- Do you want to have a warmer, closer, and more passionate relationship with your partner? Do you want to learn how to overcome the toxic individualism that is harming your relationship and society? If so, you might want to read Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship by Terrence Real.
- In this article, we will give you a summary and review of this groundbreaking book that teaches you how to transform your relationship into one that is based on compassion, collaboration, and closeness. Read on to find out how you can use the skills of relational empowerment to create a more loving and fulfilling relationship with your partner.
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.”
Table of Contents
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.
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
Summary: The book is a guide for couples who want to improve their relationship by overcoming the toxic individualism that pervades our culture. The author, Terrence Real, is a renowned family therapist and author of The New Rules of Marriage.
He introduces a new skillset called relational empowerment, which helps partners to get past their defensive reactions and connect with their wiser, more collaborative selves. He also shares stories of couples who have transformed their relationships using these skills and offers practical exercises and tools for readers to apply them in their own lives.
Review: The book is a refreshing, clear, and insightful look at the challenges and opportunities of intimate relationships in the modern world. Real challenges the traditional notions of masculinity, gender roles, and self-reliance that often create distance and conflict between partners. He shows how partners can create a more loving, compassionate, and collaborative relationship by shifting from a “you vs. me” mindset to an “us” mindset. He also provides useful examples, anecdotes, and exercises to help readers practice the skills of relational empowerment.
The book is written in an engaging, humorous, and compassionate tone that makes it easy to read and relate to. The book is highly recommended for anyone who wants to improve their relationship or learn more about the dynamics of intimacy.