Terry Real: ‘I Side With the Woman’

In my last blog post, on emotional labor, I cited the work of renowned couple’s therapist, speaker and author Terry Real. Real’s work is important, and it has the potential to change your marriage, so I wanted to tell you more about him.

A great starting point is the post “The Awful Truth: Most Men Are Just Not Raised to be Intimate” on Real’s website. It’s a case study about his work with a couple during a two-day therapy session aimed at saving their marriage.

This is an intense read. The couple, Peter and Jenn, struggle with problems that affect many marriages. Their early passion for each other has fizzled. She’s tired of trying to build intimacy, while Peter seems incapable of it. He feels she’s undercutting his authority with their children, while she worries about his toxic temper, especially with their son. To top it all off, Peter has also been unfaithful.

Take a few moments to read and reflect on this case study. As you do, here are a few key points I especially want you to take to heart.

  1. In our culture, we still raise boys to be “hard, logical, independent and stoic,” as Real says. This creates men who are “emotionally distant, arrogant, numb to their own feelings and unconcerned about everyone else’s, as well as contemptuous of vulnerability and weakness.” Real points out something else important here: Men who were raised this way are the norm, not an aberration, especially when we look at older generations.
  2. It might be easy to interpret Real’s work as man-bashing, but that’s not accurate. He emphasizes that men struggle with intimacy not because they’re bad people, but because of the way they were raised and cultural messages. Real believes that, with hard work and bravery, men can change what they bring to relationships. He’s been through such a transformation himself.
  3. Real is not saying that women are perfect. In this case study, he’s clear that Jenn has her own issues to address, but that the most urgent need is for Peter to make changes.
  4. Real believes that what looks like men’s fear of intimacy is really the fear of subjugation. “Many men read emotional receptivity as an invitation to be run over,” Real says. This comes from raising men with an overemphasis on being strong and competitive.
  5. Nurturing and understanding, whether from their partners or through therapy, won’t change men like Peter. Instead, Real believes such men need to “feel proportionately ashamed for (their) bad behavior and yet still manage to hold onto (their) essential worth as an imperfect human being.” Appropriate shame isn’t spending the rest of your days in obsessive self-loathing. It’s about realizing who you have hurt and doing your best to make amends.

Real breaks from the common practice of the therapist not taking sides. “I side with the woman,” Real says. Again, he’s not against the man. He just believes that “business as usual” in therapy doesn’t work. This is because the skills and expectations men and women bring to a relationship can be extremely different.

If you’d like to delve further into Real’s work, there’s a great archive of articles on his website. You may also want to check out recent media coverage of Real in Forbes and AlterNet. To further your understanding of how your relationship is affected by the way you were both raised, enjoy this complimentary chapter on gender expectations from Strong Women, Strong Love.

Women, Men and Emotional Labor

You and your husband may have discussed (or argued about) how you divvy up household chores and responsibilities. But have you ever talked about how the two of you divide the emotional labor that’s necessary to keep your relationship and your family functioning?

The term “emotional labor” has gotten a lot of buzz in the past few years, but it’s not new. Academics have been looking at the concept for decades. Inequity in who performs emotional labor is an issue in the workplace, in social situations and at home. But, since this is a blog about marriage, today I’m going to focus on emotional labor as it affects our domestic relationships.

Defining Emotional Labor

So what does emotional labor encompass? Writer Suzannah Weiss defines it this way:

Emotional labor is the exertion of energy for the purpose of addressing people’s feelings, making people comfortable, or living up to social expectations. It’s called “emotional labor” because it ends up using – and often draining – our emotional resources.

Of course, we all perform emotional labor in our relationships. The reason it’s such a hot-button topic, though, is that emotional labor at home disproportionately falls on women.

Emotional labor looks different in different households. But here are a few examples that might feel familiar to you:

  • Your husband may be happy to go to parent-teacher conferences and other school events with you. But you’re the one who is primarily responsible for nurturing and meeting the emotional needs of your kids on a daily basis. You talk to them about conflicts with friends. It falls on you to make sure their birthday celebrations special. When you can, you volunteer at school so you will be seen as a good mother.
  • Somehow it’s fallen on you to remember and send birthday/sympathy/graduation cards and gifts — even for his side of the family.
  • You habitually monitor and manage your husband’s emotions, doing what you can to keep the peace.
  • When you have guests, you’re anticipating their needs so they have a good visit. He simply enjoys himself.
  • While your husband does chip in at home, you’re the one who’s constantly thinking ahead: We need to go ahead and book our vacation to get the best rates … If we want to host dinner on Saturday, we have to pick up groceries and clean up before then … If we want to sell the house next summer, we should start fixing it up now … Your mom is having trouble getting around. Let’s find someone to help her with chores.

