A skinny twenty-seven-year old, I pull a thick afghan onto my lap and ask my father to tell me about his childhood. He begins with the usual maneuvers: he adopts surliness, then he jokes, evades. By this time I am armed with the fledgling skills of a young therapist. I have learned a few in the craft of opening up a closed heart.
“You know, your mother and I deliberately made the decision to keep this from you,” he begins.
“I understand,” I say.
“We didn’t want to burden you kids.”
“I appreciate that.”
He pauses. “You’ll never know what it was like back then,” he tells me, “the Depression..” He lapses into silence for a while and then he begins. He wasn’t more than six or seven when his mother died of some lingering disease. He had only vague pictures of her in his head, hardly any memories he recalled her warmth, an infectious laugh.
After she died, things went downhill for my father’s father, Abe, a weak passive man. Abe lost his job, bought a little mom-and-pop store; then he lost the store. Unable to support itself, the family broke up. My dad and his young brother went to live with a cousin. “Aunt” Sylive was mean. She was bitter before the Depression and taking in my father, Edgar and his brother, young Phil, did nothing to shake the venom in her disposition. She was cruel in a daily, ordinary way.
“Like how Dad?” I ask him.
“Oh I don’t know,” he shrugs me off.
“Like how, Dad?” I repeat the question.
I eventually get my father to tell me about the humiliation of ragged hand-me-downs, about how Sylvie would dish out food to him with a line such as, “Here is a big piece of chicken for Steven, because he is my son. And here is a small piece of chicken for you, Edgar. Because you are not.”
When he was eleven or twelve, the rage in my father, the missing of his mother, his father, filled him to the bursting point. His little brother was still young and sunny enough to adjust, but my dad began acting out. An “instigator” at school, a petty thief at home, he lasted through one or two “incidents” and then Aunt Sylvie summarily got rid of him. He found himself banished to the home of elderly grandparents in another part of town.
“What did you do?” I ask.
“What do you mean, what did I do? I went to school. I worked.”
“Did you have friends?”
“I made friends.”
“Did you see Phil and your father?”
Yes, he saw them. All that winter after school he would walk six miles through the snow to have dinner with them at Sylvie’s house. He would linger over a cup of cocoa until Sylvie asked him to leave. Then he’d walk back again alone.
I look out of the window of our little seaside apartment, onto bare November trees. I picture that twelve-year-old boy walking back in the snow.
“How was that for you?” I ask. “What did you feel?”
My father shrugs.
“What did you feel?” I insist.
“A little cold, I guess.”
“Come on, goddamn it.”
“I don’t hold a grudge, Terry.” My father’s tone levels me. “They did what they had to. All right? These were rough times. Besides,” his voice becomes still, “I understand in a way. I wasn’t so easy to handle.”
“You were a child,” I tell him.
My father shakes his head. “Yeah, well, I was pretty hardboiled. I could be quite a little son of a bitch.”
“How much of a son of a bitch could you have been, Dad?” I say. “You were twelve years old!”
He turns away. “I don’t know.” He slumps.
“Look at me.” I take his shoulders. “I don’t give a shit what you did, do you understand? You were a kid. Your mother was dead; your father was gone. You didn’t deserve it, okay? Don’t you get it? You didn’t deserve it.”
My father looks up at me, his blue eyes magnified by thick glasses. “Okay,” he sighs. Then, as sudden as any rage, he reaches out his thick arms and pulls me toward him. Without a word he lays his head on my shoulder, as tender and guileless as a child. Holding him, I breathe in his familiar smell, coffee and cigarettes and a touch of Brylcreem. Feeling the weight of his great head, I am physically awkward, almost repelled, but when he pulls away, I instinctively tighten my hold on him. Gingerly, reluctantly, I stroke his back, his stiff har.
“It’s okay, Dad,” I murmur.
I look out past him at the trees, and wonder what will become of us, my father and me. I still neither trusted nor forgave him, but something deep inside me began to uncoil.
That night was a first green tendril piercing through a stone wall. Others followed. In the years ahead, as our closeness developed, my life became more successful, and my father’s life grew ever more desperate. I watched, helpless, as financial worry, social isolation, and finally, a horrible disease whittled him, sucked the marrow out of him, pulled him under. I stayed close, I gave as much as I could.
I buried my father in September 1991. The night before, when I left his bedside, he gave me his blessing and I gave him mine. The next morning, I walked into the hospital room to hind him dead. His head was thrown back, his eyes shut, his mouth open. It didn’t look like my dad. It looked like my dad’s body, a thing made of clay, like his statues. I touched his eyes and kissed him. His skin on my lips tasted bitter, earthen.
I have often thought about the high school boys my father saw drown and the advice he gave me: “Don’t touch them. They’ll drag you under.” As in so many other instances, his advice on this matter was wrong. I did not go down into that dark vortex with my father. But neither did I let go of his embrace.
Excerpted from I Don’t Want to Talk About It by Terrence Real.“The Best Men Can Be”
On January 13th, Gillette released its already famous commercial, “The Best Men Can Be,” which garnered an immediate and emphatic backlash. The commercial juxtaposed men engaging in bullying behaviors with men performing acts of decency.
The nerve the ad hit is prominently on display, if you go to Twitter #BoycottGillette. Here’s a typical example: “Feminists made up toxic masculinity its (sic) not a real thing. They will not be happy until men act like women. Female supremacy is their true goal and bigotry! (sic)” A favorite and powerful trope of the right is this vision of “feminazis” hellbent on gaining supremacy and undoing masculinity, turning healthy men into…well, women. “Gillette,” one tweet reads, “the best a trans can get.”
This trope hits home because it resonates with the core dilemma of masculinity itself. How many grown women do you know who fret that their presumably unstable femininity will somehow be undone? But men seem to live in perennial fear that a dress with their name on it sits right around the corner. Is that really what women want of us?
It’s time for more of us men to stand up to the traditions of masculinity we’ve been handed, to sort through which elements are worthy and which toxic. We should do so not just for the sake of the women we care about and for the children in our charge, but for our own health and wellbeing.
