“Get Off Your Ass and Help Out!” Our Encounter with the Man from Boston
There is this amazing guy from Boston. You have this long, excruciating session with him where he drills down to your problems really fast, then sets you both straight. It’s not cheap. And he’s no bullshit, so you need to have a very, very thick skin. But he stopped us from getting divorced.
I frequently write about relationships for magazines, so I have long known about Terry Real. A family therapist and founder of the Relational Life Institute in Boston, Real is a vociferous advocate of moving men and women beyond tired traditional gender roles. Famously blunt, he’s an East Coast version of Dr. Phil, sans mustache and Texas twang. Real’s specialty is working with couples on the brink of divorce whom no one else has been able to help, sort of a Memorial Sloan Kettering for marriage. Clients, among them celebrities and CEOs, fly to Boston from all over the country for his dramatic relationship overhauls—and pay $800 an hour for the privilege. I reason that a bracing session with him would be the perfect jump-start.
Suffice it to say that neither of us is looking forward to it. We aren’t alone in dreading couples therapy. (Even therapists do: an article in the trade magazine Psychotherapy Networker revealed that many therapists are traumatized by the sometimes-vicious battles between couples, and infinitely prefer individual sessions.) But it can be life-changing to learn how to talk to each other in an effective way—a survey of counselors found that the main reason couples got divorced was not infidelity, or money troubles, but “communication problems.”
Our squabbling is not just affecting our marital health, but very likely our physical health, too. One study found that if a married couple’s method of fighting was harsh or controlling in tone, it was just as powerful a predictor for risk of heart disease as whether a person smoked or had high cholesterol. Researchers at Ohio State University, meanwhile, found that married couples’ wounds actually healed more slowly when they had hostile arguments compared with so-called ‘low-hostile’ couples. The stress from a fallout, they discovered, boosted blood levels of hormones that interfere with the delivery of proteins called cytokines, which aid the immune system during injuries.
Conversely, an avalanche of research shows that happy marriages can boost your health and wellbeing. People in positive long-term relationships have lower rates of heart disease, live longer, and are less likely to develop cancer. Swedish researchers even found that being married at midlife is linked with a lower risk for dementia.
I’d like for us to be a long-lived, low-hostile couple.
Terry Real books up months in advance, so I quickly secure an eye-wateringly expensive five-hour session. Soon afterward, I receive a note from his assistant:
The office is a large, olive-green Victorian-type building. Come on in and have a seat, and Terry will come and get you when it’s time for your session. Dress for the session is extremely informal. Terry dresses comfortably and invites you to do the same. You’re going to have a long, hard-working day. Feel free to call me if you’re anxious.
We are not sure what to do with Sylvie during our session: even though she has just turned six, we don’t have a regular babysitter. Tom and I, committed homebodies, rarely go out and are quite content being a trio. (It is not lost on me that our lack of dates is probably part of the reason we are in this mess.)
Still, a couples therapy session is perhaps not the ideal place for a child. But my folks are out of town; Tom’s live in Chicago. Both of my sisters offer to take her for two nights, but because she had never spent the night at their houses, Tom and I worry: what if she can’t handle it for some reason, and we have to cut short our pricey session? Real has a strict cancellation policy.
I phone Real’s assistant (well, she did say to call if I was anxious) and ask if we can bring Sylvie and stick her in another room.
“I guess so,” she says hesitantly. “We had a client bring his dog once. But many clients cry and raise their voices. I’m just concerned about your daughter hearing that.”
“Oh, I’ll bring headphones,” I say breezily. “We’ll load up the iPad with cartoons, and she’ll watch until her eyes bleed. I just need to position her near an electrical outlet in case it needs charging.”
I can detect the hope in her voice when she tells me to let her know if anything changes and we are able to get childcare.
Finally, the day arrives. We drive from New York to Boston and, after a restive night in a hotel, are dressed and ready to go an hour in advance. We make a tense drive to the large, olive-green Victorian-type building, Sylvie happily clutching an armful of stuffed animals and a loaded iPad.
We arrange a makeshift nest for her on a sofa, and Tom assembles her gizmo, while I produce a large bag of cookies, candy, and chips. (Later, Sylvie will proclaim her parents’ therapy session “the best day ever.”)
Tom and I seat ourselves and wait, leafing distractedly through the magazines on the coffee table. Is Real on the premises? A sign on the wall reads “Children Learn What They Live.” “Tom,” I whisper. “You will be open to this, right? I mean, if we’re going to do this, we should really jump in.”
“Yes, I’m open,” he whispers back, although his demeanor is that of a cat about to be stuffed into a carrier for a trip to the vet. Time for your shots!
“Don’t worry,” I whisper. Why are we whispering? I squeeze his hand. “I think if we can—”
Just then, the office door swings open and we leap up, almost knocking heads. The Man from Boston.
“Hi,” he says, extending his hand. Tall and attractive with penetrating blue eyes, Real looks to be in his early sixties, and possesses a droll warmth that puts us slightly more at ease. He leads us to a wood-paneled office done in soothing greens, browns, and blues.
He shuts the door and we settle in, fussing with our seating arrangements. Then he looks at us unblinkingly over his reading glasses. “I always start with the same question,” he begins. “This is a lot of money and you’ve come a long way. What are your hopes? What would a grand slam look like?”
You can read more in Jancee’s Book: How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids