Good girls can date men who are clearly “bad news.”
And even though most bad boys display blatant warnings and redflags, the allure of dating one is too strong for most good girls.
Why is that?
Well, for starters, looks, muscles, money, and even spontaneity is only part of the equation.
It’s all to do with the “unfinished business” in both his and her lives. And in today’s episode, I reveal the exact reason why good girls can be attracted to bad boys.
Show highlights include:
- 40-50% of first marriages end in divorce. Child support, crippling alimony payouts, and heartbreak. Here’s how to avoid a traumatic divorce (4:24)
- Caught your wife cheating with a coworker? Here’s why that doesn’t necessarily mean a divorce (and why it actually could be a long, and passionate marriage) (10:59)
- How to have a long lasting marriage by understanding the three stages every single marriage goes (11:55)
- Why exciting, passionate sex in a marriage has very little to do with physical looks, but more so to do with your psychology (28:18)
- In a bad fight with your wife or girlfriend? Here are five losing “strategies” that could push your marriage closer towards divorce (36:37)
- Why good girls have so much sexual chemistry with bad boys (and why it’s partially her fault) (38:11)
Does your neediness, fear, or insecurity sabotage your success with women? Do you feel you may be unlovable? For more than 15 years, I’ve helped thousands of people find confidence, fulfillment, and loving relationships. And I can help you, too. I’m therapist and life coach David Tian, Ph.D. I invite you to check out my free Masterclasses on dating and relationships at https://www.davidtianphd.com/masterclass/ now.
For more about David Tian, go here: https://www.davidtianphd.com/about/
Emotional Mastery is David Tian’s step-by-step system to transform, regulate, and control your emotions… so that you can master yourself, your interactions with others, and your relationships… and live a life worth living. Learn more here:
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Note: Scroll Below for Transcription
Welcome to the Masculine Psychology Podcast, where we answer key questions in dating, relationships, success, and fulfillment, and explore the psychology of masculinity. Now, here’s your host, world-renowned therapist and life coach, David Tian.
David: Welcome to the Masculine Psychology Podcast. I’m David Tian, your host. In the previous two episodes, I’ve been answering a listener’s question and addressing not only how to keep the sexual passion alive in a long term relationship, but how to actually grow it, and I addressed this question of whether women can only find hot, passionate sex in a toxic relationship with a bad boy. [00:45.0]
In the last episode, I answered that by introducing the dual dynamic of the disowned parts in our unfinished business. That is, we unconsciously experience sexual passion and chemistry with those who resemble the parts of ourselves that we’ve disowned or exiled, or tried to kill off or wish away, or suppressed. And, even more, who give us the hope, unconsciously, that we will be able to resolve our unresolved core issues that go back to our formative childhood years, when we had to adapt who we were, in order to get and keep the attention, the approval, the love or connection of our primary caregivers, our parents, in most cases.
Both dynamics of the disowned parts and unfinished business are present right from the start and generate that unconscious sexual chemistry, and generally speaking, what’s easier to spot at the beginning is the disowned-parts dynamic, and then after the honeymoon phase has worn off somewhere around three months to three years, then the unfinished business dynamic becomes more obvious. [01:56.7]
Why this is doom for almost all relationships for couples that have not gone through the therapeutic work or not doing the therapeutic work, why it spells doom for that relationship, eventually, is because first with the disowned parts dynamic, we will do to our partners what we did to our own parts that we’ve disowned. We will disown them, and by that, I mean, what it will look like from the outside is we’re going to try to control those aspects of the partner that initially unconsciously attracted us to them.
An easy example here is the good girl will try to control the bad boy, so he’s not so bad, but that’s part of unconsciously what was attracting her to him, and likewise, the other way around, the nice-guy fixer white knight will try to tame the manic fairy dream girl and make her more responsible and, quote-unquote, “mature” and make her more stable and make her more masculine in many ways.
We will do to our partner’s parts what we did to our own in disowning them. We will try to disown those parts in her that we’ve already disowned in ourselves. We will treat them the same way we treated our own similar parts. We’ve disowned them. [03:08.4]
When it comes to the unfinished business, this also is unconscious and it may be even at a deeper layer of unconscious, and we end up unknowingly repeating the same pattern that we had as children and treating the partner as the stand-in for that parent figure and recreating that horrific nightmare cycle, what Freud referred to as repetition compulsion.
This is when you recreate the parent-child dynamics that forced the adaptation in the first place, the adaptation into being a pleaser or into being a rebel, or into being a loner, or some variation thereof, which was the source of one of our most foundational traumas.
