to happen if you are in individual therapy. When you sit with your partner in a session, healing happens. Not from the therapist towards you, but from you towards your partner.
Terry: Well, that’s very different from the way a lot of therapists operate. It’s important to get that through to people. The work that I do I call Relational Life Therapy (RLT).
How Relational Life Therapy Helps Us Heal
Terry explains that RLT works in three phases. The goal is to help couples recover their relationship and genuinely transform it.
RLT Phase One: Carefrontation
Terry: This is what we call “joining through the truth” or waking the client up…getting to know that Adaptive Child part of you. What is the automatic “woosh” feeling that comes over you over and over and over again? Is your automatic reaction anger, accommodation, avoidance, etc?
Idit: I think you said in your book that this is called “making the implicit explicit.”
Terry: Correct. The next phase asks, “where did this come from?” What were you adapting to?
RLT Phase Two: Doing Trauma Work Together
Terry: I go back into the family of origin and inner child work. RLT is different from other forms of therapy. We do deep trauma work.
One person is there and the other person sits next to them in therapy. One partner is doubled over, crying like a baby, and talking to the little boy or little girl that they were. The other partner is often sitting next to them, 9 times out of 10 they’re crying too, and just watching it all. It opens their heart toward their partner.
RLT Phase Three: Teaching New Skills
Terry: In our culture, we never wanted more from our relationships than we do right now. We want to be lifelong lovers but our culture does not value relationships. It does not give us the skills we need to realize that ambition. That’s where we come in.
- The first phase takes a hard look at your Adaptive Child. What did you learn to do?
- The second phase is where did it come from?
- The third phase is how do you do it differently?
Terry then illustrated this process with a story about Bill, a client who learned to get to the centered, more mature place inside himself. Terry made it clear that honoring the intelligence of Bill’s Adaptive Child was necessary. He assured Bill that what he did back then was exactly what he needed to do to preserve himself. However, Terry said that it was also crucial that Bill recognize his early adaptive choice had become maladaptive in his marriage.
From there, Terry shares that Bill was able to understand that lying was his adaptive response to his controlling father. With that recognition, Bill was able to do some inner child work, understand his adult resources, and choose not to lie under duress.
Ultimately, Bill’s wife cried at the change in him saying, “I’ve been waiting on this moment for 25 years.” Terry explained further.
Terry: That’s recovery. Recovery is moving beyond your knee-jerk, automatic response, taking a breath, and getting into that more centered place inside of you. Then, deciding in this moment I’m going to do it differently. That’s the healing gold out of the lead.
I shared how amazed I was that this kind of change is visible in the behavior of a client. We then talked about how neuroscience also clarifies this process of change, recovery, and transformation.
Ultimately, The Name of the Game is Neuroplasticity
Terry: We used to believe that, once habits were set, once a neurological pathway was set, it was just set. We were done and it would take decades to undo them.
That’s not true! We now know that you can open up a neural pathway. When it’s opened up, you have 5 hours to lay down a new track and the new track will be permanent. If you listen to Bruce Ecker and memory reconsolidation biologists, there are two things that you need to open up a normal pathway:
- The implicit must become explicit (understand why you adapted the way you did).
- Recognize the discrepancy & recoil (determine that you don’t want to choose that adaptation any longer).
If you have those two pieces, the neural pathway opens up, and you can lay down a new track (a corrective emotional experience) that will permanently change the person.
Idit: It’s mind-blowing! You can’t be a therapist if you don’t believe people can change but to hear that it is actually possible! Now, you can bring it to people and say, “You can change and you can do that in 5 hours. You have an opening!”
Terry: Yes! We want them to get the discrepancy. Get them to see it and wake up. Then something different can happen from that moment forward.
Idit: Amazing! Well, I could probably talk to you for hours but I don’t want to keep you. I just have one more question. You say that there is nothing that harshness does that loving firmness doesn’t do better. Can you explain that?
Terry: Harshness is a quality of the Adaptive Child part of you. The Wise Adult is firm but not harsh. If your audience gets nothing from this but this one point, I’ll be happy: There’s no redeeming value in harshness.