Moving from a patriarchal paradigm to a relational one means leaving a linear, hierarchical world of “power over” others, as Riane Eisler describes it, and stepping into an ecological world of “power with.” It means moving away from a dominance model placing man above nature – whether the nature one lords over is a wife or child, an assistant, or one’s own body – to a collaborative model in which we see ourselves as situated within nature, rather than ruling over it.
Our relationships are our biospheres; we live within them, not above them. You may choose to pollute your biosphere in the living room with your temper, but you may well pay for it in the bedroom when your partner withdraws. As a couples therapist, I have worked for over thirty years helping men resolve emotional stress and interpersonal difficulties by moving beyond the confines of our traditional role. I’ve taught men, for example, to respond to a hurt or angry partner non-defensively, but rather with compassion. The relational answer to the question, who’s right and who’s wrong, is who cares? Your partner is unhappy. You don’t want that. You love her, for one thing, and you have to live with her, for another.
I call this non-defensive response “listening with an open heart” or “learning to be a generous gentleman.”
I want all of us men to listen to the hurt and dissatisfaction of women with compassion, not defensiveness. And I would like women, and in particular feminism, to more explicitly embrace men as potential allies. We are your husbands, your fathers, your sons.
Let’s have a totally different conversation, one commodious enough to empower good people of both sexes to move past the constraints of patriarchy, which damages both women and men and renders the relationship between us pointlessly difficult.
What do you think? Please leave me a comment below.
Click here for my online course all about Working With Men >>How to Bring a Reluctant Man Back for a Second Session
In RLT, we have seven diagnostic lenses for looking at a really precise description of what is going on and what you’re going to feed back to the couple.
One of the seven lenses, which in some ways is the skeleton of the whole therapy, is stance, stance, and dance. In a heterosexual couple, his relational stance, her relational stance, and the way they interlock in a good-old family therapy, self-reinforcing feedback loop, a vicious circle, in plain English, which we describe as “The more, the more.” The more he angrily pursues, the more she helplessly withdrawals. The more she helplessly withdrawals, the more he angrily pursues. This is couples therapy 101. Anybody trained in systemic thinking knows how to do this. However, I will say, by the end of your first session … And in RLT we do longer sessions. We tend to do double sessions every other week, rather than 50 minutes every week. By the end of your first session, it’s good to have a description of the more, the more.
The more, the more you two are caught in this bad pattern … I’m so sorry for you. The blame is on the pattern, not the people. I’m so sorry you’ve been caught into this pattern. Once you wind up this pattern and let it go, it goes and proliferates and it will, like cancer or rust, eat up all the good feeling between the two of you. Let me help you get out of this pattern. A great psychotherapist here in Boston, once said, “The goal of a first interview is a second interview.” If you can do the more, the more, blame the pattern, not the people, and be accurate about it, they will feel that. It will give them hope. You will establish your bone fides as a competent therapist, and they will be back at your door next week.
Doesn’t matter if they love you. It’s not about nurture. It’s about giving them the feeling that you can help. Of course, nurture is a part of it. I don’t meant to downplay that. Empathy, reflective listening, all the skills of traditional therapy are brought into play. They are necessary, but in RLT, not sufficient. Empathy is necessary but not sufficient. You have to do more in couple’s therapy than just, “How do you feel?” “Oh, that’s too bad.” “How do you feel?” “Oh, that’s too bad.” Once you have the more, the more, what you’re going to be joining with the difficult man about is his more, is his relational stance, what he is doing to blow his own foot off. This is what you’re doing to get in the way of your own best wishes.
We start all first sessions with the same question: “Tell me what your wish is. If you walk out of here in two hours and it hit it out of the park, what would hitting it out of the park get you? What would it look like?” So then, the dysfunctional relational stance, say angry pursuit or irresponsible boy or a helpless victim or passive-aggressive yes man … These stances will be clear in that they obstruct the goal of getting him whatever it was that he said at the beginning, whatever his wish is.
Let’s talk about how to engage men.
I’ll be referring to some of my notes because this is a little technical. First of all, why am I even giving a class on how to engage men? How many of you have ever entered a lecture entitled how to engage women? Why is engaging men such a resonant issue? The answer to this question, as would be safe to answer most questions, is because of patriarchy. Okay, we got that. Now what does that mean? Well, let me quickly review the three rings of patriarchy. Remember those? First is the halving process. You take one whole human being. You say all the qualities to the left are feminine, all the qualities to the right are masculine. Then you divide human traits into two different halves.
The second I call the dance of contempt. That is that the masculine half is exalted, the feminine half is devalued. The essential relationship between these two: domain. The essential dynamic of patriarchy is that the masculine holds the feminine in contempt. The masculine is one up, the feminine is one down. This plays out between men and women, but it also plays out between two men. Look at Kevin Spacey and his victim. It plays out between two women. It can play out between a mother and a child. It can play out between two races. It can play out between two cultures. It is ubiquitous. This dynamic is everywhere.
Then the third aspect of the three rings of patriarchy is that whoever is on the feminine side of the equation, man, woman, boy, or girl, has a profound impulse, if you remember, to protect whoever is on the masculine side of the equation, even while being mistreated by that person. Whoever is on the masculine side of the equation has disowned their fragility. Whoever is on the feminine side of the equation has a hyper-empathic relationship to that person’s disowned fragility, losing touch with their own fragility in a process that would commonly be called codependent, but which I think is actually much broader.
Anyway, what does that have to do with why we have to engage men in therapy? The answer is really simple. Under the rubric of patriarchy, intimacy itself is coded as feminine. Intimacy itself is a chick flick as I say. We do to intimacy what we do to many things being feminine. We idealize it in principle and we devalue it in fact. What does that have to do with therapy? If intimacy is deemed as feminine, then couples therapy, relational work, is also deemed as a feminine endeavor.
Yes, there are some couples who both agree that things were bad and they both bring each other in. I’m not saying that this is across the board, but I am saying far and away the majority is women who are carrying the dissatisfaction of the relationship. It is women who tune in Oprah. It is women who buy books on relationships. It’s women who bought my book on depression. I like to say my book on male depression appeared under pillows all over America. It’s women by and large who drag men into therapy. Men are by and large perceiving this in one form or another as if it were a foreign territory, as if it were a feminine domain, a woman’s domain that they don’t really quite belong in.