This is what’s behind what you might have heard in psychoanalysis of you marrying your parent or becoming your parents that you despised. Against your own conscious will, you become that parent or you have unwittingly forced your partner to become the parent who caused you so much fear or anxiety, or, in some way, forced you to adapt how you were before. [04:17.2]
None of us learned any of this in school—I certainly didn’t—and most of us don’t know about any of this, and this is why, this is one of the many reasons why and the most important reason why almost all modern marriages are doomed to fail. But there is a way out, as I’m sure you assumed from listening to this podcast. There is a solution.
In the last episode, I brought up the example of a bad boy and a good girl, the sort of uptown girl hooking up with the downtown boy and that sexual chemistry that is stereotypical because there is quite a bit of truth to it, and explaining that in terms of the dual dynamics. I asked you if you’d like to get a more in-depth case study on that particular dynamic and I got a resounding yes, so let’s get into it now, to help you not only understand how the dual dynamics work here, but also the solution. [05:12.8]
I found a brilliant depiction of this very dynamic in an excellent book that I highly recommend to everyone. It’s called Us, U-S-, by the author Terrence Real who goes by Terry Real in psychotherapy circles. He is one of the foremost psychotherapists practicing still to this day. I recommend all of his books. He’s an excellent writer, especially when he’s detailing the case studies with his clients. I think he’s in his 80s now. He’s been publishing books for 30–40 years now.
I’ve recommended his books before and I got a little bit of pushback from some listeners or readers who took issue with his use of the terms feminism and patriarchy. Just as a caveat he’s referring to when he refers to feminism, generally, second- or third-wave feminism, the kind of feminism that was in ascendancy in the ’80s and ’90s. [06:05.0]
That’s the milieu that he’s writing from, and when he’s attacking patriarchy, it’s also the use of that term, and even more of a term of art for him because he’s mostly referring to psychological patriarchy or the psychological effects on the individual from a certain version from the ’80s and ’90s second- and third-wave feminism of patriarchy.
To me, this is quite different from the type of strident feminism of the fourth wave that you find now that we’re living through, so just as a caveat, it’s best to approach important works with a more nuanced, sophisticated understanding, and recognize that authors, especially authors that have been writing producing for quite a long time, have their own ways of using words, and it’s important for you to understand how they’re using them. [06:51.1]
I’ll try to translate as much of that as I can as I share an excerpt from the book where he shares this case study of a kind of bad boy, a sort of not a typical, like a Hells Angel, all tatted-up, criminal-record bad boy, but probably the type of bad boy that is much more common to come across, especially for listeners, who is an achiever on the outside and has a good, stable, high-paying job, and so forth.
You’ll see as we get into it, I’ll be hopping around in Chapter 7 of his book, Us, and the chapter title is Your Fantasies Have Shattered, Your Real Relationship Can Begin, and let’s just dive into it. This starts off with a woman’s voice, so imagine this in a woman’s voice. I’m going to be reading out part of this dialogue and I can’t promise I’ll do a good job on this. I’ll do my best.
“I can’t breathe! Oh, my god, I can’t breathe!” Angela, a petite, dark-haired white woman, wearing a purple velvet frock with a lacy white neck, twirls her hands in desperation as she gulps air.
“Okay,” I say.
This is Terry writing.
“Okay,” I say, hoping to reassure her. “Slow down.”
“I can’t.” She clutches at her chest. “My heart—” [08:01.8]
“I think you may be having a panic attack,” I tell her.
Next to her, her husband, Mike, shifts in his chair. A big, square man, he rests his forearms on his spread knees and leans in, all concern.
“Angela,” I say, “I want you to take deep, slow breaths, long exhale, like this.” I show her. “Put your feet flat on the floor. Feel your feet on the floor.
“With her eyes locked on mine, her black hair pinned back, Angela places each of her sensible black shoes flat on the floor and starts to breathe slowly and deeply. Her thin body shudders a little as she calms.
“That’s it,” I tell her. “Nice and slow. Doing fine.” [9:01.1]
She breathes, hands clenching and unclenching in her lap. She closes her eyes to concentrate, then opens them again seconds later, terrified.
“Take your time,” I tell her. “Just breathe. You’re doing fine.”
Slowly, painfully, Angela brings herself back. “Wow!” she says at long last, looking up at me and smiling. “That was really something.” And then she bursts into tears. “Shit!” She slaps herself in the leg, hard. “Shit!” She collapses into a sob and rocks. “I can’t stand this,” she mutters as she cries, “I can’t take this.”
