Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship, by Terrence Real

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There is a path toward us, toward integration, connection, wholeness. And there is a path toward you and me, trauma, scarcity, selfishness. Choose connection.

This book centers around a simple idea. When we were children, we adapted to our environment to get our emotional needs met. We used our parents as role models, and either mirrored their tendencies, or rebelled against their tendencies. This leads to unproductive, selfish behaviors getting passed on from generation to generation; Real calls this acting as our Adaptive Child selves. Real suggests the alternative is to act as our Wise Adult selves, that can connect as equal partners in relationships to create a sense of Us. He bases this insight in his decades of experience as a marriage counselor, helping spouses re-connect.

The critical insight of the title (“Getting Past You and Me”) is that the Adaptive Child self is focused on the individual separate from those with whom we are in relationship, which Real calls a myth. It is borne out of a lack of safety, the feeling of abandonment that Dr. Vivek Murthy describes as “our bodies read isolation, and often even the threat of isolation, as an emergency.” With that isolation, we focus on our own well-being, and do what we have to do to survive. Some people feel stronger and entitled, and demand support and resources from others, and others feel weaker, and appease others in the hopes of earning their protection and support. This isolation and individualism is reinforced by our capitalist patriarchal culture, according to Real: “We live in an antirelational, narcissistic society whose essence for centuries has been the one-up, one-down world of capitalist competition.” We learn to be reactive, with defense mechanisms ranging from withdrawal to rage, in an attempt to preserve our individualist egos.

A critical insight for me was his description of abandonment, and how to address it:

Abandonment is a child ego state. “Adults don’t get abandoned,” I tell Joey. “Adults get left, or even, if you want, rejected. But they survive. Abandoned means, ‘If you leave me, I die.’ Children get abandoned. When you feel that petrified, desperate feeling, you are no longer in your adult self. You are in a child ego state.

The tough news here is that the only person who can with absolute consistency be there for our inner children is us. And that’s okay. That’s enough. Once we learn how to do it. … Maturity comes when we tend to our inner children and don’t inflict them on our partners to care for.

He describes the “five losing strategies to which an Adaptive Child part will naturally turn”:

  • Being right
  • Controlling your partner
  • Practicing unbridled self-expression
  • Retaliating against your partner
  • Withdrawing from your partner

Each of these make sense as a strategy in response to what Real describes as relational trauma, the feelings that we experienced as children in response to being either over-controlled or abandoned, to being falsely empowered or disempowered. If a child was over-controlled and disempowered, perhaps the only defense they had was withdrawal; alternatively, they may have learned to model that behavior, and now seek to over-control and disempower their partner. I found this insightful to explain why my default relationship strategies made sense for my child self, even though they no longer serve me e.g. withdrawal was a way for me to set a boundary as a child, but now distances me from the very closeness I seek. When I notice that Adaptive Child part activating because it feels “put upon”, I can return to my Wise Adult self and empower and embrace that part myself, rather than let it get into a power struggle with my wife or kids.

But it’s unrealistic to expect my Wise Adult self to take care of me alone. Real posits that humans did not evolve to be free-standing rugged individuals locked in competition, but tribal animals that constantly relied on each other to collaborate on hunting and safety and food preparation and child rearing, etc. “Our nervous systems were never designed to self-regulate. We all filter our sense of stability and well-being through our connection to others.” When we feel safe and connected in our tribe, we work together towards the benefit of _us_, not _me_, because we viscerally feel interdependent. When we collaborate together as equals, we create more innovation and abundance for us all to share, rather than feeling like we have to fight each other for the scarce resources in the world.

But many (most?) humans no longer grow up with that visceral sense of safety, of being part of a tribe. Especially in America, we have disappeared into our single-family homes in the suburbs, disconnected from each other, and never feeling truly part of something larger than our selves. We no longer know how to collaborate and create, and instead we consume what is presented to us, and learn what Lynne Twist calls the three toxic myths of capitalism: “1) There’s not enough. 2) More is better. 3) That’s just the way it is.” In that environment, the one-up, one-down competitive behaviors of the Adaptive Child become reinforced and even admired.

And yet what we actually need as humans is that sense of safety, the “Us” mindset, which is activated through vulnerability with those in our tribe. Rather than react out of the survival fight-or-flight instincts of the Adaptive Child parts, we can choose to act as our Wise Adult selves and offer opportunities to connect. As Real describes, “Functional actions in a relationship are moves that empower your partner to come through for you. Dysfunctional actions are those that render your partner paralyzed.”

I am reminded of an example from a couple years ago, when I overreacted to something my wife said; my wife criticized me, and I could feel a part of myself wanting to get in a fight with her about why she was wrong. Instead, I said “I’m just really tired and cranky this morning” (our baby had woken us up several times), and she softened, and we figured out together how to handle the challenges of the day. I can’t always manage that vulnerability of the “Us” mindset, and often end up in the defensive mechanisms of the “You and Me” mindset, but I hold onto the feeling of that moment as motivation to keep practicing that connection and rewire my brain’s learned defaults.

But it’s scary! To be vulnerable like that is to acknowledge “the cold realization that not only will your partner not directly heal you, but they are also exquisitely designed to stick the burning spear right into your eyeball.” And yet the only way to build the relationship is to work through those challenges: “Harmony, then disharmony, then repair is the essential rhythm of all close relationships.” A good relationship is not one where there’s no problems, but one where both partners trust each other to work through problems as an “Us” team. “Repeated experiences of real-life encounters disconfirming our negative expectations have the power to heal close intimate relationships”. With that experience, partners can get to what Real calls “Fierce intimacy”, “the essential capacity to confront issues, to take each other on”.

I particularly liked his description of what it means to take each other on in a healthy relationship. It starts with an intention of remembering love, “You’re speaking to someone you care about in the hopes of making things better.” And it requires skillful and open communication: “Repair demands assertion (not aggression) from the unhappy partner met with care and responsiveness (not defensiveness) in the other” where you “take the risk of leading with a different part of you — vulnerability for the righteous, assertion for the timid— and then step back and observe.” As part of that, you communicate only your part of the story: “what happened, what you made up about it, how you felt about it, and finally, what you’d like now.” If each partner does this, and reflects back what they’ve heard from the other, they can act as an “Us” to repair and move forward. Real shares story after story of couples struggling with issues ranging from infidelity to addiction, identifies the Adaptive Child parts at work, and helps the couples engage, repair and find their “Us” again.

It’s not surprising that this book resonated with me with its emphasis on connection, my intention for 2023. I also appreciate Real’s description of Adaptive Child parts, as learning to identify my own parts has been critical for me to let go of their defense mechanisms and show up as my whole, vulnerable Wise Adult self. When each of us can trust we are part of relationships bigger than us, not just in our romantic relationships, but as part of the larger tribe of humanity, we can find more connection if we choose it. I’ll end with Real’s closing exhortation to move

from exclusive to inclusive, from independent to interdependent, from dominant to collaborative with one another, with the earth, and within our own selves. … In this moment, right here, right now, our actions matter. How we think, how we see ourselves in the world, matters. With our partners, our children, our neighbors, within our own minds—we can redeem or we can violate. The choice is ours.

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