Many couples seem to seek help only when they can’t take it anymore, at which point they need a lot of soul searching (or a miracle) to begin to repair the damage.
updated 11/30/2008 12:24:41 PM ET 2008-11-30T17:24:41

I thrive on intense, immersive, change-your-life-in-48-hours types of experiences. Spa weekend? Definitely. Spinning marathon? Bring it on. The occasional crash diet? Guilty.

(I know, I know — it’s not exactly healthy.) So it’s no surprise that I happily agreed to attend a three-day Relational Life Skills Seminar designed to improve the bond I share with my husband, Joe.

“Look around at the faces in this room,” the leader begins, pausing for effect. There are about 60 of us squished into a giant circle, shivering from an excess of air-conditioning that permeates the hotel conference room. We oblige, probably because the majority of us have spent the equivalent of a mortgage payment ($1,500 a couple) for this relationship boot camp.

None of us knows exactly what we’re in for. An emotional ass kicking? Touchy-feely group therapy? Unmannered mediation?

“In three days, when I ask you to repeat this exercise,” he says of the audience, full of furrowed eyebrows and folded arms, “you’ll see something entirely different.”

“He” is Terry Real, best-selling author and founder of the Relational Life Institute (it sounds a little Heaven’s Gate–ish to me, too) in Arlington, Massachusetts. He’s also a tough-talking relationship pro with a reputation for rescuing even the most damaged unions, but I don’t know this yet. I haven’t read his books, and truth be told, I’m here without a marital crisis to confront, simply to see if a mostly happy couple can benefit from 72 hours of intensive introspection and what I imagine will be far too much sharing.

Repairing the damage
Not that we don’t have anything to divulge. Yes, Joe and I are content, but like anyone locked in holy matrimony for eight years, I’m not above admitting our partnership has issues. We have two preschool-aged daughters, and anyone who has children knows they are darling little crumb-covered breeding grounds for marital conflict.

Sure, we agree on most of the deal-breaking stuff — money, sex, paper over plastic—but we’re human. We have plenty of petty, frustrating spats (a recurring one: He “accidentally” calls me his mother’s name when he’s pissed, and I “accidentally” slam every cabinet door while muttering obscenities). And we can nag, name-call and nitpick with the best of them. So here we are.

“We’ve been to 22 therapists in 22 years,” one woman I’ll call Lisa announces by way of an introduction. (I’ve used real names only with permission; all others are pseudonyms.) “None of them did a thing. This is our last shot.”

Couple after couple present themselves with assessments that are equally blunt and bleak, and many of us are already reaching for tissue boxes stationed about the room. “This workshop is our 25th-anniversary gift to each other,” a soft-spoken man tells us. Before the group gets too verklempt, he adds devilishly, “I wanted a flat-screen TV.”

If this is relationship basic training, I am Private Benjamin. But instead of wondering, Where are the yachts and the condos? I’m thinking, Where are the couples like us? There are three—maybe four — I’d consider kindred spirits (i.e., not on the brink of breakup or sleeping in different ZIP codes), and it occurs to me that routine relationship maintenance is like broccoli for breakfast: possible but not common. Many couples seem to seek help only when they can’t take it anymore, at which point they need a lot of soul searching (or a miracle) to begin to repair the damage.

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All respect, all the time
Terry Real starts with a lecture on the principles of what he terms relational living. The core belief is all respect, all the time. “There’s nothing you ever need to say or do that can’t be said or done with respect,” he insists. “You can defend yourself, but you must do it with kindness and without shaming your partner.”

In the workshop setting, this is not always easy to do. One exercise asks each half of the couple to draft the core negative image of the other. “Your partner’s CNI of you isn’t really you,” Real insists. “It’s an exaggerated version of you at your worst.” Somehow knowing it’s “exaggerated” only slightly mitigates the pain of hearing that — at my lowest moments — Joe considers me “cold, controlling and manipulative.” To his credit, Joe accepts my take on his evil twin — “nasty, withdrawn and passive-aggressive” — with a smirk and a nod. (See how passive-aggressive he can be?)