“I know,” I soothe, “I know.” Inside I think: Welcome, my dear. Come on in. You have crossed over into the realm called adultery, infidelity, betrayal. A hot knife in your gut. A two-by-four to your skull. Enter here, and let me do what I can to ease your utterly miserable human torment. [09:45.8]
Angela no longer lives in the world she inhabited three weeks ago. In that old world, the one no longer available to her, she led a stable, happy life. She had three kids, age fourteen on down, a solid career, and a great husband. Then one morning, while he was in the shower, seized by impulse or by intuition, she took a good look at her husband’s phone. She found, buried in obscure accounts, emails. Lots and lots of emails. Hot, salacious emails. From Loreen, or sometimes just Lor. Lor, who couldn’t wait to taste him again, feel him against the back of her throat, inside her body.
My heart bleeds for Angela. It used to be that a woman would smell someone’s perfume or notice lipstick on a shirt. Nowadays, with the internet, she may well have a front-row seat to every graphic detail. Death by a thousand cuts—and not all of them shallow. “Did I really need to know about her smooth, creamy thighs? Fuck you!” She suddenly turns to her husband like she’s going to hit him. Instead, she collapses into more tears. “Fuck you,” she repeats with less conviction.
Skipping some now. [10:55.5]
Now, here’s the radical claim I’d like to make. Does everything I’ve just described indicate that Angela and Mike are in a bad marriage? It does not. They are in a horrible moment in what might, in the long run, prove to be a superlative marriage. It’s too early to tell.
I’m not interested in merely helping Mike and Angela survive the crisis. I want to use this crisis as a springboard for fundamental transformation—in each of the two partners and in the marriage itself. I know that in crisis lies opportunity. Both transformation and dissolution begin with crisis, with disequilibrium. Too much disequilibrium spells death to the system as it is. But even that might not be the end of the story.
The marriage you once had is gone,” I tell Angela and Mike. “The only question is, can you forge a new one?”
Skipping some now to Page 169 of my edition. [11:55.2]
Harmony, then disharmony, then repair is the essential rhythm of all close relationships. It’s like walking. You have your balance, then you stumble. You catch yourself and rebalance.
This cycle of harmony, disharmony, and repair begins when we are babies. At the start of one of Dr. Ed Tronick’s famous film clips–
By the way, I think everyone should look this up. Go to YouTube, type in “Tronick”, T-R-O-N-I-C-K, and “baby clips”, and you’ll see clips from these famous studies that are incredible. You should all see them. Anyway, I’m going to continue.
At the start of one of Dr. Ed Tronick’s famous film clips, a baby is molded into her mother’s arms, no bones, a noodle, perfect contentment. Then something happens: gas, or a noise, or hunger. The infant starts to freak out, thrashing and crying, and refuses to settle. The mother freaks out as well, her face tense, her jostling more frantic. Her angry look of frustration bores down on the child. The baby instinctively crosses her tiny forearms to cover and protect her face, blocking mother out. And then, miraculously, the pacifier is accepted, or the gas passes, or the noise quiets, and then—ah—molded again. All this occurs within forty seconds. [13:11.2]
Freud described the early relationship of mother and infant as one of “uninterrupted oceanic bliss.” But it took researchers like Ed Tronick and T. Berry Brazelton to actually stick a video in front of mothers and their babies and observe the real story of finding connection, losing it, and finding again. The endless round of peek-a-boo is many an infant’s first mesmerizing game: here, gone, here again. We all know about the harmony phase, the honeymoon, that marvelous heart-swelling time of being in love when a heady chemical brew hits the brain.
Sometimes, by the way, I insert a word here or there to make the meaning clearer, sort of improving Terry Real’s writing here. Anyway, so some of these components of the heady chemical brew include dopamine and norephedrine, and testosterone and estrogen also play into this later on. Okay, then go on to the next page. [14:06.6]
What goes on in the brains of young lovers is so like an addictive process—even including physiological signs of withdrawal when the love object is absent—that psychologists have long noted the phenomenon of romance addiction. I have personally encountered troubled souls who were addicted to this mix of endogenous “drugs” as surely as any drug addict.
Skipping down now on to the middle of a paragraph, I just want to get to this, this point here.
I call this first relationship phase love without knowledge. You may have a deep intuition that this person is the one for you, a soul recognition. But you have no idea how they pay their bills, or handle their family, or the condition of their bathroom floor. [14:47.4]
Sooner or later, reality begins to intrude, and harmony is replaced by disharmony, the second stage of relationship. The idealization characteristic of the first stage yields to an at times overwhelming disillusionment: “You’re not at all who I thought you were.” For many, disillusionment comes when the extraordinary joy of the harmony phase yields to the disappointment of boring, mundane life. But for others, like Angela, disillusionment comes all of a sudden, punching us in the gut. Everyday familiarity eases us into disillusionment. A betrayal like infidelity rips the curtain away from our illusions in one bloody tear.