Now what we do with that traditionally, and as a therapist, is we try and minimize men’s discomfort. We try and act as if therapy was gender neutral. I like to say, “Sure, we appreciate male forms of intimacy, whatever that is here, and we’re equal in terms of both of your values. Now guys, I want you to get vulnerable, open your hearts, share your feelings, and connect.” Give me a break. That’s feminine under the traditional rubric and we’re not fooling anybody. In RLT we don’t soft pedal the assymetry between the two genders, we put it on the table. We take sides as many of you have heard over and over again. What women are asking for is legit. Look, the research is clear. Egalitarian marriages breed happier, more satisfied people than traditional hierarchical marriages do. This is not a matter of opinion. This is black and white. We are clear that we are born for intimacy. Look at all the attachment stuff going on right now. It is our natural state, it is our birthright. It is the state in which we thrive.
What we RLT people say to the guy is “Do it.” Do you want to hear that again? Was that too technical? Do it. We don’t want women to stand back from their demands for increased intimacy. We want to empower men to stand up and meet these new demands for intimacy with empathy. “Look, Harry,” I say, “you’re a statistic. There are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of guys just like you being dragged into offices just like mine so that guys like me and gals like me can render you a more livable, relational person. That’s the agenda that you’re being brought in for and it’s good for you. You’ll be healthier. You’ll live longer. It’s good for your marriage. It’s good for your kids. It’s a good thing to do. Let me teach you how to do it.”
Terry Real in Conversation with Thomas Hubl Narcissism and Grandiosity
Terry Real: Imagine if you woke up and one day your hand just had a life of its own. You’re on the subway and your hands starts groping other people. You’d be really, really enraged at your hand because it’s just not obeying your will. That’s how narcissistic people feel about other people who would disappoint them or thwart them.
Simone Humphrey: Welcome to LOVELINK, your guide to love and sex in all forms. We’re your hosts, Simone Humphrey and Signe Simon. Our guest today is the speaker, author and family therapist who specializes in men’s issues in couple’s therapy. He founded the relational life institute offering workshops for couples, individuals and parents along with professional trainings for clinicians to learn his effective model of treatment. His bestselling books are I Don’t Want To Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, and The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Make Love Work. Here to talk to us today about how male narcissism and patriarchy impacts relationships is Terry Real. So welcome, Terry Real. Thanks so much for being here with us.
Terry Real: Oh, it’s a joy to be here with you both.
Signe Simon: Thanks for coming.
Simone Humphrey: So we want to start out with the word “narcissism.” I feel like that word gets thrown around all the time now, and there’s such-
Terry Real: Are you bringing that up because I’m here?
Simone Humphrey: Maybe. So we’d love to know your definition of narcissism.
Terry Real: It’s interesting. Well, I have two things to say about that. The first is I actually find speaking about shame and grandiosity is clearer for many people than speaking about narcissism. So I just had a lady come up to me in a workshop yesterday and tell me she’s confused about whether her client was narcissistic or not. I say, “Well, are they one up? Are they superior? Are they contemptuous of other people or of the rules?” She said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, that’s grandiosity, so why don’t you just call it that?”
Having said that, there are narcissistic traits. I make a point in I don’t want to talk about it really based on the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino that if Narcissus, if you look at the myth, he’s glued to the well. He’s glued to his image. Commonly, we think of narcissist as an emblem of too much self-love, but it’s really too little. He’s addicted not to himself but to his image. The essence of narcissism is the interplay of shame and grandiosity filtered through external supplies, narcissistic supplies. You don’t have an internal sense of well-being and self-love and you supplement it.
There are three forms of unhealthy self-esteem in our culture that our culture runs by, by the way: performance-based esteem, which is “I have worth because of what I can do. I can land a big sale. I can give my wife an orgasm. I can close the trunk of this car.” Performance-based esteem, of course, is very big for men. What a lot of women don’t understand is that it’s very fragile. The English common acknowledgment of this is the fragile male ego, but it’s really based on the idea that you’re only as good as your last performance and there’s always somebody younger, smarter, limberer, warming up in the wings. Men live in a one up, one down world based on performance, and it’s very, very volatile. It’s very fragile.
The second form of narcissistic or unhealthy self-esteem we call other-based esteem, which is “I don’t have self-worth, but I do if you think I do. I do if you have worth,” heading in my direction. Workaholism is an extreme version of performance-based esteem. Love addiction is an extreme version of other-based esteem. Of course, men tend to performance-based and women tend to other-based, although there are lots of variation.
The third is attribute-based esteem, which is “I have worth because of what I have: big muscles, a fancy car, a trophy wife.” Our culture runs on attribute-based esteem. “Buy this product and you’ll be a person of distinction.” I like to say if we all got into relational recovery tomorrow, our economy would collapse. But don’t worry about it because it’s not going to happen. So anything that’s about an external supplement to an internal deficit of self-esteem you can call narcissism. Narcissistic people use other people for their own purposes. We speak about them being narcissistic extensions. We talk about narcissistic rage. Narcissistic rage is … I explained it to men and women who are narcissistic this way: imagine if you woke up and one day your hand just had a life of its own. You’re on the subway and your hands starts groping other people. You’d be really, really enraged at your hand because it’s just not obeying your will. That’s how narcissistic people feel about other people who would disappoint them or thwart them.
So, it’s an interesting concept. By the way, since we’re on it, this may be more [inaudible 00:05:59], but I make a distinction between several different kinds of narcissist, depending on their personality style. So there’s a narcissist proper, which is you’re just the kind of person who uses people. But then there are two different styles of narcissist that I think it’s useful to discover. One is an hysterical style, and I use that, I know that word has fallen at a disrepute, but I use it in the old psychiatric nomenclature. Hysterical meaning warm, charming, expressive, emotional, more “feminine.” Bill Clinton is a narcissist with a hysterical style: charming, charismatic. Then there’s a narcissist with an obsessive compulsive style. They’re the often guys who are like, “If you love me, you will line the shoes up the way they’re supposed to be lined up.” These guys are tight asses and they’re a real pain to be around.
