Editor’s Note: Ian Kerner is a licensed marriage and family therapist, writer and contributor on the topic of relationships for CNN. His most recent book is a guide for couples, “So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex.”
It isn’t every day that Bruce Springsteen opens up about his experiences in couples therapy, in this case in the foreword of a book by renowned marriage and family therapist Terrence Real.
What happens when you stop focusing solely on individual needs and start viewing your relationship as a shared ecosystem with your partner? That’s the premise of Real’s new book, “Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship.” And as soon as I read Springsteen’s foreword, I was intrigued by Real’s notion that our society’s extreme focus on individualism comes with a cost: extreme disconnection from one another in our interpersonal relationships.
“If I can’t connect to you, I can’t connect to us,” Springsteen wrote. Curious to learn more from the therapist who has worked successfully with Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa – and thousands of other couples – I sat down with Real for a conversation.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ian Kerner: You write that you became convinced that “the same forces pushing our world to the brink were also poisoning our most intimate relationships.” What do you mean?
Terrence Real: I talk about what I call ‘the toxic culture of individualism.’ And individualism is not a natural fact; it has a history.
In (American) Colonial days, (society) was communalism on a small scale. It was about farms and small towns and small villages. When you lived face to face with your neighbor, it was a palpable reality that the good of all was the good for each of us. Civic virtue was the force that went beyond individual gratification. It was part of being a civilized person that you had a sense of civic virtue.
With the Industrial Revolution, and the myth of the self-made man, all of that went by the wayside and it was each man for himself.
Kerner: And that focus on individualism works against relationships?
Real: Our relationships are our biospheres. We don’t live outside of them. We live inside of them. You can choose to pollute your marital biosphere by having a temper tantrum, but you’re going to breathe in that pollution. You can’t escape, you’re in it. And once you trade that in for the wisdom of interconnectedness, all the terms change. For example, the answer to the question, “Who’s right and who’s wrong?” is “Who gives a damn?” What matters is, “How are we going to work like a team to make this work for both of us?”
Kerner: Is that a real mindset shift? Because don’t we automatically think from that individual point of view?
Real: That’s right. As a couples’ therapist, the most important question I ask is, “Which part of you am I speaking to?” Am I speaking to the part I call the “wise adult” part of you – (the) prefrontal cortex, the most mature part of the brain? Or am I speaking to some triggered younger part of you?
The autonomic nervous system scans our body four times a second: “Am I safe? Am I safe? Am I safe? Am I safe?” If the answer is “Yes, I feel safe,” we stay seated in the prefrontal cortex and the wise, mature part of us. But if the answer is “No, I don’t feel safe” – which has everything to do with trauma and your childhood experience – that mature part of the brain goes offline and more primitive parts take over. You literally lose the part of your neurobiology that can remember there’s a whole relationship here. Then you devolve into “you versus me.” It’s all about survival.
When we’re triggered and we feel in danger, we lose the remembrance of ourselves as a team. And you will never resolve an issue or make anything better in your relationship when you’re in that place.
Kerner: You talk about being triggered, and that what’s being triggered is trauma that still needs to be witnessed and heard or soothed in our adult relationships.
Real: Yes, absolutely. The trick is to make a distinction between what I call the adaptive child part of you – the you that you created as a kid to cope with whatever was lacking or violating in your environment – and the wise adult part. I see couples on the brink of divorce mostly, very successful couples. And almost all of them have lived their lives out of the adaptive child part of themselves, making great success in the world and a mess of their personal lives.
Kerner: Can you give me an example from your practice of how our “adaptive child” gets triggered by past trauma?
Real: One couple came to me on the brink of divorce. The guy is a chronic, pervasive liar; lies about everything. He’s a champion evader. I asked him, “Who tried to control you growing up?” Sure enough, his dad – a military man – totally controlled how he ate, how he drank, how he sat, what clothes he wore, what friends he had, what courses he took, everything. I said, “How did you deal with this controlling father?” He looked at me and smiled. And he said, “I lied.”
The adaptive child part of him did exactly what he needed to do back then to preserve his wholeness and integrity. But he’s not that 4-year-old boy and his wife is not his towering father.
They come back two weeks later, hand in hand, all smiles. He went to the grocery store that weekend with a list from his wife. She gave him 12 things to buy, and he came home with 11. She says, “Where’s the pumpernickel bread?” And he says, “Every muscle and nerve in my body was screaming to say they were out of it. And in this moment, I took a breath. I summoned my courage. And I 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 the way out of this mess.
Kerner: What’s a piece of advice that couples can put into practice right now?
Real: When your partner comes to you in a state of disrepair, it is your job to help them move into repair with you. Why? Because you live with them. It’s in your interest to have them be in repair with you. This is not altruism. This is enlightened self-interest. If you’re faced with a partner who is unhappy, this is not a dialogue. This is not a conversation. This is a one-way street. Put objective reality aside. Put yourself aside and replace that with compassionate curiosity about your partner’s subjective experience. Think ecologically – you’re in it with them.
Kerner: How does one person in the couple make sure they aren’t always the one who is giving?
Real: My colleague Carol Gilligan has a saying: There can be no voice without relationship; and there can be no relationship without voice. I want the mighty to melt and the weak to stand up.
For those of us who enter relationships subsuming our needs in those of others – in keeping with traditional feminine socialization – stepping into vulnerability may mean daring to stand up for yourself. That isn’t selfish; it’s to benefit the biosphere. But you have to do it skillfully. I teach clients, particularly women, how to stand up for themselves with love. How to be clear and firmly assertive while cherishing their partner and the relationship in the same breath.
It’s the difference between saying, “Hey, don’t talk to me like that,” and saying, “I want to hear what you’re saying. Could you change your tone so I can listen?” The difference between saying, “I need more sex,” and saying, “We both deserve a healthy sex life. What do we need to do to kick-start this thing?” The relational Golden Rule asks: What do you need from me to help you come through for me? It’s possible to empower yourself and empower your partner both if you remember you’re not enemies and learn a few skills.
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