Wiry and fragile-looking, Angela grapples with such a flood of disenchantment that it’s hard for her to get through the next five minutes; she’s in an acute state of shock. She turns to Mike and utters the same question that she has endlessly repeated since discovering his affair: “How could you?” That is one of two questions virtually every hurt partner is haunted by. “Literally what were you thinking, when you left her bed to have a cozy dinner with your family? How could you do that?” [15:54.4]
Since disillusionment through infidelity almost always brings shock, the other question common to all hurt partners is “How can I know you won’t do it again?” Reality has been ripped apart. Hurt partners, like all trauma survivors, are driven to put reality back together again. Angela has a hundred unanswered questions. “When you said you were in Chicago last Christmas, you were really . . .” She needs to know the size and model of the truck that just ran her over. But infidelity is just the most dramatic form of a process common to all relationships—the sinking feeling that this is not what it was supposed to be.
Skipping to the next page now.
Falling in love means that whether you acknowledge it or not, you think, unconsciously, With this person I will be healed, or at the very least I will avoid and compensate for my earliest lacks and injuries. Disillusionment comes with the cold realization that not only will your partner not directly heal you, but they are also exquisitely designed to stick the burning spear right into your eyeball. [16:59.6]
Here’s the thing about the disharmony phase—it hurts. I mean, it really hurts. For more than twenty years, I’ve spoken to audiences about what I call normal marital hatred. And not once has someone come backstage after and asked, “Terry, what did you mean by that?”
My first concerns for Angela, given the state she’s in, are concrete. Is she eating? Sleeping? Is she plagued by intrusive thoughts? Like, “Her creamy thighs.” Could she use a little medication to sleep, or to feel less depressed, less blasted?
Then I turn to Mike. Why did he cheat? The sheer wall of that question for the unfaithful one: why?
Generally, in response, I hear two types of reasons. The first is simple selfishness. “I don’t know. I was traveling on business. We’d all been drinking, It just . . .” Right. And the second is “Gosh, it just happened somehow. I don’t know. I didn’t actually make it happen. I was hardly there.” Sure. The problem with these lines of defense is their utter lack of responsibility. It was irresponsible to cheat to begin with, and now you compound that with your lame attempts at accountability. And what does that mean, It just kind of happened? [18:08.6]
“Mike,” I say, “we don’t ask someone why they cheat—that’s obvious. Affairs are flattering, new, exciting, sexually pleasurable. We ask someone why they don’t cheat. What makes someone say no?”
Mike shifts in his chair, about to speak.
But I keep going. “I’m saying no these days and have for quite some time. Can I tell you why?”
“Because I don’t want to hurt my partner. I don’t want to look into my kids’ eyes and explain why Daddy screwed around on Mom. I don’t want my reputation ruined. And believe it or not, I’d rather live in a state of integrity. Those are my reasons. But something in you overrode your no. It’s our job to figure out what that was.” [18:52.3]
As the therapist charged to help the pair move back into closeness, I usually make a determination whether the primary problem is the character of the cheater or the state of their union or both. It turns out Mike’s case is relatively simple. Even though he has been married for sixteen years, he’s never fully left high school. He’s routinely gone off with his pals for weekends, drinks like a fish, and parties like a nineteen-year-old. Utterly entitled, he rarely helps with the house or the kids. He works long hours, makes a steady living, and once home, generally prefers to be left alone. His hard work and his paycheck are enough of a contribution to family life, as far as he has been concerned.
When Mike first met Angela, back in high school, he had been wild, and she had been good. Such was their unspoken marital contract. He provoked her to loosen up, dance, and have great sex. She was his stability and moral compass. Mike’s dad was a drinker and a womanizer; his home life was full of strife and chaos. Angela’s nice family seemed blessedly normal. Mike was to teach her how to play; she would teach him responsibility. [20:04.0] The only problem was that Angela, true to form, turned out to be the better student. She had little difficulty in the bedroom, trading in her velour shifts for racy lingerie and velvet restraints, while Mike had little difficulty trading in Angela for, well, just about anyone willing to take him.