So it’s really interesting to distinguish between these different styles of narcissist, narcissist proper, narcissist charming hysterical style. They can be a lot of fun but they’re not very trustworthy and narcissist with an obsessive-compulsive style who tend to be very controlling and tight.
Simone Humphrey: Can you talk a little bit about how these styles emerge from childhood, or even just more generally how narcissism emerges?
Terry Real: Well, I have a saying, “We tend to hold ourselves the way we were held.” So if you were held … That’s why healthy self-esteem is such a rare commodity in our culture because as my pal, Esther Perel, puts it, “The school of relationships, namely our family that we all grow up in, are little cultural artifacts.” I talk about the impact of culture on our psyches. The impact of culture on our psyches comes largely through our families. Our family is our cultural institutions and cultural transmitters. If you think about something like the way boys are held under patriarchy … I showed a film just yesterday in the workshop of a boy, a man now, an offender in recovery, but the guy used to masturbate in public. He went back to being five years old and his stepfather took away his blanket, his security blanket, lined up the entire family and had him burn it at five.
Signe Simon: Wow.
Simone Humphrey: So painful.
Terry Real: This is not a man with healthy self-esteem. As he put it, “I quickly learned to hate myself.” So hating himself was just an internalizing the relationship of hating that he’d grown up with. So different people adapt in different ways. There’s a long answer about the different ways that we adapt. We adapt some through reacting to what’s going on to us. We adapt some through modeling what’s going on for us. Our, what I call adaptive child part, usually between 5 and 20, and when we do imaginative work, that inner child part of you, what Dick Schwartz the protectors or manager parts of you. That adaptive child is almost always an amalgam of what you took in and how you reacted to what you took in.
So, for example, if I have an intrusive mother, I may have an adaption through reaction to that by putting up a big wall. I say, “Show me the thumbprint and I’ll tell you about the thumb.” The thicker the wall, the bigger the intrusion. That’s the reactive way of getting an adaptation. The modeling way is my dad would react to my intrusive mother, his intrusive wife, by being behind, guess what, walls. So the adaptive part of me is reacting to the intrusion of my mother and modeling the distance of my father. It’s usually a combination of those two.
Signe Simon: It also makes me think about on a societal level, what something like Trump is modeling for young men today.
Terry Real: Can I tell you the good news about that?
Signe Simon: Tell us.
Terry Real: I gave a workshop on a difficult man three or four years ago at the Psychotherapy Networker, and it drew 50 people. I gave that same workshop last year, it drew 350 people.
Simone Humphrey: Wow.
Signe Simon: It’s more relevant.
Terry Real: The difference is called Donald Trump. I think that we were asleep during the Obama years. We were complacent. We thought we really had it made. We thought feminism had won the day. We’re still in the struggle. Just yesterday as we speak, there are more people marching on Washington than there were during Trump’s inauguration. So, I think that the lines are drawn. I think that gender progressives have our work cut out for us. Unlike five years ago, we know we have our work cut out for us. I’ve been talking about this stuff as you well know for 30 years. 10 years ago, if I said the word patriarchy, people would fall asleep. If I said the word feminism, people would walk out the door. Now, all of a sudden, it’s hot again.
Signe Simon: People are paying attention.
Terry Real: People need to pay attention and they are realizing it.
Simone Humphrey: I think it’s also interesting that narcissism or grandiosity as you describe it really falls on a spectrum that there are some people that seem more pathological about it, and it really impairs them, and then there is the more subtlety that everyone has because we esteem ourselves through all these other pieces.
Terry Real: Yeah. One of the things I say is that pathology is rarely an aberration of the norm. I mean there are people who like to get dressed up in latex and hit each other with thing, but it’s more often an exaggeration of the norm. I wrote about Trump and masculinity. The issue is he’s an exaggeration of the norm and a caricature of the norm. In some ways, one of the things I say in the piece is that, Trump, in some way, is conservative’s ugly stepchild. In some ways, Trump is explicit about what many conservatives in America had been implicit about: the racism, the elitism, the misogyny, which has always been there in the conservative agenda, but was a little more subtle than it is now. It’s mixed with this incredible kind of buffoonery that is quite amazing. In some ways, it reassures me. To be honest, I’d rather deal with a clown-ish character, no offense to anybody, like Trump than deal with somebody who has the same agenda but is frankly more competent and effective.
Simone Humphrey: So you’ve been working with couples pre-Trump and the impact of patriarchy in couples and now you work with couples post-Trump and the kind of more overt influence of patriarchy. So what kind of differences, if any, have you noticed?
Terry Real: Well, there are people, mostly women, who have a kind of Trump trauma. There is a patient that I saw who had a philandering, boundary-less, aggressive, narcissistic father who no one called out her whole life, who was inappropriately, it never quite frankly incestuous, but quite inappropriate with her sexually and exploited her. She went into a major depression when Trump was elected. I remember leaning into her and saying, “Your father is now the president of the United States.” So there were people who are very directly affected by this. There are people who are affected not in terrible ways, but in good ways by being motivated not to whatever, but there are kids, you guys’ age, who really thought feminism was a thing of the past. That it’d done its job and we were like post-feminist. It’s a wake-up call and people are really mobilizing.
One of the things gratifying for me is that the people who are perhaps most interested in my work on patriarchy are millennials. Young people are really fascinated by this work right now and I think it’s been a wake-up call. So I think it cuts both ways.
Signe Simon: When it comes to romantic relationships, when it comes to couples, there are ways in which narcissism can express itself in more explicit and more subtle ways. I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about how it can be expressed in these more subtle ways.
Terry Real: Well, one of the things I say is that our culture rewards adaptive children. Our culture did not reward functional adults. It’s actually afraid of them. Under the rubric of patriarchy, which it’s now clear we all live under still, our world is split in half between the so-called masculine and the so-called feminine. In that dichotomy, intimacy itself is seen as feminine. We do to intimacy what we do to many things feminine. We idealize it in principle and we devalue it in fact. So it’s a Hallmark card of couples holding hands and skipping awe, but we don’t teach anybody any skills. I would like to see relational skills taught in elementary school and junior high and high school.
