Our product picks are editor-tested, expert-approved. We may earn a commission through links on our site.

A Famous Relationship Therapist Answers 20 Questions About How to Fix Your Marriage

Terry Real explains his "full throttle marriage" theory—and so much more.

getty
GETTY IMAGES

Terry Real not only is a prolific therapist, helping individuals and couples function at their best in relationships through therapy sessions and workshops for over 25 years, but also a prolific author, with three books on mental health and relationships published and a new one, Us: Getting Past You & Me to Build a More Loving Relationship, coming out in June.

Real has developed several concepts that have changed how psychologists and everyday people think about relationships, including the “full-throttle marriage,” a marriage where people put their emotions, wishes, and needs out on the table, and “relational life therapy,” a mode of therapy that encourages couples to get everything out on the table within the context of a therapy session.

His new book argues that the key to building a lasting relationship is to think of yourselves as a team rather than as two separate individuals—something that, for most people, takes work. Many of us operate from a certain level of self-interest in relationships, and Real helps people to overcome this tendency and treat their partners’ needs as equal to their own, without invalidating themselves either.

We spoke to him about his advice for couples on addressing conflict, increasing passion, and more.


In your book The Rules of Marriage, you advocate for a relationship model you call “full-throttle marriage.” Could you explain what full-throttle marriage is and how people can build this kind of relationship?

I talk about what I call “fierce intimacy,” which means simply that you take one another on, that you tell each other the truth, that you deal with what's going on, and you don't let it fester. Most people back away from each other. They start off talking deeply, but eventually, they don’t, and they tell themselves that they’re compromising, but really, the resentment that builds goes up and acts like a rush a cancer in the relationship. It decreases sensuality and pleasure and generosity. One of the things I say is that the first casualty of not taking each other on is eroticism.

How do people typically end up at this point in their relationships?

Let me just say in compassion to folks, there’s a reason why people back off: because when they do take each other on, they don’t do it with tremendous skill, and by and large, the other person is reactive or defensive and it doesn’t go very well.

What skills can people develop so that these confrontations go better?

Under patriarchy, which is the water we all swim in, you can either be connected or be powerful, but you can't be both at the same time. You can either be "feminine"—affiliated and accommodating—or you can be "masculine"—independent and assertive. But because, in our culture, power is largely defined as power over, not power with, power is dominance. What I talk to people about, and what I think is literally new territory for the culture, is what I call soft power or loving power. Loving power is cherishing your partner and the relationship in the same breath that you’re standing up to them.

Rodale Books
Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship (Goop Press)
toner
$26.99
$24.29 (10% off)

What are some examples of how people can exercise shared power?

It’s the difference between saying “don’t talk to me like that,” which is an individualistic way of going about it, and saying “I want to hear what you have to say. Could you please tone it down so I can hear it?” These are two different ways of saying the same thing, but one is empowering of you and cherishing of you at the same time that I’m standing up for myself. It’s the difference between saying “I need more sex” and saying, “We both deserve a good sex life. What do we need to do to resurrect this?”

Where’s the line between being appropriately assertive and creating unnecessary drama?

The secret sauce is resentment. You have to be really honest with yourself. If you’re really OK with it, then you're OK with it. Let it go. But let it go. Don’t play a game with yourself and tell yourself you’re letting it go, when really, it’s building up inside of you. There's a lot of grief in long-term relationships. We all long for a god or goddess who will be perfect and complete us, and we’re stuck with a woefully limited human being just like we are. And you have to ask yourself, “am I getting enough in this relationship to grieve this one aspect and have it be OK with me?” And if you are, then grieve it and accept what you’re getting and be joyful. If you’re not, then fight for what you need.

What is it that makes this so hard for people?

The autonomic nervous system asks our body four times a second, “Am I safe?” If the answer is “yes, I’m safe,” we stay seated in the wise, adult part of us, the prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain, here and now, present-based. I call that “us consciousness” because you’re settled in your non-flooded “here and now” self. You have the capacity to remember that you and your partner are a team and work together like a team. You’re thinking relationally.