Mike had had a series of frat boy affairs: he went out with the same “guys,” as he called them. Drank with them, fished with them, hunted sometimes, “picked up girls sometimes.” He had never quite digested that he was no longer single. With his despised father as his unconscious model, and with his South Boston boy pals egging him on, he saw family as the home base from which to launch his adventures. It simply never occurred to him to sit still in his own home with his wife and kids and have fun. Family, to Mike, was obligation—fun was in the back alley. [20:55.7]
No matter their physical strength, for many men, emotions are too much for them to handle. It’s why they can’t give women the deeper levels of emotional intimacy and connection that they crave. It’s why they fail to be the man that modern women desire most: a man with inner strength, a man who has mastered his emotions.
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Mike was living out what some therapists call a love-lust split. Home was stable, good, responsible, and dead. Outside, the street was adventurous, bad, selfish, and alive. [22:03.5]
“You know,” Mike tells me after I explain this to him, “I’ve got a big heart.” Which he does, I note. “I’m not one of these shut-down characters who don’t feel nothing. Right?” He turns to Angela, who barely nods. “And I’m in my body. I mean, I can move—like, sexually.”
“Uh-huh,” I say.
“I just can’t seem to do both with the same woman.”
“Okay,” I say, and pause. “Hey Mike, tell me about your mother.”
First of all, as an aside, as you can see, the more we find out about the origins of the bad boy, the easier it is to find compassion for him and the easier it is to understand him. I mean, you can’t understand him without knowing about his childhood, especially his, what therapist called, “the family of origin,” his primary caregivers growing up. Okay, back to it.
“Hey Mike, tell me about your mother.”
His mother, I’m not surprised to hear, was a living saint, a long-suffering martyr cut straight from Boston Irish Catholic cloth. While Dad scorched the earth, Mom kept the home fires burning. [23:04.1]
“Okay,” I tell him. “Now I get it. Where your entitlement came from.”
“Entitlement? What do you mean?”
“Your expectation, Mike, that Angela will put up with your bullshit.”
He lowers his head, angry.
“Like your mother has,” I go on. “You’ve re-created your parents’ marriage.”
Mike is shocked, but I’m cautiously optimistic. At least he was in couples therapy and trying. I can’t tell you how many overly accommodating women I’ve seen over decades who put up with their husband’s bad behavior for years, afraid to rock the boat, only to be left for another woman anyway. I talk to the couples I work with about fierce intimacy, the courage to skillfully take one another on when they are in a state of disharmony.
Angela and Mike met in high school. They were both “from the neighborhood,” meaning South Boston Irish, and Mike wasn’t completely crazy to imagine that his wife would somehow tough out the hurt that streamed from his various antics. His mother had. But as I tell him, times have changed. [24:04.7]
Angela tells us, “I hated your drinking, and leaving me, and partying with your friends. I just thought you’d grow out of it. You’d figure it out. But this”—she spreads her hands and stares between them, as if she’s just uncurled a map—“I never thought this. I trusted you, Michael. I thought we had a bond.”
“We do, Ange,” he whines.
“We did, Michael. You broke it.” She looks away. “I don’t know where we are now.”
Where they are now, I think, is the threshing floor, the slaughterhouse. They are inside the alchemical crucible that dissolves and only then might transform. Pain had melted Angela down to her essence. But can I help them cross over to safety? Is there a possibility of repair?
“Do you still want him?” I ask Angela.
“Not as currently configured,” she answers with admirable directness and force.
“What needs to change?” [25:00.7]
“He does!” she exclaims. “Every goddamn cell in him.” She wheels on her husband. “It’s simple, Mike. Grow up or pack up.”
Why, Angela, I think, you have a spine after all.
“Now,” she adds. “Change now. Or don’t. I’m not waiting much longer.”
“Aw, Ange,” he pleads. “Baby, don’t—”
“Don’t you ‘baby’ me!” she snaps. “Save your ‘babys’ for your girlfriends.”
He looks up at me, helpless. Do something, his look says.
“Mike, do you want to hear from me?”
He nods vigorously, as if to say, Help! Throw me a lifeline.
“Okay, I’ll tell you what I think.” A pause. “She’s right. You’ve been a wrecking ball.” I talk to him about the particular form of grandiose entitlement called being a bad boy. “You’re a thirty-six-year-old high school greaser.”
“Hey,” he says, “I was never—”
“You know what I mean,” I push back. “You might as well have a cigarette tucked behind your ear and a rubber in your back pocket.”
He cracks up, laughing at me. “I think you may be in the wrong era.” He smiles.
But I’m not laughing. “Why’d you get married? Why’d you have kids?” [26:03.1]
“I love my wife,” he says, stung. “I love my kids.”
