Us (2022) is for anyone whose once-loving relationship has devolved into point-scoring and power struggles. It offers a science-based skill set, illustrated with rich and detailed examples, to help you and your partner heal your toxic individualism and your relationship.
Introduction: Move past “you” and “me” to arrive at “we.”
The lone genius at work in her studio. The tech whiz kid who took Silicon Valley by storm. The self-made millionaire who rose to the top of her industry without any help. Contemporary society valorizes the individual and their achievements. But in many ways, this individualism is toxic. On a broad level, thinking of ourselves as individuals rather than people who are networked within a community creates division and estrangement from the world we live in. On a more intimate level, it can also cause lasting damage to our relationships.
Relational therapy, which asks individuals to consider the ways others have shaped them and the way they’ve shaped others, seeks to move people beyond this individualistic mindset. And it’s particularly valuable for couples. When two individuals can set aside their you-and-me mindset and prioritize growing their relationship, they can create rewarding and lasting intimacy.
A quick disclaimer before we continue: the advice in this summary is intended for couples in flawed relationships who are nevertheless committed to persevering, healing, and making things work. It doesn’t apply to anyone in a toxic or abusive relationship.
In this summary, you’ll learn
- why your partner can push your buttons so effectively;
- what your childhood has to do with how you approach conflict as an adult; and
- how navigating the worst conflicts together can sometimes heal your relationship.
You can overcome toxic emotional habits.
If you’re in a relationship, this scenario might be familiar. It begins with something trivial – think a dish left unwashed in the sink. You ask your partner why they haven’t cleaned it; they reply, maybe a little snappily, that they haven’t gotten around to it yet. All of a sudden, you’re both feeling tense. Defensive. Things escalate. Now, much bigger emotions are coursing through you: rage, hatred, contempt. You’re both yelling, dredging up old disagreements and hurling insults. Or, you’re giving each other the silent treatment with stony eyes. You’ve forgotten that the person you’re fighting with is the same person who laughs at your jokes and holds you when you’re sad. Your rational brain has left the building, and all your worst emotional habits have kicked in and taken over.
Why does this happen? The field of interpersonal neurobiology, which looks at the individual’s brain cognition in the context of her relationships with others, has some answers. The reason you and your partner are so good at driving each other crazy is that people in close relationships tend to coregulate. That means when your partner’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol spike, your cortisol levels are apt to rise too. Similarly, when your partner is relaxed, you’re likely to feel relaxed too.
That’s part of the picture. But what about all those toxic emotional reactions that come into play when you and your partner disagree? That, too, has a lot to do with your relationships with others. You learned your stress reactions – whether they’re to yell, lie, or retreat into silence — in the context of your earliest relationships. For most of us, that means we absorbed the stress responses that were modeled by our families, and especially by our parents.
When things are going smoothly, most of us are wise adults. We think with our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for measured, complex cognition. We’re rational, flexible, warm, forgiving. We know that one dirty dish isn’t the end of the world. But when we’re under stress, another region of our brain, the amygdala, takes charge and stimulates a fight-or-flight response. In fight-or-flight situations, we’re only concerned with self-preservation – we feel we don’t have time to think things through, so we act on instinct. This is when the adaptive child emerges. Your adaptive child is a creature of emotional habit, using all the stress responses you learned when you were young. Whether this adaptive child is cruelly domineering, a people-pleasing doormat, or something in between, they are always rigid in their thought patterns and behaviors.
Sometimes, when you and your partner fight, your wise adult selves leave the room, leaving two adaptive children. All of a sudden, your worst habits and most destructive emotional impulses are triggered. But there is some good news. Just because your adaptive child automatically takes over doesn’t mean it always has to be like this. Scientists used to assume that the neural pathways of our brains were set in stone. These pathways calcified into habits, behaviors, and traits – in other words, our basic characteristics. If you were a person with a bad temper, that trait was yours for life. Now, scientists know that – through the process known as neuroplasticity – neural pathways can rewire and reform. In other words, we are capable of phenomenal change.
Let’s go back to that dirty dish. When the fight spun out of control, you and your partner weren’t acting as wise adults. Wise adults know preserving the relationship – the “us” – is more important than individual point-scoring. Instead, you were two “I”s battling it out.
Here’s what you need to know: when one “I” wins, the loser is always “us.” But it is possible to break free from toxic behaviors, to approach conflicts as wise adults, to stop thinking in terms of “I” – and reframe your relationship in terms of “us.”
Don’t fight your adaptive child – parent them.