If the answer is “no, I’m not safe, I'm in danger,” the higher parts of the brain shut down, and more primitive parts of our nervous system take over. We lose “us” consciousness” and move into “you and me” consciousness. Now, it’s not about the relationship; it’s about me, me, me, and my survival, and I devolve into a win-lose, you-versus-me power struggle. And when I’m in that part of my personality, all bets are off in relationships.

What causes people to feel unsafe and go into this self-centered consciousness?

I call this the “adaptive child” part of the person. It's the part of you that adapted to whatever the trauma was that you dealt with as a child, and the adaptive child part of us is very automatic. It’s completely selfish. It has no interest in intimacy. It’s only interested in self-preservation, and when you’re in that triggered place, you are not using relational skills or wisdom, and that's where 90% of the problems occur.

terry real
Terry Real
Dennis Breyt

How can people overcome these blockages?

The first skill—the skill from which all other skills follow—is called relational mindfulness, and it is a mindfulness practice. You feel a primitive “whoosh,” which feels like three things: fight, flight, or fix. You’re gonna fight, you’re gonna flee—and someone can sit 6 inches away from their partner and flee; that’s called stonewalling—or you’re gonna fix. That’s that codependent caretaker: “I can't be happy unless you’re happy.” That's not an adult working on a relationship. That’s a compulsive need to work on a relationship. Your adaptive child comes from your family of origin and your role in it, and it comes from your trauma and how you adapted to it. It’s a knee-jerk automatic response that will come to you in heated moments over and over again.

What might it look like to work through this response?

True story: A guy came to me on the brink of divorce. He was a chronic liar—you say, “The sky is blue,” and he says, “It's aquamarine.” It became clear that he was a champion evader. I have a saying: “Show me the thumbprint and I’ll tell you about the thumb.” Whatever that adaptation is, it comes from a relationship. If he's an evader, he’s been evaded. So I said, “Who tried to control you growing up?” He said, “My father. He’s a military man.” I said, “How did you cope with this controlling father?” He looks at me and says, “I lied.” I teach my students to always be respectful of the exquisite intelligence of the adaptive child. You did back then exactly what you needed to do to preseve your wholeness and integrity. But I have a saying: “adaptive then, maladaptive now.” He's not a little boy, and he's not with his controlling father.

The couple comes back a few weeks later and they say, “OK, we’ve got it solved.” The wife sent him off to the grocery store to get 12 things, and sure enough, he came back with 11. The wife says, “What happened?” He says, “Every muscle and fiber in my body was screaming to say they were out of it, but in this moment, I took a breath. I looked at my wife and said, ‘I forgot.’” And she burst into tears and she said, “I’ve been waiting for this moment for 25 years.” That’s recovery. That's relational mindfulness. That’s health.

Once someone’s aware of their adaptive child, what can they do to make sure that part of them isn’t running the show?

Part of my book is about learning about your adaptive child and, in the heat of the moment, literally physically removing yourself if you need to. Take a walk. Splash cold water on your face. Do some breathing. Meditate. My favorite is to take that little boy, put him on your lap, have a chat with him, and don't go back into the fray until you’re centered in your adult. Remember love. If you're looking at your partner and they're the enemy—and if it's about me, me, me—shut up, take a walk, and get centered before you're trying to do anything.

I know your new book talks about the damaging effects of patriarchy. How do gender roles have to do with the difficulties people are currently facing in their relationships?

Women across the board are insisting on more emotional intimacy from men than we traditionally raise boys and men to deliver. The way you turn boys into men to this day is by disconnection. We disconnect them from their hearts, from their vulnerability, from others, and the cost of disconnection in boyhood is a disconnected man in adulthood.

What’s the solution to this?

