My husband and I rarely used to fight — until we had a baby, that is. Then we fought all the time. I was angry that although we both worked full time as writers, my formerly-progressive husband had somehow left virtually all of the childcare and housework to me. He maintained that I’d suddenly acquired a volcanic temper, and was too controlling around the baby. As it happens, we were both correct.
Our fighting fell into an exhausting pattern: I yelled, or fumed; he stonewalled. I often wrote about relationships, yet we were on our way to lawyering up. Then it occurred to me: I knew tons of experts — why not at least enlist their help before calling it quits?
It’s been two and a half years since Tom and I brought our marriage back from disaster (chronicled in my book How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids), and I’m often asked what was the most helpful thing we did to right our relationship. Unquestionably, it was our visit to The Man From Boston.
Otherwise known as couples therapist Terry Real, he’s renowned for “on the brink” one-and-two-day relationship intensives. As a health reporter, I had long heard about Real, who took “tough love” to an entirely new level. He was shockingly blunt. He unapologetically took sides. He charged $800 an hour. He swore. One friend said that he was so worn out after an intensive that he developed “flu-like symptoms.” But Real was known for helping marriages that no one else could fix. Off we went to Boston.
The fact that Real looked a little like Liam Neeson’s older brother didn’t help our jitters. And when our mega-session began, his characteristic directness was painful to hear — but it was also weirdly exciting to have someone call us out on our terrible behavior. Real said I was a verbally-abusive martyr who was extremely comfortable with my “toxic” self-righteous indignation. (“Lose the outraged, offended stance!”) He yelled at Tom to get his ass off the couch and help out (“I got news for ya — you need to show up. It should be 50-50. This is the 21st century, for God’s sake!”)
It was the most intense day of my life, but it marked a clear turning point in our marriage. Here is the advice that has resonated with us the most.
Complaining is useless.
When I told Real that Tom didn’t pitch in around the house, he asked me how I handled it. “I usually fume,” I admitted. “Or I yell, ‘I’m doing everything around here!'”
He held up his hand. “You have no right to complain about not getting what you never asked for,” he said. “The worst strategy ever for getting more of what you want from your partner is to complain about not getting it after the fact. Complaining feels safer to most of us than simply and directly making a request. Since you’re not asking for anything, you can’t be let down,” he said. “It’s a form of pseudo-assertion.”
He told us that a useful way to head off complaining is to remember the acronym WAIT, or Why Am I Talking. Is it to vent? Is it to wound? If so, take a break.
Children learn what they live.
Real told Tom that when he wasn’t contributing around the house, he was “showing Sylvie exactly what to expect from her guy or gal when she grows up.” Furthermore, our arguments were teaching her how to behave during her own conflicts — if I called Tom a dickhead, that’s what she would assume is the way to handle fights. “It stops today,” he said. The way forward, he said, was to “model” the behavior that we would like her to emulate.
Grownups shouldn’t fight like toddlers.
Real’s method for disagreeing like grownups used simple phrases that were mercifully easy to remember when tempers flared. First, describe what you saw or heard that made you upset. “This is not the place to get into your attitudes,” he said. “Describe what a video camera would record. One sentence, two at the most.”
Next, share your feelings about it by using the phrase, what I made up about this is… (As Real puts it, “it’s not the truth, it’s your truth.”)
Then identify what you’d like to have happen in the future (magic phrases: What I’d like now is or Here’s what you can do to help me feel better). Break down your request into actionable behaviors your partner can understand and attempt. These are what Real calls “functional words,” which are motivating, and enable your partner to do something.
If, for instance, you want your partner to be more patient, give them specific actions or behaviors to get there, using the phrase what that would look like is, e.g. “what that would look like is not to interrupt or roll your eyes when I’m talking.” Close with this final magic phrase: Is there something I can say or do that can help you with this?
“Full-respect living“: it’s a thing.
Real then instructed us to practice what he called “full-respect living.” The premise was simple: Nothing you say to each other should drop below the level of simple respect. “You don’t have to shy away from conflict, or even intense anger,” he said. “You can say ‘I’m angry,’ but you can’t say ‘You’re an asshole.'” He glared at us. “Ridiculing, name calling and lashing out have no place whatsoever in a healthy relationship. There’s nothing that harshness does that loving firmness doesn’t do better.”
Your marriage is not an air plant.
Near the end of our mega-session, Real announced that he had a question for us. “There are 168 hours in a week,” he said. “How many do you devote specifically to your marriage?”
I looked down at my lap. “Um, none?” I ventured. I looked up, at the gathering storm on his face, and intuited that this was the wrong answer.
“Get a babysitter,” he sputtered. “You’re too child-centric. Reclaim your romantic space.” And be mindful, he went on, of the proportion of positive to negative feedback we were giving each other. “Every single partner who enters therapy with me feels underappreciated,” he said. He laid down another exercise: we were to voice appreciation for each other at least once a day. “Look, it doesn’t need to be earthshaking,” he said. “It can be a quick email.”
We were so alarmingly out of practice that our initial efforts were a stilted thanks for buying Nutella and you’re the only person I trust with my passwords. With practice, doling out kind words became easier.
I see now that — as Real puts it — a good relationship isn’t something you have, but something you do. It takes effort. Maintenance. Checking in. We don’t always achieve “full respect,” but it’s a good benchmark. And if we do reach an occasional impasse, I pull out a magic phrase of my own, which is maybe we should visit Terry again. Then, miraculously, we work it out.
Jancee Dunn is a writer and the author of the book How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids.