Relationship Resource Center taglines

If We Could Only Talk About It

by Howard Lambert, Ph.D., Mary Simon, Psy.D, and John Mariner, L.C.S.W.

In our studies with Terry Real, author of I Don’t Want To Talk About It, we have discovered many insights that have deepened the work we are doing with couples. We would like to share some of these with you.

The most powerful teaching that Terry offers explains that our culture’s dominant model for relating is “anti-intimacy.” This is due to the fact that our competitive culture sees the most common positions from which to relate as either “one-up” or “one-down.” In addition, our culture assigns men the “one-up” position and places women in the “one-down” role. In doing therapy with couples we have found that, in about one in four relationships, it is the woman who assumes the one-up/entitled position and the man is in the one-down/devalued position. However, these men and women are punished by the culture for not occupying their culturally approved roles. The men are denigrated as “wimps” or “hen-pecked” while the women are labeled “castrating bitches.”

The one-down posture is familiar to all of us from childhood, when it was clear that we occupied a position of interior power and were dependent on others for our well being. In addition, many of us were shamed and devalued when we did not meet the expectations of the grown-ups. These painful experiences result in what Terry calls a “shame-filled” position, in which the person doubts their own worth and rights. This type of parenting is usually considered unhealthy and abusive.

The one-up position results from the experience of being “falsely empowered” (i.e., told one is “better than” others because of an accident of birth, for example being white, male, athletic or beautiful). This form of parenting is also seen to be unhealthy and abusive because it teaches children that they are valuable for something other than being themselves. This experience creates a “shameless” position in which the person feels entitled to exercise their rights without regard for the rights of others. A person who grows up with these attitudes generally adopts the stance of, “I have the right to do whatever I want and you have no right to protest!” To whatever degree people act from this position they lack respect and empathy for others and thus are missing essential human qualities.

Terry teaches that boys are subject to this “false empowerment” by virtue of being raised as males in this culture. Even if parents consciously try to raise “liberated” children, the cultural messages that “masculine is better” are in the very air we breathe.

The problem in adult relationships is that the one-up/one-down framework makes intimacy impossible. The one-up position generates limited empathy for the other – an essential element of intimacy. The one-down position invariably creates resentment – an emotion that is poisonous to intimacy.

In our liberated society most men and women consciously disavow this dynamic. However, we have discovered that many relationships contain this dynamic below conscious awareness. It is crucial to be able to recognize when these forces are operating in your relationship and to learn how to move to a “same as” position. The “same as” position is achieved when the individual acts both with “appropriate power” (i.e., the power to do and say what I need to do and say) and with empathy (i.e., being acutely aware of the impact that my words and actions have on other people).

Our culture gives us subtle and often unconscious messages that make it difficult to recognize these dynamics. Men are raised to be unconscious of the grandiose and entitled positions they are given in our society. Women on the other hand can see the power differential that exists in relationships, but usually feel they dare not speak about it.

In our work at the Relationship Resource Center we have found that the rewards for seeing, talking about and moving out of this constricting framework are very rich. We are discovering how to help women and men move into true equality in their intimate relationships.