how to change (and save your relationship)

The American relationship therapist Terrence Real believes that we are too busy with ourselves, so we often lose sight of what we have in common, even in relationships. In his new book, ‘We’, he counters.

You’ve probably heard a variation of the idea that before you can love someone else, you must first learn to love yourself. Family and relationship therapist Terrence Real disagrees. The way to save your relationship is not by working on yourself, but by working together. Keeping the focus on yourself will only make the problem worse. Using psychology, history and the couple’s stories, Real has helped in his practice, in his new book he helps readers move beyond their traumas and stressors and shift from thinking in me and you, to being aware, to become ‘us’.

The text below is from the chapter ‘The myth of the individual’ from ‘We’.

For centuries, Western culture has been dominated by the idea of ​​the individual. I exist. Me, Terry, this person hunched over his laptop, is different from others. I am a unit, limited by the circumference of my body. The word ‘individual’ actually comes from the word ‘indivisible‘ (indivisible). And I stop at my skin. Or not? Within the confines of my body you will find my brain. Is that where my spirit lives too? Does my mind have a form and does it end with my body? The great anthropologist Gregory Bateson gave us the example of a blind man who used a stick to navigate the streets. According to Bateson, the stick and the information he received from it were supposed to be part of his mind. The well-known philosopher and cognitive scientist Thomas Metzinger began his study of the nature of consciousness with a detailed description of the well-known ‘rubber hand’ experiment, which he tried again with himself as the subject. He described it this way:

The subjects saw a rubber hand resting on the table in front of them and their own hand (the same as the rubber left or right hand) was behind a screen. That visible rubber hand and the hand that the subject is not could see, was stroked with a sensor at the same time… After a certain amount of time (sixty to ninety seconds in min case) the famous rubber hand illusion occurs. Suddenly do you feel that the rubber hand is your own hand, and you feel the repeated caresses in that rubber hand. You also feel a full ‘virtual arm’ – that is, a connection from your shoulder with the fake hand in front of you.

Maybe it ended up being Thomas right at the fingertips – but at which fingertips, the real ones or rubber? We know from cognitive science that what we think about ourselves comes not from direct experience, but from a collage of feelings and images—images we have of ourselves. We also do not experience the world directly, but filtered through our accumulated knowledge. We recognize a chair for being a chair. He fits into a category we already know. Without the cultural knowledge, we would see the world as a newborn sees it, as light, shadow, shapes and smells that come to us without or with little definition. In this respect, we are all narcissists of some sort. No one sees themselves directly – our self-experience is filtered through accumulated knowledge. Most people see themselves as their bodies, their physical selves. But the picture itself is put together by our mind.

Your character is changeable

It is revealed in cognitive science that what we see as ourselves is really a shifting web of self-representation, of images. And the good news is that the way we see ourselves and the world can change drastically very quickly – and with the necessary support, even permanently. In the past, psychologists believed that character was very difficult to change once it was formed. They assumed that neural pathways, once established in the brain, were fixed. That all changed with the discovery of neuroplasticity. We have come to realize that ordinary neural networks can open up and take a new shape—that is, they can absorb new information and restructure.

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An often quoted expression is: “Neurons fired together connect.” Neuroscience then says, “A stage becomes a trait.” Neuroplasticity is most important in psychotherapy today. I have seen in my practice that opening neural pathways can lead to profound changes, entirely new traits and behaviors, sometimes even within minutes.

“Then I would stop immediately.”

Ernesto, Latino and fifty-six years old, was a beast. Not physically, thankfully, but he was a yeller, someone who would take a stand and bite you in the face with nasty things. Someone who committed verbal abuse. “It’s just happening too fast for me,” he says after we’ve gone through about three-quarters of a ninety-minute consultation with his wife Maddy—also Latina and a few years his junior. Ernesto sounds like many of the verbal abuse clients I have listened to over the years.

The conversation dragged on for almost an hour, and I finally ask him a question that hits the mark: “Who taught you to be so hateful and mean?”

“You mean family or something?” he is stuttering. “Well, my mother died when I was eight and my father remarried. Yes, I think it was my stepmother.’

“How was she?”

Ernesto smiles and shakes his head. “Oh, she was the worst, worst, worst…”

“So it was her,” I interrupt.