There’s nothing that harshness does that loving firmness doesn’t do better, whether it is between you and others or between your own ears. So, how do you deal with it?
You realize that when you’re being harsh (either to others or to yourself ) that this is an immature part of you. This is your Adaptive Child, usually 5 years old up to a teenager. You don’t want to meet harshness with harshness. Meet harshness with loving firmness. When your harsh inner child perks up, put them on your lap, hear what they have to say, love them, and take their sticky hands off the steering wheel! Say, “You are not driving the bus, I am. You get in the back seat!”
It’s A Reparenting Thing
Terry suggests that to recover, you parent yourself. When you focus on your Adaptive Child. He says, “You hear them. You love them. You limit them…and then you go off into the Wise Adult part of yourself.”
Terry concluded our discussion with two illustrations: one that explained how he deals with his Adaptive Child in his marriage and one that explained how he deals with his Adaptive Child within himself. In both cases, he shared that “Little Terry,” who is between 8 and 10 years old, must be protected by Wise Adult Terry.
With regards to his wife, he mentally puts Little Terry behind him and says this:
Terry: Little Terry, I’ll take the blast like Superman. I’ll take the hit. You are protected back there…don’t you deal with Belinda, please. You let me deal with her…
These are ways you begin to work with your immature, triggered parts. We form relationships with them. Then, we love them and we get to know them, but we don’t indulge them. Maturity comes when we deal with our inner children. We don’t foist them off on our partners.
Idit: We don’t throw our Adaptive Child off the bus. We just send them to the back.
With regards to himself, Terry tells a story about self-esteem and learning to relate to himself as a Wise Adult as well:
Terry: Heading home on a plane, sitting back with a nice glass of chardonnay and feeling great, I felt this cold wetness on my chest. I looked down at my shirt. There was a black pool on my beautiful dress shirt. I’d been signing books with a Sharpie and ruined it.
Now, I have depression and ADD. Twenty years ago that ruined shirt could have triggered a depression (self-attack) for 5 days. Now, instead of 5 days, it went on for about 5 minutes…
My Adaptive Child is pretty feisty. I turned to him in my head and said, “Little Terry, let’s make a deal. The same ADD brain that ruined the shirt is the brain that wrote the books that were being autographed. So, pipe down.” He did! Then, I sat down and had my glass of wine…
Twenty years ago, I would be no more capable of doing that than flying but this is a practice. It’s in the doing. The more you do it, the stronger you get.
Finally, Terry explains that, in our culture, our relationship to relationships (including our relationship with ourselves) is passive. He reminds us that we can shape our relationships proactively instead of reactively.
Terry: Work with relationships, correct the faulty thinking in them, and get recentered in yourself. If you need help doing that, reach out to a buddy, a 12-step sponsor, or a therapist…you want the people who are supporting you to support the relationship, not just you as an individual…
I teach my clients to train their friends to be relational with them and not individualistic.
Idit: It’s something for us to realize about ourselves. It’s not just accepting what I was dealt with or that nothing can change…there is a way to change. It is something that you have to practice, not just let a therapist tell you. You practice it, feel uncomfortable with it, and practice it again. Then, you’ll get used to it and make it part of who you are and how you see things.
Terry: Yes. It’s the practice of reaching for our better selves.
Idit: Wow.. what an amazing way to end, Terry. Thank you! I hope that everyone can get their hands on your book, they will learn so much.
We greatly appreciate Terry Real’s willingness to share his time and perspective. We hope you have been encouraged by his thoughts on relationship reconnection and healing. It’s not too late to make the changes you and your partner long for.
For further insights, Terry suggests a visit to his website, terryreal.com for information. Also, Terry asks that individuals and couples wanting to learn “how to think and behave with relational skill” consider his Us Relationship Workshop. Terry assures that there are lots of additional resources to help you learn about where you are in yourself and where you are in your relationship.
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Our Roadmap to Healing After Infidelity
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