Again, no one is saying that you shouldn’t perform tasks like these — or even enjoy performing them. The problem is that if you’re doing all of this type of work in your marriage, you’re going to end up depleted. That isn’t good for your health or the health of your relationship. When you’re exhausted and stressed, you’re likely to become resentful with your husband. And he may have no idea why.

Sharing the Emotional Load

Every couple could benefit from thinking and talking more about emotional labor. Try these ideas and insights to get started:

  • First, realize that the emotional labor you do really is work. If you’re feeling tired and frazzled, it could be the constant emotional pressure you feel as you try to tend to everyone’s needs. Don’t wait until you explode. Ask for what you need from your partner.
  • You may undervalue emotional labor because you’ve always prioritized other people’s emotional needs before your own. It’s important to acknowledge that constantly trying to keep others happy can be burdensome. It’s okay to put your needs first at times.
  • Just because you’re better at emotional labor than your husband, doesn’t mean it should always fall on you. As writer Rose Hackman points out in The Guardian, we’d never accept this line of reasoning when it comes to, say, cleaning.
  • If your husband isn’t taking on the emotional labor in your relationship, that doesn’t mean he’s a bad or incompetent person. Family therapist, speaker and author Terry Real reminds us of a disappointing truth: Almost universally, men don’t grow up learning how to be intimate partners. But that doesn’t mean they can’t become more skilled at emotional labor. Your marriage will certainly be stronger if you and your husband can learn how to share the job of nurturing and tending to the emotional needs of your loved ones and each other.

If this article has resonated with you, you and your husband may want to read my book Strong Women, Strong Love together. It’s a practical guide to maintaining a strong marriage amid our busy lives.

Are You Thinking About a ‘Gray Divorce?’

Among Americans age 50 and older, the divorce rate has roughly doubled since the 1990s. This phenomenon of decades-old marriages dissolving even has a trendy name: “gray divorce.”

In a way, the rise of gray divorce isn’t surprising. We live longer lives than people of generations past. That’s more years to tend to a relationship. Or, as so often happens, to fail to tend to it. Life has a way of handing us other priorities that make it harder to focus on our marriages. As a result, couples grow apart or even become resentful.

If this is something you’re experiencing, maybe you’re wondering what life might be like outside your marriage — and the thought leaves you both nervous and intrigued. There’s a lot to consider, so let’s talk through some of the things that might be on your mind.

Can Your Marriage Be Saved?

Of course, the answer to this question depends on your relationship. But, in general, I would say that if you and your husband still share friendship and a sense of respect, then you have a chance of resurrecting your relationship. As I wrote in a previous article on respect and marriage:

In long-term relationships, it’s quite normal for feelings of love and passion to wax and wane over time. If partners have maintained a deep respect for each other, in time, these feelings can be rekindled. However, when there is a serious breakdown of respect, relationships inevitably end up deeply troubled.

The Fallout

Divorce will affect every aspect of your life. Even though your kids are grown, a divorce will still alter your family dynamics. Then there’s the financial aspect. According to Forbes, gray divorce “deals a heavier financial blow than divorces that happen earlier in life.” That’s especially true for women. Mulling the logistical realities of post-marriage life may or may not prompt you to give your relationship another chance. But whether you stay or go, the possible financial or family challenges of a gray divorce merit your thoughtful attention.

Do You Even Know Each Other Anymore?

You might be mulling a gray divorce if you feel that your husband isn’t the same person you married. And there’s a degree of truth to that. Life has probably changed both of you in some important ways. Do you know why your husband is the person he is today? Does he understand what has made you who you are? Longtime partners can assume they have each other all figured out. Before you write off your marriage, consider engaging each other with more curiosity. Remember, too, that the qualities that initially attracted you to each other are probably still present. You just have to remind yourself to notice and appreciate them.