‘Yes.’

“She taught you to act like that?”

‘Yes I think so.’

“And what’s it like to see it?” I try to look him in the eyes, but he’s looking at the floor. I sit across from him and can feel his shame. He blushes. “Ernesto?” I ask quietly. He says nothing.

‘Where are you now?’ I’ll ask him a little later. ‘What happens?’

“Oh,” he says, no longer smiling. ‘I am ashamed. I’m ashamed that anyone would see me the way I see her.’ He shakes his head and looks past me. I wonder what he sees, what he remembers.

“I’m ashamed of myself,” he says.

‘We call that shame a healthy sense of guilt or remorse. If you had felt it beforehand, it would have stopped you. Does it make sense?’

He nods and still looks at the floor.

“Do you have a picture of your stepmother?”

‘With me? None.’

“Can you get your hands on one?”

“Yes, it works,” he says.

“Okay, I want you to do this: You can keep lashing out at your wife, I can’t stop it. But the next time you feel a flare, I want you to take your stepmother’s picture , looks her in the eye and says, “I know I’m about to hurt my wife. But right now, being like you is more important to me than my wife is to me.” Say that and then you can start cursing if you have to’.

Ernesto’s head shoots up and he looks at me. ‘It’s not true. Then I would stop immediately. She is not more important than my wife.’ He falls silent, reaches out and places it, palm up, on Maddy’s lap. She takes his hand and they look at each other for a moment.

It was almost fourteen years ago. Ernesto has never scolded since.

From adapted child to wise adult

According to neurobiologists, two things are needed to unlock and open a neural pathway. The first is that implicit must be changed to explicit. Sometimes you need help to see what you don’t see. But you must be open to feedback. Second, there must be some kind of reaction; there has to be a sense of something missing, a sense of, “Oh no, I don’t really know if I really want to keep doing this.”

In my conversation with Ernesto, I helped him make the implicit explicit by articulating his repetition of his stepmother’s behavior. Ernesto gave the answer. When he did, according to recent studies, it took him about five hours to absorb the new knowledge and form a new neural pathway: “Oh my God, I’m not going to repeat the misery I grew up in!”

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The moment he shivered, Ernesto awoke to the Vi. This was the woman he loved and cried out to. What was he thinking? With my help, he switched from his left hemisphere to both hemispheres. He was guided by the relationality of his right hemisphere, but the practical wisdom of the left hemisphere joined in as well. With my help, he remembered the whole, the relationship he was a part of. This is our optimal state in a relationship. Ernesto shifted from his Custom Child—the immature part of him that had absorbed and fired his stepmother’s anger—into his wise adult self. He borrowed my prefrontal cortex until he woke up his own. Quite simply, he borrowed my brain. We often do that for others. Current research clearly shows that we are not isolated, walled-in individuals. Our human brains – and indeed the brains of most mammals – are built to rearrange things together.

The relational brain

Interpersonal neurobiology is the study of how our brain and nervous system are formed through our relationships in childhood, and how relationships affect our neurobiology as adults. We discover that the brain exists in a social context. Partners in intimate relationships regulate each other’s nervous system, cortisol (stress hormone) level and immune response. Secure relationships result in improved immunity and fewer illnesses, not to mention less depression, anxiety and higher overall well-being. Uncertain relationships make you tense and can make you sick.

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Studies have confirmed what most parents already know intuitively, that the neurological development of babies and young children depends on loving, stimulating interaction. From the first weeks after birth, babies actively try to elicit interactions. Parents provide what a psychoanalyst once called an “adequately supportive environment for the child.” A toddler falls off his bike and looks at his caregiver’s expression to see how bad it is. Parents automatically comfort children and teach them to see perspective – that the pain will pass – and to regulate their emotions. According to pioneering child observation researcher Ed Tronick, “developmental researchers use the term ‘neuroarchitects’ to describe caregivers of young children. A baby’s first relationships determine the nature of the connection – they literally build the brain.”

Every day in my office I see what happens to people who as children were not helped to regulate their emotions. They are generally cut off from their emotions. Without the additional help of an adult’s nervous system, they found (and still find) emotions—their own and often those of others—overwhelming.

Read more? WeTerence Real (Spectrum, €22.99, ISBN 9789000383665)

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