Meet Dan and Julia. They’ve been married for seven years, but Julia has recently been considering divorce. Dan’s a nice guy, but he’s always twisting the truth and making excuses. If he’s ever five minutes late for dinner, it seems like he’s got some wild story to explain his delay. Julia’s sick of it. But Dan just can’t stop.
Dan’s dad left the scene when Dan was a toddler. His mom was strict and controlling. As a child, Dan was basically a good kid. But one single slipup, and his mom would fly off the handle. Dan’s habitual lying is actually an adaptive strategy he learned when he was young. Dan knew he could keep his mom from flying into a rage if he presented as a perfect kid all the time – and he learned to conceal the occasional adolescent slipup by being flexible with the truth.
But the strategies that served Dan well as a kid are about to torpedo his adult relationship.
Like Dan, lots of us carry our adaptive child with us. It’s a normal response to our childhood trauma – and not just trauma with a capital T. For the purposes of relational psychology, trauma is any event, big or small, repetitious or a one-off, that moves someone away from a healthy emotional response to a situation and instead prompts them to develop adaptive strategies.
It’s important to remember that your adaptive child isn’t bad. They’re an important part of you. But, like any child, they need to be parented. The next time you feel your adaptive child take over, try not to let them determine your actions. Try, instead, to listen to what they’re telling you.
Let’s get back to Dan and Julia. Spoiler alert: they didn’t get divorced. But Dan had to learn how to parent his adaptive child for their relationship to get back on course. Here’s how he did it.
First, he identified his inner child’s adaptive strategies and pinpointed their root cause. Therapy can help during this stage, but it’s not a necessity.
Then, he practiced what’s called relational mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of regularly observing your sensations, thoughts, and feelings without judgment. Relational mindfulness extends that neutral observation to your relationship with others. For Dan, this looked like taking a deep breath whenever the impulse to lie or deflect blame arose.
Next, he worked on rewiring his neural pathways with the help of the respect test. Whenever he had a negative thought, he tried to ask himself if it failed to meet the basic standards of respect. A thought like, I’ll just tell Julia the store was out of milk instead of admitting I forgot to buy it doesn’t demonstrate basic respect toward Julia. A thought like, It’s pathetic the way I’m always lying and making excuses doesn’t demonstrate basic respect to Dan himself.
Every time he slipped up, Dan reminded himself, It’s not you that’s bad, it’s your behavior. That’s true for your adaptive strategies too, by the way: you’re not a bad person, you’re just behaving badly.
By practicing mindfulness and working on rewiring his neural pathways, Dan had a breakthrough. He came home late from work one evening, and instead of spinning a story about a last-minute assignment from his boss, he told the truth: he’d gone out for a drink with his coworker and forgot to call.
Then something crucial happened. Dan was expecting to get in trouble – he hadn’t behaved perfectly. If his mom were still around, she would have been furious at him. But Julia is not Dan’s mom. She didn’t mind that he was late. In fact, she was thrilled he’d told the truth. Dan had what’s known as a corrective emotional experience. He’d always lied because he’d learned telling the truth led to a negative outcome. Julia’s positive reaction to his honesty helped him see how damaging and unhelpful his adaptive strategy had become. Although it served him well in childhood, in his warm, loving, adult relationship it just wasn’t needed.
To move through conflict, ditch the core negative image.
What does an individualistic romantic relationship have in common with a seesaw? It’s a constant shift from being higher or lower than the other person. When you’re operating in a you-and-me consciousness, there’s never balance and harmony.
And here’s the scary truth. It’s all too easy to move from a you-and-me consciousness to a you-versus-me consciousness. Remember how, in stressful situations, you might summon your adaptive child rather than your wise adult? Well, that’s not the only thing you bring along. Often, you end up fighting with your core negative image of your partner – basically, it’s the cartoon villain version of your partner you create in your mind, comprising all their worst, most annoying traits. Does this version of your partner actually exist? No – they’re a product of your imagination. But when your relationship with your partner is going badly, you might feel like you wake up next to their core negative image every morning and go to sleep next to them every night. Not exactly the stuff romantic dreams are made of.
And guess what? Your partner has a core negative image of you too. In fact, you probably have a good idea of what that negative image looks like. Let’s say you’re a little disorganized. And that’s really frustrating to your type-A partner. When you miss important appointments, your partner’s core negative image of you is triggered. You’re thoughtless and entitled and spoiled and – the list goes on. Now, you’re riled up: you conveniently ignore there’s some truth to that image and opt to be outraged instead. How dare your partner think so little of you?!