Often, the cultural backlash has been “if women would just stop asking so much of men, all would be well.” I don’t want women to step down. I want men to step up. The research is really clear: An open heart and being in touch with your feelings, being able to share—that’s all good for us. It’s good for our relationships. It’s good for our kids. It’s good for our physical health. So I want men to move beyond patriarchal scripts. Open your heart. Share your feelings. You won’t die. As Brené Brown has shown us, humans connect through our vulnerabilities.

cropped shot of an unrecognizable couple sitting inside together and holding hands
PeopleImagesGetty Images

How can men get in touch with their emotions?

I can't tell you how many guys I'll sit with, and I’ll make them write a list of seven primary emotions: joy, pain, anger, fear, disdain, guilt, love. Generally speaking, the only emotions a traditional man is allowed are lust and anger. All the vulnerable emotions are cut off. So I say to a guy, “What are you feeling right now?” He says, “I guess I’m a little nervous.” I’ll say, “OK, that's fear. Where’s that in your body?” “My chest.” “What are you feeling?” “Butterflies.” “What are they saying?” “I hope I don't screw this up.” “What else are you feeling?” “Some love for my wife.” “That’s great.”

If you stick with them and give them the tools, every man I've done this with produces four, five, six feelings, no problem. He just has to be led through it. Then I get to say the punchline: “Hey, Bill, you're a passionate guy. You have a ton of feelings. Your feelings never left you. You left them. You just have to tune the satellite dish inward and let them percolate. Now, I want you to start sharing them with your wife.”

How do you advise that men share their feelings with their partners?

Leading men and women into intimacy is the same as leading them beyond patriarchy. Women need to have loving voices, and men need to have open hearts and open ears, and you have to find a couple feelings: “I was brushing my teeth, doing my hair, and I’m losing my hair.” “Shit, that sucks. I’m sorry, honey. What was that like for you?” “I don’t know. It felt creepy.” You start to do it, and you also don't get defensive when they're sharing their feelings with you. Men are expected to be perfect. When their partner confronts them with their imperfection, they go into shame. And when you go into shame, you start arguing. What you need to do is cough up some vulnerability and some compassion.

How can people refrain from acting on that initial defensive impulse?

When you're faced with an unhappy partner, nine out of ten people—men in particular—will go to two reference points. The first reference point is the truth, accuracy, objective reality: “That’s true, that's not true, that's half-true.” You're rebutting in your head, if not your mouth. The second reference point is yourself: “I can't believe I have to listen to that.” I want you to lose those reference points and have compassionate curiosity for your partner's subjective experience.

What matters is how you’re going to work together as a team to get through this. Your partner’s unhappy. OK, you love her and you live with her. It's in your interest to make her happy, so get over your ego and your defensiveness. Stop arguing about the facts and say something gentlemanly, like, “Hey, baby, I'm sorry you feel bad. I don’t want you to feel bad.” And if you really want an A-plus move: “Is there anything I can say/do to help you feel better?” That’s called repair.

Where’s the line between responding kindly when your partner’s mad at you and being a pushover?

At any given moment, the thing you should be asking yourself is, “What is this gonna cost me?” If your partner wants your kids to go to this school and you want your kid to go to that school, giving in is gonna cost you something. But if your partner is upset with you because you left your socks on the floor, what the hell is apologizing and picking up after yourself gonna cost you besides your pride? So, when in doubt, be generous. Why not?

When you're in “you and me” consciousness, that individualistic way of thinking, then you're giving in to her. But when you're in ecological consciousness, wisdom, relational consciousness, you're making a sacrifice for the relationship. Our relationships are our biosphere. We don't live outside of them. We live inside of them. We breathe them, and it's in your interest to keep that biosphere clean because you live there. Guys say to me, “why should I work so hard to keep my wife happy?” “Well, dummy, you live with her—that’s why.”

What would be your advice for people with the opposite issue, who tend to get lost in their relationships and forget about their own needs?

