Relational Heroism: Twelve Strategies and Principles for Developing and Maintaining a Fulfilling Marriage

By Philip Chanin, Ed.D., ABPP, CGP
Board Certified Clinical Psychologist
Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry
Vanderbilt University Medical Center


“Any occasion when a more mature part of oneself cuts into an habitual, dysfunctional reaction is an instance of recovery.  It is an example of what (my wife) Belinda calls relational heroism,

those moments when every muscle and nerve in your body is pulling you toward your old set of responses, and yet a new force lifts you up off the accustomed track toward deliberate, constructive action—toward repair.  Just an intimacy’s degenerative course is comprised of thousands of small moments of disconnection, relational recovery is comprised of such moments of grace.  They are the atoms of regeneration.”  (Real, Terrence.  How Can I Get Through To You?:  Reconnecting Men and Women, pp. 243-244)

Since reading this book almost 20 years ago, I have found many of Terry Real’s concepts, such as relational heroism, to be particularly compelling and vitally important in my psychotherapy work with individual and couples.  In this article, I would like to outline twelve of the most useful strategies and principles that I utilize with couples on a daily basis in my practice.  These are concepts which come mostly from the work of Terrence Real, John Gottman, David Celani, and Pema Chodron.

1. Develop and practice an Internal Boundary in order to not take things personally:

In How Can I Get Through to You?, Terry Real explains an extremely effective strategy for not taking what my partner says or does personally.  This strategy involves developing an “internal boundary,” which Real describes as a kind of “internal technology.” (See my article “The Internal Boundary: An Effective Strategy for Not Taking What My Partner Says Personaly”).  Real states, “Over the years, I have found that this one skill of defining boundaries, all on its own, particularly when practiced by both partners, can radically transform a relationship.”

The internal boundary is an invisible shield that I psychically construct that protects me from anything that my partner says or does that may invoke my anger or defensive reactions.  With an internal boundary in place, Real proposes, “the nastiest comment, the most raw feeling—an emotional atom bomb could go off and you would remain unfazed.  Inside your circle you can afford to be open, spacious, curious, relaxed.”

Real elaborates: “The important thing to remember about practicing an internal boundary is precisely that it is a practice, similar to getting physically fit…Although it takes months, even years, of slow, steady effort before an internal boundary becomes consistent, most people experience an exhilarating glimpse of its effects within a few weeks.”

“The lack of an internal boundary inevitably leads to control or withdrawal.  If there is no membrane between you and whatever external stimulus gets thrown at you, then you attempt to regulate your own level of comfort or discomfort by managing the stimulus.  (‘I could be happy, if only you were less angry.’).  When control fails, the only other option is withdrawal.”  (pp. 239-241)

2. Recognize the destructive and long lasting impact of your anger and rage: In her recorded 3 CD set on anger entitled Don’t Bite the Hook, the renowned Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chodron gives a Dharma talk based on a lecture by the 8th century Indian monk Shanti Deva, who states, “Good works gathered in a thousand ages, such as deeds of generosity or offerings to the blissful ones—a single flash of anger shatters them.”  (See my article: “Anger Management From Both Buddhist and Western Psychological Perspectives:  ‘Don’t Bite the Hook.’”)

In her commentary, Pema Chodron says, “It causes so much damage to us.  Your temper erupts violently and you are either verbally or physically abusive.  It shocks our system so deeply---it shatters a lot of good will—it can take a long time to get back to where you were.  A single blast of anger shatters the good you have done.”  It’s not going too far to say that a single episode of anger may destroy a lifetime of good will and permanently damage a marital relationship.

3. Utilize Time-Outs to stem the escalation of anger:  I work with many couples who have repeatedly allowed their conflicts to escalate to a destructive degree, with massive hurt feelings and often long periods of icy coldness and stonewalling as a result.  I teach all of the couples with whom I work about the importance of taking time-outs.  In his most recent book, The New Rules of Marriage, Terry Real states, “The best defense against verbal abuse is a formal time-out.”  He writes:

“While you have probably heard of this technique and possibly used it with your children, time-outs work equally well with ‘unruly’ adults.  When either partner calls a time-out—by saying the word ‘time-out,’ by using the ‘T’ hand signal, or by using any agreed-upon sign—the interaction comes to an immediate stop.  The spoken or gestured signal is understood by both partners to be an abbreviation of the following words:

‘Dear partner, for whatever reason, right or wrong, I am about to lose it. If I stay here and keep this up with you I am liable to do or say something stupid that I know I’m going to regret.  Therefore, I am taking a break to get a grip on myself and calm down.  I will check back in with you responsibly.’