You’re getting the picture, right? The core negative image is completely unproductive. What’s worse, it can be magnified around a particular issue, making it almost impossible to resolve conflict. Let’s look at a pretty standard situation. Alex wants to have more sex with his wife, Tracey. Tracey feels like, when it comes to sex, Alex doesn’t listen to her needs and desires. This isn’t an unsolvable problem . . . until the core negative images come into it. Of course Tracey will never want sex, Alex thinks – she’s terminally frigid. Of course Alex will never turn me on, thinks Tracey – he’s completely insensitive. Once they’ve activated these images, Tracey and Alex are stuck.
The solution to this problem is actually pretty simple. Tracey and Alex need to let go of the ego and start thinking about the eco – as in the ecology of their relationship. When you operate with an us-consciousness, you understand that your romantic relationship is a space where you both live. Poisoning that ecology with toxic behavior hurts you just as much as it hurts your partner. Of course, in our individualistically oriented society, shifting into us-consciousness is easier said than done. So here are a few more concrete tips.
First, resist hanging on to your core negative image of your partner. It’s a hop, skip, and a jump from “He is so insensitive” to the sentence construction that sends chills down a relationship therapist’s spine: “He always . . .” or “She never . . . .” Framing your partner’s behavior as permanent and unchangeable means you’ve given up on resolving conflicts even before they arise.
Next, try something called redistribution. What hurts you most in your partner’s actions is often something you’re secretly ashamed of in your own behavior. Say you hate your partner’s hot temper but respond with passive aggression. Well, that’s just another form of rage. Owning up to shared flaws can help you move past them.
Finally, find the shared objective. You’d be surprised – even bitter arguments often center on a shared goal. For Tracey and Alex, that goal is a more fulfilling sex life. Once the goal is established, shift the conversation. Instead of “I want more sex,” ask, “How can we improve our intimacy?”
Remember, you can’t have power with someone, only over them. Abandoning power struggles and point-scoring is the best way to truly empower your relationship.
Don’t just recover from trauma – rebuild.
Sometimes, something in our relationship breaks so dramatically that it’s not just our partner, but our whole world, that seems changed. Some traumas are so shattering that they reconfigure our reality entirely. The psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman describes it like this: You’re standing in the kitchen when you lean against the wall, and you sink right through it. You’re not just wary of walls now. You’re wary of everything. If you can sink through a wall, what else can you sink through? It’s the same when a crucial point of trust is broken with your partner. If they could do this to me, you think, what else could they have done?
But there’s a silver lining here. Once the reality of your relationship has shattered, you have a chance to reconstruct it. Every relationship will have a rock-bottom moment, whether it’s brought about by a single event – like an affair – or a gradual wearing down. If you and your partner hit rock bottom as “you” and “me,” now you have a wonderful opportunity to rebuild as “us.”
Let’s take a look at one couple that have just hit rock bottom. Dina and Juan have been together for ten years. But Juan has just found out that Dina’s been having an affair for the past two years. He’s devastated. And angry. But, luckily, he’s open to working on things – and Dina is too.
The first tool their relationship counselor gives them is the feedback wheel, a four-part conversational structure developed by therapist Janet Hurley. Tell your partner: This is what happened. This is the story I’m telling myself about what happened. This is how I felt. And, most importantly, This would help me heal.
It’s not enough to explain to your partner why you’re hurting. You need to help them help you. In an individualistic mindset, you expect others to meet your needs. But when you think in terms of “us,” it becomes obvious that guiding your partner to better support you is something that helps them and you.
Back to Dina and Juan. The feedback wheel helps them move through their broken trust. But that’s not all.
Juan also realizes he’s brought some harmful internal narratives to their relationship. His father was hot-tempered and prone to violence. As a result, Juan’s adaptive strategy is to keep the peace – at all costs. Throughout his relationship with Dina, he’s been telling himself that keeping his thoughts to himself keeps his relationship safe. In truth, his reserve has been keeping him from speaking up about issues that really bother him – and it has been pushing Dina away. So he works on establishing a new narrative: My relationship with Dina is more fulfilling when I advocate for my needs.
After the trauma of infidelity, Dina and Juan wanted to repair their broken trust. They ended up repairing so much more. Before infidelity, they were a “you” and a “me.” Now, they’re an “us.”
You’ve just finished the summary to Us, by Terrence Real.
The most important takeaway from all this is:
With relationships, a you-and-me-consciousness results in point-scoring and power struggles. For real romantic fulfillment, let go of the ego and embrace putting “us” before “you” and “me.” Helpful strategies for achieving this include parenting your adaptive child, letting go of negative core images, and implementing us-focused feedback.
And here’s one last piece of advice: Be a safe space for your partner.