My pal Carol Gilligan has a great line: “There can be no relationship without voice, and there can be no voice without relationship.” I’m not saying there's no such thing as an individual. I'm just saying individuals exist in a larger context. If you're giving yourself away and there's no “I” in the “we,” you're just as screwed as in the other extreme. So, that person has to do the work of identifying what they need and putting it out there. Just because you put it out doesn't mean you always get your way, but you fight for it and you have to do all this skillfully, which our culture doesn't teach us how to do.

What tends to lead men to struggle with this?

Our culture is a patriarchal, narcissistic, sadistic culture, and we don't teach these skills. We’ve never wanted more for relationships than we do now. We want to be lifelong lovers, but we have shit skills. For example, a lot of men are what I call love-avoidant. We all know the type: Usually, they can't get into relationships, or when they do, they keep their partner at arm's length. They’re afraid to really get into the ring. These men have no idea how to identify their wants and needs and vigorously negotiate them. The cure for love avoidance is negotiation.

There’s one or two ways to become love-avoidant. Either you grew up in a family where everyone lived behind walls and nobody negotiated anything; they just got along like a classic yankee family, or the opposite: You lived in a family where you were caretaking. You were enmeshed, boundary-less with someone, and they violated you, and so you grew up thinking that relationships are about you taking care of them and that nobody gives a shit about you and your needs.

There's a lot of ink that's been spilled about how women don't have a voice in their relationships. Men don't have a voice in their relationships either. A “good woman” doesn't speak up for herself because she's supposed to be there for the needs of others. A “strong man” doesn't speak up for himself because, what needs are you talking about? “I don't have needs; I’m Superman.” And so, I have to teach these men to identify what their emotional needs are and then put them out skillfully, and then digest the times when they don’t get their way.

close up of two hands connected on the beach
Westend61Getty Images

Your new book goes into the biology behind this connectivity. Could you explain how people’s nervous systems physically respond to one another?

The idea of a freestanding individual is a complete myth. Neurobiologically, there’s no such thing. The idea of a freestanding, rugged individual has a history, and it's the creation of a bunch of white men back in the Enlightenment. Biologically, it doesn't exist. We co-regulate each other’s nervous systems all day long. Humans are pack animals. We are not built to self-regulate. Look at someone in solitary confinement. We go nuts. Our nervous systems are not built to regulate without cues from other human beings.

The other thing is trauma. When you are safe, you stay in the here and now, but when your nervous system reads danger and when you read danger—when something in the present comes close to trauma in the past—you get confused. You don’t remember trauma; you revisit it. You’re flooded with it. And so, when our nervous system says “I’m in danger,” the prefrontal cortex stops communicating with the subcortical parts of the brain, with the limbic system and the amygdala, and we move from an integrated brain to a fragmented brain. It’s about bringing the prefrontal cortex back online during these moments, but that same work that's done in someone's office, you can do in your living room.

How can people make the shift from working on themselves as individuals to working on their relationships as a couple?

You have to change your mindset. There’s no such thing as power over. We have to trade in a model of power over for a model of cooperation and collaboration, or the results are disastrous for us, for our families, for society, and for the planet.

When you step out of that individualistic model, the key is to empower me and empower my partner both at the same time: “I want you to come through for me; let’s work like a team,” then understand what a team is. It’s not every man for himself here, and here's what I call the golden rule of relationality: “What do you need from me to help you give me what I want? What do you need from me to support you in coming through for me?” Who the hell ever says that? “Honey, I want you to be less angry and critical.” “OK, I’ll work on it.” “Good—how can I help you?”

You’re not two individuals squabbling over limited resources. Open your spirit to abundance. If one of you wins and the other loses, you both lose—because the loser will make the winner pay for it. You are not outside of the ecology. You're in it. It’s in your interest to make this work for both of you. Lose the ego. Stand up for yourself, but in the larger context of this relationship that you share.

This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below