I lean in to face him. “Then pull yourself together and protect them. Every time you step outside your marriage, you put them in harm’s way.”
He doesn’t look happy hearing me say this.
“Mike,” I conclude, “I have great news for you that I don’t think you’ve ever really fully digested.”
“What’s that?” he asks.
“You have a family.”
Coming back. Repairing. How do you put back the pieces? Why even try? I call the harmony phase of a relationship love without knowledge; I call the disharmony phase knowledge without love. Now you know exactly and precisely all your partner’s flaws and blemishes. You see them all. But you don’t like your partner very much. You are utterly in you and me consciousness, facing an adversary, fighting for your psychological survival.
How Angela copes with Mike will have everything to do with the particularities of her Adaptive Child.
“Adaptive child” is Terry Real’s term for, in IFS speak, a protective part, a kind of manager. [27:06.4]
Except that her usual adaptation—to be accommodating, to be good—just split open and spit in her eye. Maybe it is time for a change. And this is the painfully hard-won gift of disharmony.
Remember, to unlock a neural pathway the implicit must become explicit. For Mike, it’s I’ve been an overgrown teenager. For Angela, it’s I’ve been a pacifying doormat. And the old habit must no longer appeal. I’d rather learn to show up for my family. And, for her, I’m learning to speak my mind and put my foot down. In other words, by touching the hot wire of Mike’s infidelities, both partners, with my help, might just possibly blast their way into the more mature traits and behaviors characteristic of their Wise Adult selves.
“Wise Adults”—capital “W”, capital “A” here—is Terry Real’s term for something similar to the true self in IFS. [28:00.4]
My family needs me to show up for them, thinks the new Mike. I better speak up and stand up, thinks the new Angela. In this way, both partners dramatically transform their character, and their marriage enters a fresh new stage of development—one that can regularly incorporate the skills of repair.
Notice here, any nice guys or white knights out there, the good girl who is unconsciously attracted to what you consider the bad boy is also culpable. And, in fact, if she settles for the stable, nice, safe guy, as I explained in the past few episodes, she’s not going to experience that exciting chemistry because of her own issues.
Instead of seeing her as the damsel in distress, the innocent, pure princess, who is being soiled by this corrupted bad boy who was just evil to the core, recognize that this view of them is part of your problem. That’s part of your blindness and naiveté, and immaturity and lack of sophistication, when it comes to psychological knowledge. And that will come about when the white knight, the nice guy, is unaware of the disowned parts of him, his shadow, and unaware of his unfinished business, the unresolved core patterns that he will unconsciously seek to play out again. [29:15.3]
Back to Terry Real here. We’re on Page 183 of my edition, The Blessing of Repair.
Repair is the final third of the cycle of harmony, disharmony, and repair. I call the stage of repair knowing love. Here you are utterly aware of your partner’s failings and shortfalls—the temper that’s too big, the affection that’s too small, the sloppiness, or stinginess, or impulse to control—and yet you choose to love them anyway. What the relationship gives you far outweighs what it lacks. And so you embrace those parts of your partner that, left on your own, you might avoid.
Mike is toxically selfish and painfully immature. He also adores his wife and kids—though you’d never know it by the way he’s been behaving.
As an aside, I love the way that Dr. Becky of Good Inside would put this: “Two things are true. Mike is toxically selfish and painfully immature. And he adores his wife and kids.” Continuing. [30:08.6]
Does Angela want him still? Yes, if he can grow up and stay faithful. She loves her big hulk of a guy. Is he the world’s most sensitive husband? Hell no. But he lights her up with his stupid grin, and when the five of them are together, what can she say? It’s home.
I tell Mike, “You have a choice. You can submit to being married, or you can be free and go back to being single. You just can’t do both at the same time.”
Mike looks long and sorrowfully at his wife. He’s so completely awkward with his feelings, so inarticulate, that I almost feel sorry for him, until I recall all the damage he’s done.
“I’m sorry, Ange,” he says. “I don’t know what else…I’m so sorry, sweetheart.”
Sitting next to him, she bristles.
I intervene. “Listen,” I tell her. “Just listen to the guy.”
Mike stares down at the floor.
“Look at her,” I tell him. “Tell her.” [31:02.0]
“It’s just…” he begins, frustrated that he can’t find better words. “Angela, it’s just—you’re the best thing that ever happened to me. You and the kids, I mean. You’re everything.”
“Then act like it,” she answers coldly.
“I know, I know. I’ve been a total shit, I get it.” She looks up at him. “I’m an asshole. I know it. I don’t deserve it. But if you did, Ange. If you could somehow forgive me. I would never…”
“Yeah?” she says, waiting, unimpressed.