You’re Craving Change

Another common reason for seeking a gray divorce is feeling stuck or stagnant in your marriage. You may feel that your relationship has no room for growth and adventure. That may indeed be true in some marriages. Before you make any big decisions, though, I believe it’s worth a try to reinvigorate your relationship. It’s natural for passionate love to ebb, especially in long relationships. But you can stoke the fires by adding variety to your relationship. Travel to a new place or learn something new together. If your husband is slow to get on board, go ahead and pursue your own interests. The new energy you bring to the relationship could bring him around.

You Want More Romance

And — let’s be frank — more or better sex. If you lack sizzle with your husband, the idea of new partners can feel tantalizing. But if you haven’t dated in a long time, you may have forgotten that it’s also a lot of work! Chances are you won’t immediately find a magical person with all the passion your husband lacks. Also remember that you may not need to leave your marriage to rekindle the sense of romance in your life. If you follow the advice above to get to know each other again and introduce more novelty into your relationship, passion should also start to reappear. (And if you suspect that health problems have interfered with your sexual connection, seek treatment.)

Can Your History Overcome Your Problems?

One of the most compelling reasons to stay in your marriage might be all of your shared experiences, which might include raising children together, weathering your parents’ illnesses or deaths and coping with your own health crises. Writing your story together can be a powerful exercise that highlights the meaning of the life you’ve shard.

If you decide to stay, remember that your relationship will always need maintenance and tending, no matter how long you’ve been together. You can never just set it to “cruise control”! My book Strong Women, Strong Love has strategies that can help.

Put Self-Care on Your Holiday To-Do List

The holiday season is here! Are you ready? Our already-long to-do lists get even longer as we add shopping, decorating, cooking, traveling and even burning the midnight oil at the office to prepare for our time off. 

Amid this frenzy of activity, self-care is often the first thing to go. As women, we can be so focused on making everything “perfect” for the special people in our lives that we overlook our own needs.   

I’d like you to think about this in a different way, though. If you aren’t caring for yourself, you can’t really show up for the people you love. You’re more likely to be tired, stressed and critical. On the other hand, if your own needs are met, you can be fully, joyously present with others. And that’s the best gift you can give them. 

So how can you practice self-care when you’re crazy-busy? Here are a few ideas. 

  • Need help with something? Ask. In particular, don’t expect your husband to read your mind about what should be done or how you would like it done.
  • It’s a joyful time of year, but there are also plenty of things that can make you feel stressed or upset – from work deadlines to family tensions. Make a list now of healthy ways to relieve your stress (practicing yoga, doing a mindfulness meditation, reading something inspiring, talking with your friends, etc.) and refer to it often.
  • Nostalgia can be a lovely part of the season. But pay attention if you notice you’re longing for “the way things used to be” – and can’t be again. A family death, divorce, estrangement or even a move can dramatically change your holiday season. Honor your grief, and work toward embracing the present and starting new traditions.
  • You may not have time for your usual workout schedule, but don’t take an “all or nothing” approach. Do something physical every day, even if it’s just a walk around the block.
  • Similarly, don’t totally abandon your healthy eating habits even as you indulge a little. Take the time to fully savor your food, especially your favorite holiday treats.
  • Say no. To social plans when you need some quiet time. To second helpings when you’re already full. To whatever you need to.  If the word “no” makes you uncomfortable, read my past blog article on reclaiming your boundaries.
  • Don’t “soldier on” if you’re sick – all that does is delay your recovery.
  • If your perfectionism can get out of hand this time of year, do a reality check with your family. What’s really important to them? (They might not even notice all those “magazine-perfect” touches you obsess over!)
  • If anything starts to feel like too much – your in-laws, crowded stores, even decorations and music — take a break. You can even plan ahead for some escape time. For example, stay at a hotel instead of with your family or schedule a massage to escape from shopping.

 Enjoy this season of giving – and remember to be generous with yourself, too.

Will He Leave If You Can’t Conceive?

About one out of every 10 couples has problems with infertility. And, unfortunately, not all of them get the happy ending they sought: conceiving a child together. This can be one of the most painful challenges you and your husband face together.

If your infertility is caused by issues with your body, you might be experiencing guilt or shame. Both men and women often go through feelings like these if they believe they’re at fault for infertility.

You may even be worried that your husband will leave you because you can’t give him the child you had both longed for — and that he’ll seek out another woman who can. Again, such feelings are normal, and they happen to both wives and husbands. Sometimes one spouse even offers to let the other go so he or she can pursue parenthood with someone else.