If you’re in the middle of a fight and you notice your partner’s adaptive child has taken over, what should you do? Stop trying to win the argument, and instead make yourself a safe space for your partner. It’s when children feel unsafe that they first form their adaptive strategies. When your partner is comforted – and back to their wise adult self – you can resume your discussion.
About the author
Terrence Real is an internationally recognized family therapist, speaker, and author. He founded the Relational Life Institute, offering workshops for couples, individuals, and parents along with a professional training program for clinicians to learn his Relational Life Therapy methodology. He is the bestselling author of I Don’t Want to Talk About It, How Can I Get Through to You?, and The New Rules of Marriage.
Sex and Relationships, Psychology, Self Help, Marriage, Counselling, Mental Health, Family, Romance, Motivational, Personal Success, Love, Dating and Attraction, Long-Term Partnerships
Table of Contents
Foreword Bruce Springsteen ix
1 Which Version of You Shows Up to Your Relationship? 1
2 The Myth of the Individual 20
3 How Us Gets Lost and You and Me Takes Over 53
4 The Individualist at Home 79
5 Start Thinking Like a Team 104
6 You Cannot Love from Above or Below 134
7 Your Fantasies Have Shattered, Your Real Relationship Can Begin 164
8 Fierce Intimacy, Soft Power 193
9 Leaving Our Kids a Better Future 224
10 Becoming Whole 256
Epilogue: Broken Light 285
Not much is harder than figuring out how to love your partner in all their messy humanness—and there’s also not much that’s more important.
At a time when toxic individualism is rending our society at every level, bestselling author and renowned marriage counselor Terrence Real sees how it poisons intimate relationships in his therapy practice, where he works with couples on the brink of disaster. The good news: Warmer, closer, more passionate relationships are possible if you have the right tools.
In his transformative new book Us, Real brilliantly observes how our winner-takes-all culture infiltrates families with devastating results: repetitive fights that go nowhere, or a distant relationship in which partners end up living “alone together.” With deft insight, humor, and charm, Real guides you to transform your relationship into one that’s based on compassion, collaboration, and closeness.
Us is a groundbreaking guide to a new science-backed skillset—one that will allow you to get past your knee-jerk reactions and tap into your wiser, more collaborative self. With a novelist’s flair, Real shares the stories of couples whose relationships have been saved by these skills and pans out to the culture that reinforces our dysfunction. If you and your partner are backed into separate corners of “you” and “me,” this book will show the way back to “us.” With Us, your true relationship can begin.
“A beautiful and important book, particularly for the moment we are in.” – Bruce Springsteen, from the foreword
“It’s cliche to say Dr. Terry Real’s new book, Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship, changed the way I view every relationship in my life. But it’s true.”—Katie Couric Media
“When I need advice, I call Terry Real. His decades of clinical experience, research, and wisdom are invaluable to my patients, colleagues, and friends. Us brings his advice to life. It is the book that we all need to read to create more thriving and intimate connections.” – Esther Perel, New York Times bestselling author and podcast host of Where Should We Begin
“Terry Real is a wise, honest, and charming guide. This book is a road map for all of us who seek true intimacy. Real’s approach teaches us how to step outside of the culture of individualism and embrace our interconnectedness. We can use it to heal a single relationship and to shift our collective culture.” Gwyneth Paltrow, founder and CEO of goop
“Terry Real’s work is nothing short of miraculous. In Us, he delves into the dynamics of modern relationships with precision and wisdom, offering practical tools to create true closeness with others. His work has quite simply changed my life. Read this book. It could well changes yours.” – Bradley Cooper
“This is a stunning book. With page-turning flair and brilliant insights, Terry Real exposes the hyper-individualism that ruins relationships—and shows us many effective ways to move from ‘me’ to ‘we.’ A masterpiece from a master psychotherapist.” – Rick Hanson, Ph.D, New York Times bestselling author of Resilient
“Love has the power to hurt but it also has the power to heal, and Terry Real shows us how in this revolutionary guide to happy, thriving couplehood. Chock-full of wisdom, research, and innovative teachings, Us is the book every human should read in order to truly understand not just their partners, but themselves.” – Lori Gottlieb, New York Times bestselling author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone
“This is a wonderful, wise, and witty book, consistent with cutting edge science and filled with soul and practical advice that can inspire us to discover who we can become together.” – Daniel J. Siegel, MD, New York Times bestselling author, Brainstorm and IntraConnected
“In his previous books, Terry Real awakened us to the fact that most men are not relational. In Us, he not only elaborates on that thesis but, with the writing of a good novelist, brings his approach to transforming men and couples to life. Share this book with your partner and then talk about what it brings up. It may be one of the most painful but also important conversations of your life.” – Richard Schwartz, PhD, developer of the Internal Family Systems model of psychotherapy
“Original and stirring . . . [Real’s] approachable take on healing relationships will enlighten.” – Publishers Weekly
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Before you pick up that verbal knife, before you brick yourself in even further, let me remind you that you love this person. And therein lies the rub, my friend. Do you remember, really, in that heated moment when fear or righteous anger courses through your veins, that you love this person? Do you remember it when your body shuts down and, for the life of you, you can barely squeak out a word or two? The sobering answer, if you’re dead honest with yourself, is that you do not. In that heated moment, the sweetness between you, the sense of the two of you as a team facing the world together, the sense of us, is nearly impossible to locate.