“I’d never hurt you again. Not like that. Not ever, Ange. Or put my family at risk. If you could…I know. I know. I don’t know why you would. But if you ever could forgive me, learn to trust me again.” He pauses, looks at her.
She raises her face toward him.
“Never again, sweetheart. I can’t begin to tell you.” Soft, undefended, Mike pleads his case. “I will never hurt you like that again. I’ll do anything,” he says.
“Good,” I tell him. “I’m going to hold you to that.” [31:57.0]
I send Mike away. Under my direction, he takes himself off to a week of intensive treatment in Arizona. During that week, my big Boston lug does talk therapy, bodywork, psychodrama, EMDR, equine therapy—you name it. He returns, as I’d hoped, a softer, more connected man.
In other words, he does the therapeutic work, right? He goes through this version of the therapeutic process.
In our first session back, he cries his remorse—and Angela is gracious enough to believe him. In subsequent months, I stagger their sessions. One week with the two of them, one week with Mike alone—sideline coaching sessions in relational skill, in stepping into the role of husband and father. I become not only Mike’s therapist but also his mentor.
I say to Mike, “If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, so did I. I used to be my version of you, Mike. Hurt, hurting, entitled, clueless. But with the right help, I grew up. And you know what, dear man? If I can do it, you can do it.”
Mike isn’t looking at me. As I speak, he gazes at his wife.
“That’s a nice look you just gave her,” I note. “Can you put that look into words?” [33:00.0]
“It’s just that I—”
“Say it to her,” I tell him.
He swivels, so that his whole body faces her. “I don’t know, I mean, I can understand why you don’t trust me, Ange.” He bends his head down.
“Look at her,” I instruct, and when he lifts up his face, silent tears stream from his eyes.
“I mean, I don’t know why, I mean, where you’d ever get the—you know, to trust me again.” He reaches out to her, and she takes his hand. “But you can trust me. You don’t have to believe it yet. I mean, I know I have to prove it to you.” He sighs. “But I know. You may not know yet, but I do. I’ve learned.” And now his tears flow in earnest. “You’re the best thing that ever happened, ya know? To me, anyway.” He pauses to take a long, ragged breath. “I gotta treat ya like I feel about ya. Really.”
She turns to him.
He takes her small hand and presses it into his chest, his heart. “From here,” he says, pressing his chest. “From in here.” [34:01.7]
Angela strains toward him.
“You want a hug from him?” I ask, and she nods. “Go ahead,” I say as they yield into one another. “Hold tight. Hold tight.”
Harmony, disharmony, repair.
Our culture is infatuated with the harmony phase of relationships. A great relationship has no real discord, just like a great body has no belly fat, and a great sex life is like that of a twenty-year-old. Nowadays, in my field at least, the buzzword du jour is attunement. Parents are admonished to be endlessly attuned to their offspring; marital partners are taught to be exquisite “holding environments” for each other. If you ask me, though, I’m with Ed Tronick. It isn’t unbroken harmony that makes for trust in relationships, whether parental or marital. Rather, it is precisely countless repetitions of surviving the mess.
By the way, this is very similar to working out. Growth, especially muscle growth, comes from a kind of mini trauma where you, in a sense, have given these mini tears to the muscle. You’re taking it just beyond what it can handle, and then there is repair, recovery, the time when you’re sleeping and you’re eating. As with your biological body, so with your psychology and your mind. [35:11.3]
Okay, returning to Terry Real here.
Rather than a sense of helplessness, an infant who has moved through countless moments of error to reconnect develops a hopeful way of interacting with her world. She has made a specific meaning of her experience, one of optimistic expectation, which gives her a sense of resiliency.
Listen, all ye anxious helicopter parents: resilience originates not in the absence of disharmony and discord but in its survival in you as a pair. Life is messy, but you’re in this together. You experience disharmony, mismatch, and failures in attunement as disruptions in the relational field but not as unbreachable ruptures.
Skipping now a couple pages to the last section of the chapter.
You are more than a helpless passenger, saturated with negative expectations, driven by your Adaptive Child’s losing strategies.
By the way, the “Adaptive Child” is, again, Terry Real’s term for the protector parts. [36:07.6]
Even while you are triggered, you can take a moment, or twenty, and access your Wise Adult self –
In IFS speak, this is the true Self.
– the part of you that can stop, think, observe, and choose. Disharmony is to your relationship as pain is to your physical body. It’s a signal that something is wrong, that someone needs to get their hand off the stove. Our prefrontal cortex can process that signal and choose what to do about it. On the other hand, you and me consciousness knows just what to do in times of disharmony.