So that in some ways, a narcissistic man or a grandiose man, coupled with a more shame-based co-dependent woman is the cultural normal. I like to say that a outwardly grandiose-drive, inwardly shamed-based man, coupled with an outwardly compliant woman who is inwardly resentful and shame-based, that’s America’s power couple, ideal with the well-heeled crowd. People fly in to see me from all over the country, and that is the couple that I see over and over again. This couple has been very successful in the world and made a hash of their personal life.
Simone Humphrey: How do their problems manifest? What does that look like?
Terry Real: Well, first of all, 9 out of 10 times, it’s the woman who’s carrying the dissatisfaction. One of the things to understand about grandiosity is that it doesn’t feel bad, and that’s one of the open secret. It feels good. Shame feels bad and you’re motivated to get out of it. But grandiosity feels good. Psychiatrist George Vaillant in Boston said, “There’s two kinds of guys in the world. There is a guy who walks in to an elevator, it gets closed, claustrophobic and turns green; and there is a guy who walks in an elevator, lights up the big fat stogie and everybody around him turns green.” That’s the different between shame and grandiosity. So grandiosity feels good.
Ideal with couples on the brink of divorce, that’s my beat. Couples come in and see me, we spend a two-day intervention together, at the end of that time you’re either back on track or divorcing. It’s the end of the line.
Signe Simon: What’s it feel like to be on the other side of the grandiosity, so to be the partner? What if you heard from women who are on the receiving end of the grandiosity? You mentioned resentment. I’m curious if anything else comes up as well.
Terry Real: Yeah, protection.
Simone Humphrey: Protection.
Terry Real: Yeah. The third ring of the three concentric rings of psychological patriarchy, I call the core collusion, and it’s a very ugly fact, but I think it’s one of the great unnoticed psychological forces in the world, and it is this: whoever is on the feminine side of the equation has a profound impulse to protect the disowned fragility of whoever is on the masculine side of the equation, even while being hurt by that person. The common English word for that is co-dependence, but it’s really part of the traditional feminine role.
Simone Humphrey: It’s what allows the relationship to survive.
Terry Real: Women manage men, and men know they’re being managed, which is part of the reason why men don’t trust women. But women manage men. One of the things I say is that leading men and women into intimacy is synonymous with leading them beyond patriarchy. The traditional gender roles of men and women aren’t built for intimacy, they’re built for stability. The traditional role for men is to be an invulnerable performer and the traditional role for women is to be a resentful manipulator.
Neither of those roles breathe much intimacy. But women, what happens with women, is that they form a deeper empathic bond to the little boy inside the man than the man does. The man has disowned that little boy and the woman thinks, “Ugh, if I could just love up that little boy, then I could get to the heart and all would be well,” even if they’re being pummeled by the man’s grandiosity, is acting out or rage or substance abuse or whatever. I like to say there are two cohorts in the modern west who believe that if you’re dealing with a grandiose, troubling man, if you love up the little boy inside the man, all will be well and the grandiosity will dissipate. Those two cohorts are co-dependent women and therapist.
Simone Humphrey: We fall into that category.
Signe Simon: Yup.
Terry Real: Not all grandiosity is a defense against shame. Some grandiosity just comes from straight false empowerment. So false empowerment, which is a form of abuse in childhood … Let me say something about that. Grandiosity can come from false empowerment, straight and simple. False empowerment is artificially pumping up a child’s grandiosity or not checking it. For example, here’s a sentence that turns my blood cold. Ready? You understand me better than your father. That’s false empowerment.
Simone Humphrey: Yeah.
Signe Simon: Yeah, yeah.
Terry Real: And it leads the grandiosity. Disempowerment leads to shame; false empowerment leads to grandiosity. Neither are favors to the child.
Simone Humphrey: Because it’s automatically putting the perspective of one up, one down, like if you’re better than your father, then your father is lesser than, which means you could be lesser than. You’re not one up.
Terry Real: That’s right. It’s psychologically incestuous in that we are the couple, we are the elevated pair. But more than that, it inducts the boy into the one up, one down world of masculinity. People say that men fear intimacy. I don’t think men fear intimacy. I think traditional men don’t know what intimacy is. I think what men fear is being dominated, being subjugated. In the one up, one down world of men, you’re either the hammer or the anvil. There’s no platform for actual connection. That is the great wage of patriarchy on men. It is disconnection. The way we turn boys into men in this “culture” is through disconnection. We disconnect them from their hearts, from their expression, from other people, from dependency, and one of the things I say is that the cause of disconnection in boyhood is disconnection as an adult.
Simone Humphrey: Right. The gain is that they can reach immense amounts of success in other areas. We see, like in corporate businesses, or professionalism, there’s a lot of value placed in unemphatic ways of relating, because you do work your way up the ranks that way.
Terry Real: So people do well in their public lives and do horribly in their private lives. One of the things I say is that patriarchy is the water we swim in and we’re the fish. It’s everywhere. It’s in us and around us, and women and men both participate in it. A lot of guys, younger guys, looked fetched to me that now that there are more sensitive women don’t find themselves sexy. I’m sure you heard that one.
Simone Humphrey: Yup.
Terry Real: There is some truth in that if they have no power at all. In sex therapy, we talk about polarity and you have to have some polarity in order to have sexual attraction. If these guys has turned into wimps, there isn’t enough polarity but that’s not what I’m after. I want to make this really clear. It just really annoys the hell out of me when somebody says I’m trying to feminize men. I’m not trying to feminize men. I’m interested in whole human beings. I’m interested in human beings that can be strong and powerful in the setting where that’s called for and sweet and tender in the setting where that’s called for, and have the wisdom to know which setting is which. That’s what I’m interested in.
Simone Humphrey: So how do you help couples when they come to see you? How do you help them to reconnect?