After each couple has painstakingly and privately (“No sharing!” Real demands) crafted these dreadful descriptions, we break into groups, in which he asks us to work together to help each other identify three behaviors that confirm our partner’s CNI and three that refute it. The latter part acts as a road map for sidestepping typical spats.

“How’d you do?” Real wants to know after the small-group CNI discussion.

“I appreciate that he was trying, but…” offers a petite blonde named Carrie, who isn’t thrilled to be called vicious insults by the man who pledged to love and honor her for all of eternity.

“Everything before but is bull----,” Real says.

Carrie artfully raises an eyebrow.

“I appreciate that he was trying, but he’s still a self-centered pig,” Real says. “I love her, but she’s a difficult witch. The steak is delicious, but I’m not hungry. As I said, everything before but is bull----. But excludes; and includes. From now on, cut but from your vocabulary and replace it with and. I love her and she’s a difficult witch. See the difference?”

The simplicity of this concept is as maddening as it is mystifying. Is it really that easy? Are we that one-dimensional? I raise my hand to have the floor.

“I’m not sold,” I admit.

“What’s a typical fight for you and Joe?” Real asks, all Cheshire cat grin.

After stammering, I tell him about this thing Joe does when I’m talking, a “hurry up and get to the point” hand gesture I find absolutely infuriating.

“How do you react when he does this?” he asks.

“Growl, call him a jerk and storm off,” I confess.

Real laughs. “And how is that working for you?”

“It’s not. Sometimes we don’t talk for days,” I answer.

Real offers me a script that goes like this: “Just now, when you made that hand gesture, what I made myself feel — because no one can make us feel anything — was frustrated and angry, and what I’d like you to do in the future is to listen patiently when I speak. And try not to use your hands. Can you do that?”

Joe is free to say no, but why would he? As Real explains, he’s invested in this marriage, too, and presumably, he wants to make me happy. As my husband always says: happy wife, happy life.

Five losing strategies
When we break for recess, I’m worried Joe will be angry that I outed his inner Italian. “I didn’t know that bothered you so much,” he says sheepishly. “I get frustrated when we fight because you’re better at articulating your feelings,” he says, producing Real’s cheat sheet–style flash cards he had sneaked into the adjacent conference room to buy. “These preprinted scripts are really helpful.”

The more we practice, the less awkward the scripts feel and the more powerful the exercises become. In one eye-opening drill, Real outlines what he calls the five losing strategies — those default buttons we invariably push when at an impasse with our partner. The not-so-fab five are all too familiar: needing to be right (Hello? If I didn’t need to be right, I wouldn’t be fighting), unbridled self-expression (as Real puts it, “Let me detail the many ways you make me miserable”), control (Me: “Please stack dishes this way”; Joe: “I’ll do it my way or do it yourself”), retaliation (me: “Jerk”; Joe: “Bitch”) and withdrawal (sound of door slamming). You know, behaviors that characterize most romantic spats — or at least most of mine.

“Whenever one or some combination of these strategies takes over, you’ll never get what you want,” Real contends. What’s more, as common and accepted as they may be, these strategies are utterly unnecessary and wholly dysfunctional.

Video: Staying satisfied in your relationship “I’m a rage-aholic,” Renee admits after the losing strategy exercise, visibly overwhelmed with emotion. Renee is a thirty¬something mom of two young sons. She’s also on her third marriage, and she and her husband (the boys’ father, who is at the workshop with her) have begun the separation process. “We’d been going to a marriage counselor, but it wasn’t working,” she says. “When we told him we were going to separate, he got so excited he almost jumped out of his chair.” As the product of angry, divorced parents, Renee says she wants better for her children.

“Do you have a picture of them?” Real demands, crossing the room to stand in front of her. Her husband produces a photo.