Believe it or not, in an overwhelming majority of marriages, one spouse’s inability to conceive a child is not a deal-breaker for the other partner. In fact, if managed well, this experience can actually bring a couple closer together. The important thing is to keep the lines of communication open. Talk openly about your disappointments, your feelings, your fears. I’m willing to bet that your husband will tell you that his love for you is unchanged no matter what happens. Believe him.

It’s also vital to talk about what’s next for you as a couple. For many people, parenthood is closely tied to their sense of purpose in life. How true is that for the two of you? Are there other family building options you’re open to considering? Be honest. Do you want to explore other paths to creating a family? Or do you want to create a meaningful life in other ways? There’s no one right answer, of course.

I hope it’s heartening to know that others couple have felt the same things that you’re feeling and that their relationships have stayed strong. I encourage you to explore additional resources for coping with infertility and to work with infertility specialists in your community.

Dealing With His Ex-Wife

You’ve married a great guy with wonderful children. The only problem? His ex-wife. She stirs up conflicts over the kids — and sometimes it even feels like she’s trying to win your husband back. So how do you deal with an ex-wife who seems to constantly fan the flames of drama? It takes a lot of thoughtfulness, maturity and grace under pressure.

She’s Not Going Away

Let’s start with a dose of reality. A person you didn’t choose to have in your life now plays a big part in it. That might not feel very fair. But, because she and your husband share children, she’s going to be a presence in your world for a while.

As you deal with his ex-wife, it might help to understand the emotions behind her hard-to-take behaviors. She may still be upset that your husband chose to leave their relationship. Even if she was the one who ended their marriage, she may be jealous of the fact that he’s moving on. She may feel insecurity about your being “the other woman” in her kids’ lives. Or she may fear that you’re competing with her or her kids for your husband’s time and financial resources.

It’s not on you to call her out if you suspect any of these issues. But realizing that she’s acting so badly out of hurt and fear — instead of just pure spite or evil — helps you navigate from a place of composure and compassion so that you don’t compound the negativity she creates.

If you have to interact with her in person, a good rule to follow is to try to show the same respect and friendliness you would to a stranger — for example, someone waiting in line with you. But as you resolve to act respectfully, you also have to prepare yourself for the fact that she might not return your kindness and maturity. That’s her problem. Just focus on being the bigger person. She may not appreciate it, but your husband certainly will.

Putting the Kids First

Resentments and power struggles between former and current spouses can play out in conflicts over the kids. You might cringe at the idea of your husband having any interactions with his ex, much less co-parenting with her. But remember that it’s in the best interest of your step-kids if their parents can work out issues together.

If your husband’s ex is making you the bad guy in disagreements over the kids, it can ease some tension to make sure he has primary responsibility for the kids when they’re with you, especially when it comes to discipline. You and your husband may also need to have a clear understanding of where to set boundaries in the relationship the two of you have with his ex. For example, if she’s calling you names or being disrespectful in some other obvious way, some clear limits may need to be set. The two of you will have to decide whether that’s best done by you or your husband. Of course, these decisions are best made when you’re calm and rational.

Also remember what we talked about it earlier: The idea of someone else acting as “mom” to her kids might be driving her crazy. Honor the relationship your stepkids have with their mother. Everyone – you, the kids, your husband, his ex – should be clear that you’re adding to the kids’ family, not replacing their mother in anyway. Hopefully, she’ll realize at some point that her children can only benefit from having more people who love and care for them. But it’s easy to be territorial, especially when a blended family arrangement is new.

Your Husband, His Ex

It’s possible for your problems with his ex to go beyond co-parenting disagreements. If his ex is acting in ways that feel like a threat to you marriage, that’s especially hard. Your anxiety about her (which, of course, she might be trying to provoke) can easily sow mistrust and discord that harm your relationship, so be careful.

Remind yourself that your husband is married to you now — and that there’s a reason he’s no longer married to her. Don’t let your fears take over. Trust him, and remind him of that trust. If the ex pushes your buttons to the degree that you can’t even talk about her with your husband, think about how to work with your emotions so that you can get to a calmer place. Managing your family’s relationship with her should be something you and your husband can communicate about.

Will Things Get Better?

Blended families may require a greater degree of thoughtfulness and intention. However, there is no rule that conflict has to be the norm. Plenty of parents work collaboratively and even amiably with former spouses, but it requires the adults involved to be mature and compassionate. Will you commit to doing your part to create the best environment for everyone involved, especially the kids?