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Book Review – Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship

Book-Review--Us-Getting-Past-You-and-Me-to-Build-a-More-Loving-Relationshi_20221122-195104_1

My book review originally published at NY Journal of Books

This life-altering book stands head and shoulders above the countless how-to guides aiming to teach couples how to repair broken relationships. Its brilliance lies in both its macro-analysis of how cultural over-valuing of the individual undermines loving partnerships, and its detailed strategies to get back on track by learning to hold the well-being of the union above the happiness of each member. Written in plain language, the author’s generous sharing of therapy sessions will make readers cry with his clients and laugh at themselves.

Terrence Real, LICSW, internationally recognized family therapist, speaker, and multi-book author, is the founder of the Relational Life Institute. The power of his message comes from professional wisdom, topnotch writing, deep introspection, and exceptional frankness about the challenges he’s faced to become not only the man his wife would like him to be, but the man he, himself, wants to be.

With a foreword by Bruce Springsteen and numerous notable endorsements, Us speaks directly to couples who know their relationship is in trouble and are seeking ways to fix it. It’s also a teaching manual for therapists on using the principles of Relational Life Therapy (RLT) to bring the couples they treat to a place of “us-ness” they have never before experienced. Real explains that RLT instructs people on “how to live skilled relational lives—lives of radically honest, fearlessly assertive, passionate connection to themselves and to those they love.”

He describes how couples fight repeatedly over the same issues that never get resolved because they’re not really addressing what ails them. The major problem, he maintains, is how we think of relationships in terms of “you and me” rather than “us.” We’ve been taught to focus on ourselves—our needs, our fears, our desires—rather than on what will benefit the couple as a unit.

Real explains how we get into relational trouble. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, our “Adaptive Child” struggles to survive emotionally by stuffing feelings, lying, withdrawing emotionally, rebelling, becoming defensive or entitled, taking on others’ shame, bullying, stonewalling, or tuning out. He then describes how using these childhood reactive responses when trying to love and be loved in adulthood will always lead to heartbreak.

For successful relationships, he explains, we need to access the “Wise Adult” within us to express ourselves authentically and effectively resolve our problems. He cautions that reducing reactivity is especially challenging for people with traumatic childhoods. To protect themselves emotionally as children, they learned to automatically shut down or lash out and now need to seek and practice healthier, more mature ways to take care of themselves in relationships.

Real sees our problems in relationships as stemming from how much our culture over-values individualism. Focusing on what’s best for “the one” rather than “the many”—family, workplace, neighborhood, country, or world—encourages us to think about ourselves first and others second, if at all. In large part, this self-only orientation has fostered our narcissistic, entitled, “rights”-driven culture and is a death knell to “us-ness.” This pervasive mindset is a major barrier to intimacy, as we are meant to care for and co-regulate each other, that is to consciously and unconsciously rely on our partner to help us support our strengths and manage our weaknesses just as we do for them.   

Real doesn’t stop his critique of individualism with couples. He shows how its insidious roots are deeply sunk into our prejudices about people who are different from us—from the color of their skin to their sexual orientation to their religion. He puts patriarchy at the top of the list of factors that undermine healthy relating based on its belief in power over rather than power with. And he wonders how we will ever learn and teach our children to value what is beyond and different from ourselves without a shared vision of the common good.

Although the book contains a great deal of expository enlightenment, Real’s gift is providing therapy on the page—Relational Life Therapy in the raw—through case studies and session dialogue between Real and the couples he treats. His goal with them is to “change the stance to change the dance” and he’s not afraid to call out clients (usually male) or open up about how he came to be the improved version of husband and father he is today. Witnessing the changes made by his clients sets a model for readers to transform their own relationships by letting go of “me-ness” and focusing on “we-ness.”

Real covers many relationship problems: infidelity, lying, bullying, verbal abuse, narcissism, entitlement, emotional distancing, overabsorption in parenting or work, and sexual defenses. His goal with the many aggressive or shut-down men he treats is to get them to stop viewing “strong” as the male ideal, recognize where exactly their emotional hurt and pain started in childhood, and help them let go of outdated adaptive skills in order to practice wiser, more mature ones. His goal with women is to get them to stop trying to be the female ideal of “good,” want more for themselves, and be open and assertive about their needs rather than aggressive or passive. He does this by taking them back to the family origin of their Adaptive Child responses and helping them connect to their Wise Adult.

One of the most enlightening sections of the book is Real’s description of a healthy relationship that involves an ongoing process of harmony, disharmony, and repair. He stresses that most of us assume something is wrong when we move into relational disharmony, but that it is impossible to avoid in authentic intimacy and must be repaired by partners joining together to focus on the “we” of their relationship to return it to harmony.

This book is engaging, erudite, practical, and persuasive enough to turn around even the most intractable relationships if readers will let Real into their heads and hearts deeply enough for Real’s wisdom to perform the healing transformation he intends.

 

Best,

Karen