“Look into their faces,” Real says, “and say the following to your boys: ‘Kids, as much as I love you and as much as I know how horrible it is to live in a hostile household, I’m more committed to violent displays of anger than I am to your emotional well-being. So I apologize, but I choose my dysfunction over your happiness.’”

“I can’t say that!” Renee sobs. Tissue boxes swirl around the room like so many church collection plates.

“You’re saying it every day, Renee,” Real says gently. “They hear it, and they know it. What would you rather say?”

“I need to stop, but I don’t know how,” she sobs.

Charming, charismatic, painfully frank and clearly not out to win any popularity contest, Real spends three days calling men boneheads to their face, accusing women of being controlling nags and finishing sentences for members of both sexes indiscriminately (“You never help around the house … jackass”). The group welcomes his candor because he genuinely seems to care and, more important, he doesn’t appear to have any hidden agenda.

“Belinda and I had this fight the other day,” Real says, referring to his wife of 24 years. He goes on to explain precisely which losing strategy they each used and how the techniques we’re learning helped them turn it around. Again. In the exercise to follow, Rick, a 27-year veteran of a shaky marriage, is choked with emotion. “I felt so relieved when Terry talked about his fight with Belinda,” he says. “I grew up in an abusive household. I usually do anything to avoid confrontation. I didn’t realize you could argue and still be OK.”

The message of this work isn’t merely learning how to speak up, back down and fight fair; the primary goal is to learn to assess and then implement the option that has the best odds for a successful outcome. Can’t come to a resolution? “Take a time-out,” Real says. “And go make a sandwich.” (Real regales us with a story of a client who called to complain that he’d gained 30 pounds since following his advice. “I’m making seven sandwiches a day!” he bemoaned.) The key to an effective time-out is to announce calmly that you need one, explain why and clearly state when you’ll be ready to resume the conversation. “I’m too flustered to talk now,” you might say. “I need a break, but I’d like to reconvene in an hour.” (Or 20.)

“Many people think their relationship would improve if they could resolve differences such as conflicting views about money or sex,” Real says. “But it’s the other way around. You’ll be able to overcome tough issues only after your relationship improves.” When couples come to a standoff — I’m right! No, I’m right! — Real plays the same card every time: “The only answer to ‘Who’s right?’ is ‘Who cares?’ Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy? Would you rather be right or would you rather stay together?”

To be honest, there’s nothing cutting-edge about the skills he’s teaching. Indeed, a participant named Krista says Real’s tips are both obvious and brilliant: “Be open, treat your partner with respect, don’t let things fester and strain your bond, listen and appreciate your partner’s efforts…it’s all crazy enough to work!”

Video: Top talk mistakes for couples Real wraps the workshop as he began, with an invitation to look around at the faces in the room. The change is remarkable; not only with individual couples (many hold hands, most sit closer together, all are smiling), but in the group as a whole. We see one another differently because we realize we’re all the same. Each of us may have unique strengths and weaknesses, but we all have the same fights and we all want the same thing from a relationship.

A week after the seminar’s close, Joe and I are home, in the midst of one of our typical (stupid) spats. This one is about which swimsuits our daughters are going to wear into the pool. Joe thinks they should be able to choose; I want them to wear the ones that are already hanging outside. Joe lapses into the familiar routine of muttering “control freak” under his breath. My impulse is to retaliate with insults of my own. Because — and I don’t need to say it, but I will — I’m right. I’m the primary caregiver. I’m the one reading the child-psychology books belaboring the consequences of offering too many choices. I get to make these decisions, damn it. But at that moment it’s as if Real is whispering “Who cares?” into my ear, and I can see the bottom line with total clarity: I want to be happy, and I want to be married.

I walk outside. “I don’t need to be right,” I say with as much sincerity as I can muster, “and I’m sorry.”

Joe looks stunned. This is unfamiliar territory, after all. Then he smiles a grin of surprise and relief and says, “Thank you.”

That I just apologized even though I wasn’t wrong doesn’t eat at me the way I thought it might. In fact, I feel fantastic. I think I’ll go make a sandwich — for us to share.

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