Real continues: “Notice that the time-out is always taken from an ‘I’ position, never from a ‘you’ position.  It’s a singularly bad idea to tell your partner that he is being a brat and he needs to take a time-out.  You take it…Telling your partner that he needs a break…virtually guarantees an argument…Once the contract has been agreed to in advance, either partner has the right to leave the interaction whenever he or she chooses, and should not be stopped…When reconnecting after a time-out, you must take a 24-hour moratorium on the subject that triggered the initial fight.  After the time-out is over, whether it’s 20 minutes or an entire day, when you move back into contact with each other, do not discuss the topic that started you off.  If you do, you run a great risk of just getting wound up again.”  (pp. 106-108)

4. Don’t take personally what my partner says when they are in their “Wounded Self”:

The author David Celani, in his books The Illusion of Love and Leaving Home, develops the concept of the “wounded self.”  In all of us, our wounded self is the repository of all the negative and painful and hurtful experiences of our lives.  Thus, what lives in the wounded self are the feelings of anger, hurt, shame, humiliation, and resentment.  When a couple begins fighting, the wounded self of one or both partners in very quickly triggered.  At this point, one is in an altered state, not in the rational cerebral cortex part of one’s brain.  In this altered state, a partner says such things as “I hate you, screw you, I want a divorce!”  Too often partners take personally what their partner is saying in this altered state.  This is the time when it’s absolutely critical to utilize one’s “internal boundary” so as not to take to heart what one’s partner is saying and then ruminate about it for hours or days

5. Resist the urge to “offend from the victim position”:  It is extremely common is an argument for either partner to feel that what the other partner has just said is unfair, unkind, and untrue.  Often the experience is one of feeling victimized by one’s partner.  Terrence Real suggests that often the result is an outburst of “offending from the victim position.”  By this he means that when I feel victimized by what my partner has said or done, I then feel entitled to “go on the offensive”, destructively attacking my partner back with more hurtful and angry words.

6. Let go of “needing to be right”:  In his book The New Rules of Marriage, Terry Real describes “needing to be right” as the foremost “losing strategy” in marriage.  Describing the conflict between one couple, Real writes, “They each feel the need to be right, marshalling their evidence and arguing their case, two lawyers before the court…Like many couples, they try to resolve their differences by eradicating them.  Faced with contrasting views…the way to end the argument, they think, is to determine which version is the more accurate.  They are in an objectivity battle…Instead of being a battle for the relationship, it is a constant war about who is right and who is wrong.”  (pp. 38-39)

In what may sound like a radical proposition, Real goes on to write, “Objective reality has no place in close personal relationships…From a relationship-savvy point of view, the only sensible answer to the question ‘Who’s right and who’s wrong is ‘Who cares?’…You can be right or you can be married.  What’s more important to you?”  (p. 40).

John Gottman, in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, takes the same stand.  Gottman writes, “Another important lesson I have learned is that in all arguments, both solvable and perpetual, no one is ever right.  There is no absolute reality in marital conflict, only two subjective realities.” (p. 150).  In The Sayings of Sengstan, The 3rd Zen Patriarch, is the phrase “…only cease to cherish opinions.”   Notice that he doesn’t say to not have opinions, but instead to not cherish them!

7. Implicit in letting go of the “need to be right” is the necessity of accepting my partner’s distortions.  Many arguments persist because one or both partners keep trying to correct the others “incorrect version” of a conversation or conflict.  Much better to accept the fact that frequently two partners have very different memories about an event or argument that took place in the past, and that it is fruitless and often destructive to keep trying to correct my partner’s reality.

8. Metabolize resentments. Much heartache in marriage results from one or both partners brooding endlessly over resentments from the past, and as a result chronically feeling hurt or used or taken advantage of.  These resentments create emotional distance and and an ongoing vulnerability to being triggered into anger or antagonism.  John Gottman writes that happily married couples “communicate their fundamental fondness and respect.  Whatever issue they are discussing, they give each other the message that they love and respect each other, ‘warts and all.’”

Gottman continues: “When couples are not able to do this, sometimes the problem is that they are unable to forgive each other for past differences.  It’s all too easy to hold a grudge.  For a marriage to go forward happily, you need to pardon each other and give up on past resentments.”  (pp. 154-155)

9. Humbly acknowledge “projective identification”:  In his provocative book, Should You Leave?, psychiatrist Peter Kramer writes cogently about this powerful dynamic that is at play in much of marital conflict.  Projective identification is the process whereby I unconsciously provoke my partner into acting like my difficult parent.  Kramer writes, “Some of what you complain about in your partner is of your own making.” (p. 220)

Recognizing that projective identification operates is most all relationships helps us to develop more humility and compassion toward our partners.  It is not simply that my partner has a personality that is difficult for me to handle, although that may also be true.  In fact, I share responsibility for my partner’s traits and behaviors.  I am unconsciously provoking my partner to act in ways that may drive me crazy!

