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David Baxter PhD

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Five Ways to Transform Your Partner into Your Perfect Mate
WebMD Commentary from Psychology Today Magazine
By Hara Estroff Marano
February 12, 2007

Therapist Terrence Real's five winning strategies that will rescue even the most unsalvageable relationships.

There's at least one way men and women are completely alike: Both believe that a good relationship must be spontaneous. If you have to work at it, that's proof something is wrong.

For men, the ingrained belief is some variation of: "I fight dragons all day, when I come home I get to relax." For women it's commonly: "If I have to tell you [it's my birthday, it's our anniversary] it doesn't count; the perfect lover would read my mind and fulfill my every need."

After helping countless couples rescue relationships that appear to be unsalvageable, family therapist Terrence Real has a different view: "You've got to duke it out with your partner and help them rise to the occasion." For him, that is the most important of the new rules of relationships.

We need new rules because we desperately want a new kind of relationship. Our parents may have been content with a companionable marriage, but we want a mate who's a lifelong lover as well as a companion. Unfortunately, neither men nor women have sophisticated enough skills to deliver on the twenty-first century relationship.

If we stick to doing what comes naturally, two out of four couples will divorce and one of the remaining two will stay married but miserable.

"We all fall in love with people who will heal us or at least with whom we think our nastiness will be avoided," says Real. "And we all wind up with someone exquisitely designed to stick the burning spear right into our eyeballs." That's because we all marry our unfinished business. "We all marry our mothers and fathers. We all become our mothers and fathers, in part because that's the template of relationship we've internalized but also because we want to heal it. We pick people who will throw us into the old drama but whose qualities allow for a different outcome."

The trouble, says Real, who heads the Relational Life Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is that we think we'll be healed when we wrest from our partners what we deserved but didn't get from our parents. "The irony is that our very attempts to get this out of our partners, and our reactions when we don't, fuel our misery."

When their new expectations aren't met, today's couples don't just sit quietly with their disappointment, they often resort to hurting each other, hurling themselves down a path of losing strategies:

  • Being right
  • Controlling their partner
  • Unbridled self-expression
  • Retaliation
  • Withdrawing
Relationships can heal us, says Real. Not by having our partners give us what we never got but by using the relationship as a crucible in which we grow and handle our inner brat on our own.

Hot couples, says Real, need cool skills. First they need to know how to handle themselves when their buttons get pushed. "There are lots of circuit-breakers for when you lose it," says Real. You can breathe deeply and take time out. "But you need to understand that 'losing it' is a choice."

In his book, The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Make Love Work, Real identifies five winning strategies.

  1. Go after what you want. But before you open your mouth, ask yourself: "What do I really want right now?"
  2. Complain constructively. Don't complain to your partner about what he isn't giving you. You must shift the negative into a positive. "Every complaint is really a wish," says Real. "Better to cut out the complaint and get right to the wish. 'I'm mad at the way you talk to me' translates into 'I would really like it if you could talk to me this way.'"
  3. Listen and respond generously. "Neither men nor women feel listened to," Real finds. Men commonly feel unappreciated. "They want someone to listen, pat them on the head for how hard they're working, and tell them what a good job they're doing."
  4. Empower one another. Anger, says Real, regularly stems from helplessness. "If you're walking around angry, it's often because you're trying to control some thing and it's not cooperating. The way to be less angry is to let go of your control."
  5. Cherish what you have. "Keep your eyes on the prize," says Real. "Remember the person you're speaking to is someone you love. If you can't remember that because you are too angry and hurt at the moment, at least remember you have to live with them."
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