Terry Real: Well, there’s a two-step process. There are role reversals where the woman is on the masculine side of the equation. She is grandiose, and the man is Caspar Milquetoast. There are plenty of those. Couples where they’re both blatants, they’re both hugging the masculine side of the equation, and they’re both beating the crap out of each other. there are some couples where they’re both on the feminine side of the equation and they’re nicey-nicey and it’s pseudo-mutual, but they don’t usually show up for therapy. They’re okay on their owns.
So there’s lots of variations, but let’s just say we’re dealing with the typical … I say, like, two out of three, three out of four, it’s the man in the grandiose and the … I talk about blatants and latents, the one who’s egregiously anti-relational and the one who’s more co-dependent enabling. When I got that set up, the first move is to empower the latent. I have a saying generally, “When a man’s in trouble, my first move is to empower the woman. When the woman’s in trouble, my first move is to empower the woman.” So I want the woman to stand up to that grandiosity. They universally drop the guy often, want me to do that work for them. I say, “Look, I’ll go out on the limb with you, but not for you.” He’ll cut off the limb. I get fired.
When you’re dealing with a grandiose person, we’ll say men for now, you have to be able to answer the question that they are asking themselves, which is the following. Ready? Why should they put up with you? The answer to that question I call leverage. Leverage means you have something in your back pocket that they want, a warmer, sexier wife; happier kids; a longer life; a healthier body. You stand between them and negative consequences they don’t want like you’re going to get laughed.
So the first move is to empower the woman to stand up to the bullying or the irresponsible behavior of the man. I’ll come in under her, but I won’t get out ahead of her. I’ll do that empowering right in front of the guys. Sounds something like, for example, “What happens if this doesn’t get better? What do you have in your head? Do you have a time frame? Do you have an exit plan? Of course, quite often they do. But a lot of times it’s more subtle than that. It’s just about the conviction of standing up for your rights. One of the things I say to women, the first intervention with this kind of co-dependent women, one down women, is if you’re unhappy, why don’t you start acting like you’re unhappy? A lot of women get into “I hate how you’re treating me. What can I make you for dinner?” I want you to be congruent.
I had a woman, it’s typical situation. She had a bullying husband who wouldn’t come into therapy, of course. This is a true story. We did a 90-second intervention for 10 days. It sounded like this: she’d meet him at the door when he came home from work and she said, “I hate how you’re treating me. I hate this, this, this and this. I’ve got an appointment with this guy, Terry Real, next Thursday at 7 p.m. I expect your butt in that chair. If it’s not in that chair, I’ll be even more unhappy and angry than I am now and I’m plenty unhappy and angry now. What can I make you for dinner?”
Simone Humphrey: Did he come in?
Terry Real: He absolutely came in. He was in that chair 10 days later, 90 seconds. So it has to do with the woman’s conviction. I talk about becoming a relational champion. That you really get grounded in the commitment that being in a nurturing essentially cherishing relationship is your birthright. If you’re not in an essentially cherishing relationship, that’s not good for you, it’s not good for the kids. That’s not true, it’s not good for the uncherishing person. So stand up for yourself.
Simone Humphrey: I really appreciate that sentiment, I think, especially coming from you as a male therapist where you could just reinforce the patriarchy, silence the woman, and then stand up to her and just have one man listen to another man.
Terry Real: Oh, you mean, the usual?
Simone Humphrey: Exactly, exactly. So-
Terry Real: The usual way therapy run.
Signe Simon: The normal couple’s therapy with the guy, yeah.
Terry Real: Yeah. You bring up a point that everybody always brings up and I want this clear for the women therapist listening. Women therapist can do this work. Most relational life therapist are women, which is most therapists are women. If a woman can inhabit her own power and authority, she can confront the man with loving skill in exactly the same way I do and it’ll be just fine. Don’t disempower yourself because you’re a woman therapist.
Signe Simon: Are there ever times where you see couples and think, “This isn’t going to work”?
Terry Real: Yeah.
Signe Simon: Yeah. What do you do when that happens?
Terry Real: I tell them, “I don’t think this is going to work.”
Signe Simon: You’re direct with them.
Terry Real: There are a couple of clear deal breakers. I wrote a piece for the Networker called Rowing to Nowhere about when to break up and what some of the deal breakers are. In relational life therapy, we talk about three pre-conditions for doing the couple’s work. These are things you have to deal with before you can pretend to move the couple closer together. You can meet with the couple, but the focus are one of these conditions, and they are untreated psychiatric disorders, someone has got a serious depression or OCD or anxiety that has to be dealt with; serious self-medication issues including addiction; and acting out issues, either aggressive or sexual. I won’t see a couple of there’s a third leg of a triangle.
These have to be addressed first. If partner A is empowered to stand up to these issues and partner B and partner B wants none of it, that can be a deal breaker. If I’m going to be an addict and I don’t give a shit what you think, then goodbye. Another deal breaker, which is interesting is if Partner A never really loved Partner B to begin with, they married to have a children or to please their mother because they look good on paper, in that case I say, “Why don’t you let him go and find somebody who really loves him. You’re not doing him a favor.”
The other one, which is a little more nuanced but which I find to be true is if one partner is substantially more mature than the other, more developmentally evolved, so you have one very healthy one and one rather sick one, and if the healthy one wants out, I’ll help him get out. Those are the basic deal breakers.
Simone Humphrey: Can we talk about sex and how patriarchy shows itself in the bedroom?
Terry Real: One of the things I say is that people tend to do in the bedroom what they do in every other room. People will, by and large, there are exceptions … People will by and large replicate the dynamic of their relationships sexually. Now, that’s not the same as saying as many therapists say that if you clear up the relational dynamic, the sexual flow of its own, people often need help. It’s like grandiosity. You can deal with shame, but you have to deal with the grandiosity per se. You can deal with relational difficulties, but you may have to deal with the sexual issues per se. There are lots of ways that patriarchy shows up in the bedroom. One of the ways is that women avoid the bedroom all together.
One of the things I say, I talk about what I call fierce intimacy which is empowering both partners to tell the truth to each other, to take each other on, to deal with each other. When one partner doesn’t do that, when they move from being forthright to being managerial, resentment builds, generosity dries up and passion dries up. I want to say one of the greatest aphrodisiacs in a couple is telling the truth. When you don’t tell the truth, which is the norm for heterosexual couples, you do not tell the truth, then passion dries up. It’s a real sex killer, patriarchy.