Knowing that this is the case helps me to continue to work on my tendencies toward blaming or defensiveness, as well as on my self-differentiation, which has been defined as “resistance to the interpersonal contagion of anxiety (or anger).”  Kramer writes, “Differentiation of self is very largely the capacity to resist, and to resist employing, projective identification.”  (p. 216)

10. Develop and utilize “Dead-Stop Contracts”:  In The New Rules of Marriage, Terry Real describes a powerful strategy for interrupting marital conflicts.  He writes, “If I feel, rightly or wrongly, that you are behaving in ways that reinforce my Core Negative Image of you—if I feel, for instance, that old, horrible feeling of being bossed around by you—I will signal a dead-stop.  And you agree in advance that whenever you hear that signal, understanding that your behavior is Core Negative Image triggering, you will come to a dead-stop—whether you agree with my perception or not.”

Real continues: “Let’s say, for example, that my Core Negative Image of you is that you’re a big bully.  Whether I am nuts for feeling bullied by you in this particular instance or not, you agree, upon hearing my signal, to stop whatever it is that you are saying or doing on a dime.  Instead of continuing, you agree to turn to me and say your version of ‘I’m so sorry.  I don’t mean to bully you.  Forgive me.  Is there anything I can say or do right now that might help you feel better?’  On my side, I promise not to use this as a moment to give you a hard time but rather to appreciate your effort and move on as quickly as possible.”

Real concludes with the following admonition: “When you agree to use a dead-stop contract, nothing short of physical safety takes precedence over your goal of stopping your repetitive pattern.  No matter what you think your partner may be doing, you pledge to honor your side of the contact.” (p. 90)

11. Recognize that we can only work on ourselves:  Brentwood psychologist Dr. Rick Taran has written, “Relationships are God’s clever 12 step program for self-improvement.”  Dr. Lee Blackwell, in his paper “Understanding Personality Dynamics in Relationships” (2002), writes, “We can only work on ourselves.  When we try to work on others, they resist being controlled, even if it is for their own good.  There seems to be something in human nature that says, ‘I have to feel free to choose.’…Thus it is a waste of time and totally counterproductive for partners to try to change each other.  A better approach is for each to hear criticism as something the other is experiencing, not as something that they are objective about.  When we feel free to decide what to work on in ourselves, we will be much more diligent and sincere in our efforts.”

John Gottman has expressed very similar ideas.  Gottman writes, “The basis for coping effectively with (problems) is the same:  communicating basic acceptance of your partner’s personality.  Human nature dictates that it is virtually impossible to accept advice from someone unless you feel that that person understands you…It’s just a fact that people can change only if they feel that they are basically liked and accepted as they are.  When people feel criticized, disliked, and underappreciated, they are unable to change.  Instead, they feel under siege and dig in to protect themselves.” (p. 149)

12. Recognize that the majority (69%, according to John Gottman) of marital conflicts are perpetual and not resolvable.  Gottman writes that “Despite their difference, (happy) couples remain very satisfied with their marriages because they have hit upon a way to deal with their unbudgeable problem so it doesn’t overwhelm them.  They’ve learned to keep it in its place and to have a sense of humor about it.”

“In other words, they are constantly working it out, for the most part good-naturedly.  At times it gets better, other times it gets worse.  But because they keep acknowledging the problem and talking about it, their love for each other isn’t overwhelmed by their difference.  These couples intuitively understand that problems are inevitably part of the relationship, much the way chronic physical ailments are inevitable as you get older.”

“Psychologist Dan Wile said it best in his book After the Honeymoon: ‘When choosing a long-term partner…you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty, or fifty years.’” Gottman adds, “Marriages are successful to the degree that the problems you choose are ones you can cope with…”

Gottman concludes: “In unstable marriages, perpetual problems…eventually kill the relationship.  Instead of coping with the problem effectively, the couple gets gridlocked over it.  They have the same conversation about it over and over again.  They just spin their wheels, resolving nothing.  Because they make no headway, they feel increasingly hurt, frustrated, and rejected by each other…They are on the course toward parallel lives and inevitable loneliness—the death knell of any marriage.”  (pp. 130-132)

I began this article by introducing the concept of “relational heroism,” and the sentence, “Any occasion when a more mature part of oneself cuts into an habitual, dysfunctional reaction is an instance of recovery.”  The relational work involved in building a successful marriage involves developing new neural pathways in our brains, in which we are able to resist the powerful urge to repeat dysfunctional and destructive communication patterns.

This relational work is not completed in a day or a week or a month.  As Terry Real states in describing the construction of an “internal boundary,” “…it takes months, even years, of slow, steady effort before an internal boundary becomes consistent.”  Ultimately, as Pema Chodron writes in her book Comfortable with Uncertainty, “Interrupting our destructive habits and awakening our heart is the work of a lifetime.” (p. 153)