The good news is that the love is still there. The bad news is that it’s stored in parts of your brain, body, and nervous system that, in those flash moments, you no longer inhabit. Your endocrine system is on high alert, pumping stimulants into your bloodstream. Your autonomic nervous system—far below your consciousness—is in fight-or-flight, spurring you on or shutting you down. The higher functions of your brain (the prefrontal cortex, the reins) have gone completely offline, while the more primitive parts of your brain (the limbic system, particularly the amygdalae) have decisively taken over.
At those times, the brain is in a state in which the prefrontal cortex is neither connected to nor soothing the subcortical system. Without that soothing and connection, we lose a pause between what we feel and what we do. These more primitive parts of our bodies and brains care only about our personal survival; they have no interest in maintaining the vulnerability of intimacy. Us evaporates and becomes you and me, adversaries in a cold world of I win, you lose.
Us is the seat of closeness. You and me is the seat of adversarial contest. You and me is great when you are confronting a tiger, but less so when you are confronting your spouse, your boss, or your child. In those fraught moments, what makes it so hard to keep a cool head is a million or so years of evolution, plus one other powerful force: trauma. Trauma pulls you into survival mode, in which you are clenching your fists for the fight or clamping your jaws shut like a fortress. And the more trauma you sustained as a child, the more compelling you and me becomes.
If you are thinking, Well, gosh, I didn’t have much trauma growing up, my answer is maybe. We’ll talk about it later. But before you make up your mind, why not settle into my discussion of childhood trauma? Because sometimes it doesn’t take much. Depending on your constitution and a host of other variables, it may take only a slight tap on the egg to produce fissures that can last a lifetime.
What’s Your Trauma?
When I’m working with a couple, I have one important question in my mind. It’s not What are the stressors? Stressors—like the pandemic, money woes, mismatched sex drives, kids, and in-laws—are all important, but a well-functioning couple can handle a reasonable amount of stress. The critical question I think about is not even What is the dynamic, the choreography, between you? That’s also an important question, but it’s not the most essential. The central question I ask myself during a therapy session is simply this one: Which part of you am I talking to?
Am I talking to the mature part of you, the one who’s present in the here and now? This is the part I call the Wise Adult. That’s the part that cares about us. Or am I speaking to a triggered part of you, to your adversarial you and me consciousness? The triggered part of you sees things through the prism of the past. I believe there’s no such thing as overreacting; it’s just that what someone is reacting to may no longer be what’s in front of them. One of the blessings that partners in intimate relationships bestow upon each other is the simple and healing gift of their presence. But in order to be present with your partner, you must yourself be in the present, not saturated by your past.
The phrase trauma memory is really a misnomer. You don’t remember trauma; you relive it. The combat vet who hears a car backfire and suddenly spins around like he’s gripping a rifle is not thinking, Now I’m walking down Main Street remembering combat. In that flash moment, the vet is viscerally back at war. The past superimposes itself onto the present, fundamentally confusing the mind. When our trauma is triggered, we might physically spring into fight-or-flight mode. Faced with an overwhelming shock—infidelity, for example—I’ve seen patients gasp and head for the door before they came to in my hallway.
But most of us do not reenact the experience of the trauma itself. Instead, we act out the coping strategy that we evolved to deal with it. You were emotionally abandoned throughout your childhood, and so you’ve grown into a charming seducer, expert at securing others’ attention. Or you were intruded upon as a child, and now you operate behind walls; you are adept at keeping people out. I speak of this compensating part of us as the Adaptive Child.
One of my great mentors, Pia Mellody, spoke of the Adaptive Child as a “kid in grown-up’s clothing.” The Adaptive Child is a child’s version of an adult, the you that you cobbled together in the absence of healthy parenting. Here’s a chart detailing the traits of the Adaptive Child, as distinct from the Wise Adult.