Then there are lots of interesting sort of power. One of the things is that just because a couple likes to play with one up, one down dynamics, which I think is an essential part for many of the people sexually, good sex is not politically correct. You can be surrendering or you can be dominating in the bedroom and then walk out, but it’s consensual. It’s play within a framework that is consensual. There’s a lot of difference, and this is really critical. As I talk about women and the wish to be relieved of sexless caretaking and move into the sex’s surrender, it’s important to understand the difference between, for example, a kind of being ravished fantasy and being raped by somebody. There’s a difference between play and reality.
I think that’s really critical. But sex as a stubborn way of not being politically correct, I love what Esther says about this. She says, “Sex, we want between the sheets what we protest in the streets.”
Signe Simon: That’s true. That’s true. Yeah, and I think you’re right. I mean we’ve talked about how there are many women who have rape fantasies-
Terry Real: Sure.
Signe Simon: -but that does not mean that they want to be raped in real life; that they want to be dominated in the bedroom, but they want more of an equal partnership outside of the bedroom.
Terry Real: Yeah, exactly. I think I’m with the Canadian sexologist, Jack Morin, with this one. For a lot of women, sex becomes caretaking because they do in the bedroom what they do in every other room, and they’re caretakers to men. Caretaking becomes a problem. One of the-
Simone Humphrey: It becomes work.
Terry Real: Yeah, it becomes more work. How many women say, “Ugh, sex is more work. It’s another chore. The work of anybody working with woman and sex is to rediscover their own pleasure. Get a vibrator. Roll a joint. Go be by yourself. Esther has taught me a lot about sex and patriarchy and sex in women. I love what she says, she says, “It didn’t that I don’t want sex. I don’t want sex with you.” You move women out of that caretaking role into their own pleasure, that is the movement in working with sex and women under the patriarch rule. One of the ways that women can move into their own pleasure is to be relieved of the responsibility of asserting it. So, “Gee, I don’t know, I’m just here. You’re doing it to me, so I guess I can have some pleasure. I’m not really asking for.”
There’s a lot of ink that’s been spilled about women’s loss of voice in relationships, and they do. Women feel that standing up for their own pleasure, for example, or anything else is selfish. Men also have a loss of voice in relationships that’s rarely noted. Women feel that standing up for their wants and needs is selfish. Men feel that they’re not supposed to have any wants and needs to begin with.
Signe Simon: What do you think they are both afraid of?
Terry Real: Vulnerability. The essence of traditional masculinity is invulnerability. The more vulnerable you are, the more girly you are, the more of a sissy you are, the more invulnerable you are, the more manly you are. This is a really good example of what I mean when I say that leading men and women into intimacy requires going beyond patriarchy because you cannot be intimate and invulnerable at the same time. It simply doesn’t work.
Signe Simon: How do you help men get more in touch with their vulnerable parts?
Terry Real: Well, I have this two year training program.
Signe Simon: It takes a while.
Terry Real: It takes a while to learn how to do it, but the method, because I know you know my work, the method I called Joining through the Truth where you lovingly confront the man about the difficult ways that he’s getting his own way. You move him out of grandiosity into remorse and open-heartedness in a way that leaves him feeling that you’re on his side. This would be another hour to talk about how you do this, but in essence, you form a relationship with the adult part of the man, the decent part of the man, and it’s you and me dealing with this adaptive child part, this grandiose part.
I can’t tell you how many times I end the first interview by saying to the guy, “You know, Bill, you’re a decent man. I’d been with indecent men, we call them sociopaths, but you’re warm. You’re connected. You’re a decent man. But you, Bill, who have been a chronic philanderer and liar and cheater for 20 years, what’s so sad is I am dealing with a decent man who’s behaved indecently for the last 20 years. Will you let me rescue the decent you that’s at the core of this from all this nonsense?” Your form a coalition with the best part of the man against the worst part of the man.
One of my favorite sayings, and I think it really is essential RLT, is from the German poet Goethe, which I paraphrased or mangle. The quote is, “If you treat a man as he ought to be, he may become who he ought to be.” So I look deeper into the heart of the best part of you and it’s you and me … Healthy self-esteem is being able to hold yourself in warm regard, walk clearly facing and feeling appropriately bad about your bad behavior or character flaws or what’s flawed in you. It’s both. If you don’t feel bad about the bad stuff, then you’re shameless and grandiose. If you feel like you do an ad hominem attacking, you’re just a rotten person, that’s shame and that’s no favor to anybody. but remorse or guilt is feeling bad about the behavior and still holding yourself in warm regard as a person.
Joining through the truth is self-esteem in therapeutic action. I’m holding the man in warm regard, at the same time I’m confronting the difficult behavior. It’s the conjunction of these two, truth and love, that produces real spiritual intimacy that’s healing between me and the guy.
Signe Simon: How did you get into male grandiosity?
Terry Real: Oh, I like to say I studied my family therapy career about four years old. I became a therapist in order to garner the skills I would need to have a true conversation with my father who was a depressed, grandiose, violent man. I needed to have a conversation with him to free myself of the legacy. He was the son of a depressed, violent man and my children do not say that. What stands between them and the legacy is me. I knew that. I knew I had to transform myself or I was doomed. There’s a saying, “Therapists are people in need to be in therapy hours a week.” I had to learn the skill of therapy in order to figure out my dad and fee myself of that legacy because I was depressed and I was angry for much of my early life. I knew it was off and I knew I had to do something about it.
Signe Simon: Was there a moment where things shifted for you, where you came to that realization? Or was it something that happened over time?
Terry Real: It happened over time. It was a wayward past. At first I went into comparative literature. I was in a five-year PhD program. I completed most of it. I came to Boston, drove a cab, was writing the Great American Novel, and getting shot at. It was back in the ’70s, and everybody is doing human potential movement stuff. I got tired of driving a cab and being shot at, so I got a job in the looney bin as a mental health worker. I remember telling my friends, I sat down in a chair and did a role play job counseling role play therapist and I said, “I knew more about how to do that in 60 seconds than I knew how to do literature in 30 years.” I just knew it was my calling.
Simone Humphrey: What advise do you have for women who may be in relationships with narcissistic or grandiose men and they’re feeling helpless and needing some help with their relationship.
Terry Real: Well, first-
Simone Humphrey: Get the book.
Terry Real: Yeah, get the book. You can get of any of them.
Simone Humphrey: Yeah, read it by the bedside.
Terry Real: I like to say, I don’t want to talk about it, which is the book about men; the other two books are about couples. I don’t want to talk about it. It appears under pillows all over America. Read this if you want to get any action tonight. Women need to find their voice. Bullies need to be stood up to. If it escalates things, it escalates things. if you can’t do it on your own, then drag the guy to a couple’s therapist and then I have to say drag your guy to a couple’s therapist is really going to help you, because under the rubric of neutrality … See, I went around the country saying there are design flaws in couple’s therapy and neutrality is one of the great design flaws.
Women drag men into couple’s therapy so that we can help them be more relational. Routinely, couple’s therapist throw women under the bus by saying, “Well, you have your issues. He yells, screams, throws things, and cheats on you, and you have your own issues. She is late by 10 minutes a day.” It’s like, “Well, you both have issues. Ain’t that great?” There’s not always even-steven.
Signe Simon: Like ones tipping the scale.
Terry Real: Yeah, right, exactly. So we take sides. Typically, because women are the voice of intimacy and dissatisfaction with low intimacy in the relationship, we side with women. Even grandiose women, the way they’re asking for intimacy or complaining about not getting it or having a fit or controlling or all that, all of that needs to be cleaned up. But the demand for increased intimacy is a good thing. The response to women’s empowerment across the board has been conservative. If women would just go along and make peace, all would be well. Look, that genie is not going back in the bottle.
So in RLT, we don’t want women to stand down, we want men to stand up and meet these new demands. I say to men, “You can do this. It’s good for you. It’s good for your kids. It’s good for your soul. It’s good for your body. You can learn how to do this. It’s not that hard. Let me teach you.” If you’re very direct with men like that and you have leverage, and you’re holding them in warm regard in your heart, and you’re letting them know that you’re confident and you can do the job, they’ll come along. Most men are good hearted and bewildered right now. They would do it if they just knew what you women want from them. So, I say empower the woman to stand up for her wants and her needs in the relationship. Stop being managerial and tell the truth. If that doesn’t work, get some couple’s therapy and get a couple’s therapist who will really support you and not throw you under the bus.
Simone Humphrey: What message would you give to grandiose men?
Terry Real: I like to say I want the weak to stand up, I want the mighty to melt. The cost of patriarchy in manhood is your heart. Being in the one up position is no more intimate and ultimately no more satisfying than being in the one down position. You are missing out is what I saw to these guys. I tell these narcissistic men the story of Midas. Do you know the real story? Few people do.
Signe Simon: Mm-mm (negative).
Terry Real: So Midas was a greedy king, sort of a hoarder, kind of an addict, and he pissed of Dionysius, who is not a god you piss off. Dionysius is a cool god. Dionysius gave him the curse of turning everything into gold. Midas thinks, “This is the coolest thing since sliced bread.” He’s wandering around. He’s turning this to gold. He’s turning that to gold. He’s getting richer and richer every time he touches something. The story goes by [inaudible 00:45:55], until he tries to eat a grape and he realizes in a moment that he’s going to die.
Then the story goes, “The most precious thing in the world comes skipping into his room, his 11-year-old daughter and she goes, ‘Daddy,’ and he goes, ‘Noooo!’ and she lands in his arms.” It’s touching, isn’t it? He goes down to the sea with his daughter now frozen in his arms and begs Dionysius to relieve him of the curse. Sometimes, in some stories, he does and in some stories he doesn’t. What I tell men is, “Yes, you can have your grandiosity. It will cost you nourishment and it will cost you connection.” So you can be Midas if you want to.
Signe Simon: Yeah, you make the decision.
Simone Humphrey: Right.
Terry Real: It’s up to you.
Simone Humphrey: And know that there are many consequences.
Terry Real: Yes. Grandiosity impedes your judgment about negative consequences. Think about adolescent boys who drive down the road at 90 miles an hour. Think about the guy in the elevator. Grandiosity impedes your empathy and it impedes your judgment about negative consequences. So what we do in RLT, and this is part of leverage, is we hold the mirror of those negative consequences up to you very, very forcefully. Yes, you can do … We’re totally detached from outcome. It’s your decision, not ours. But this is what’s going to happen to you if you keep going the way you’re going. Can I tell you … I love to tell a story. Can I tell you my favorite rendition of relational life therapy is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
You get a guy who’s anti-grandiose and anti-relational to the max, Scrooge. “Bah! Humbug!” He’s horrible. He goes to sleep and he’s visited by three ghosts. I think I did them out of order, but the first ghost is Christmas Future. He’s at his funeral and everybody’s happy he’s dead. That’s the negative consequence. The second ghost is Christmas Past. He go back to his miserable childhood and you deal with the inner child and trauma. Then the third ghost is the Ghost of Christmas Present. He goes to Bob Cratchit’s house and he sees what normal looks like.
In RLT, there are three movements. The first is loving confrontation. That’s where you see what the negative consequences are. The second is family of origin, inner child work. That’s where you go back to where this adaption came from. Then the third is education and teaching. That’s where you’ll learn what healthy normal looks like. That’s the rhythm of RLT.
Simone Humphrey: Well, thank you so much for speaking with us today.
Terry Real: Oh, [crosstalk 00:48:37].
Signe Simon: This was very illuminating.
Terry Real: Thank you.
Simone Humphrey: Yeah.
Terry Real: It’s been a pleasure.
Signe Simon: Hope you enjoyed the podcast and thanks for listening. We also want to thank Point in Passing for their original music and website design. Be sure to subscribe to LOVELINK on iTunes and leave us a review. Stay tuned for upcoming podcasts with Esther Perel and Bill Doherty. Check out our upcoming summer workshops for singles and couples on Lovelink.co. See you next time.