And here are five examples of what not to do.
(1) wrap yourself in rightness, (2) attempt to control your partner, (3) give vent to every emotion and infraction, (4) retaliate, (5) shut down—or some combination of all five of these losing strategies.
When we are triggered, injuries from the past get activated. Our neuroceptive body scan (Am I safe? Am I safe? Am I safe?) says no! Our automatic response pulls us into you and me consciousness.
Instead of we or us, actually. [37:06.6]
Injuries in the present evoke injuries from the past, and we tend to pick partners who, no matter how great they looked at the start, are devilishly designed to throw us right back into our childhood muck. This is not a bad marriage; for most, this is marriage. What renders a relationship bad or good is not the depths of disharmony, but the presence or absence of repair.
Like virtually all my clients, Mike and Angela were clueless about what repair looks like. He had certainly never seen it growing up, and neither had Angela. Conflict and its resolution were not big items in Angela’s family, where nothing was ever explicitly addressed or processed. Everyone stoically—and if you asked them, they’d say happily enough—just got on with things. That had been Angela’s strategy in the marriage: not to acknowledge, not to even quite let herself see. The cost of her ever-good Adaptive Child stance was not acknowledging the shadow. And that was perhaps exactly why she had chosen this bad boy for marriage. The cost of her adaptation was her substance, her authenticity, and her guts—all qualities that the current crisis now pushes her to reclaim. [38:08.0]
In this beautiful but brief section, you now get to understand why a good girl that, from the outside, and what the nice guy sees, would be attracted to a bad boy and why they have so much chemistry, and her side of the fault, so to speak.
We all marry our unfinished business. Most of us wind up partnered with an all-too-familiar failure, limitation, or offense. We are thrown back in the soup of our relational traumas from childhood. What makes a great relationship is not avoiding that retraumatization but handling it. And—if we are fortunate, like Angela—we also marry the next step of our own development. Angela chose Mike to break her open. And in a deep unacknowledged way, Mike knew that Angela, sooner or later, would hold his feet to the fire.
What he’s getting at here is what Richard Schwartz calls the “tor-mentor” concept, which I’ve covered in other episodes and which Richard Schwartz covers very well in his book, You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For. [39:05.1]
So many nice guys want to swoop in and save the good girl from the bad boy, not realizing and understanding the real dynamic that’s happening there, and how they, if they continue with this dynamic and grow through it, are actually really good for each other, and how the nice guy is actually not going to do it for her in a way that will actually force her to grow.
But being rejected by this good girl, you must understand what it is about the good girl that appeals to you, nice guy, and that’s a dynamic that I’ve covered in other episodes, especially the one on the manic pixie, or the manic fairy dream girl, the MFGG, in the Man Up episode series on white knights. I did a white-knight video, and then I did a manic-fairy-dream-girl and white-knight dynamic video.
Back to Terry Real.
To use the crisis rather than be buried by it, however, you have to keep yourself above the flood of reactivity that threatens to sweep you away.
In other words, above the flood of that triggering.
You have to have a skill that can be cultivated and made stronger—the skill of self-regulation.
By the way, I teach this skill in my program, Emotional Mastery. [40:07.3]
But as Tronick, and all the interpersonal neurobiologists, show us, the skill of self-regulation emerges from successful experiences of repair. It’s hard to be optimistic about the possibility of repair if you’ve never experienced it.
I tease Belinda that someday I’ll write a memoir of our marriage (heaven forbid!). I even have a working title: A Fight Worth Having. And that’s how it is, being human. A hurt worth bearing. We stand grounded in the humility of our own imperfections. Who are we to get high and mighty? The poet W. H. Auden wrote in his beautiful poem, “As I Walked Out One Evening”: “You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart.” [40:47.0]
You might want to ask yourself: What is the dark night of the soul of my current relationship? What do I miss? What keeps going awry? And then you might ask: How do I usually deal with these issues? Do I charge in, complaining? Do I “set the record straight,” in no uncertain terms, demonstrating my rightness? Do I vent? Do I retaliate? Do I shut down and avoid? And, finally, if I were on my game, if I could stay seated just a few minutes longer in my Wise Adult –
Or my true Self.
– how might I handle things differently? What would it sound like if I met my partner with compassion rather than judgment or control? What changes would I need to make inside myself to evoke and stay grounded in my own maturity, no matter how they might respond?
In Chapter 8, I will go over the practical tools and steps of repair.
Admittedly, coming from me, the practical parts of the book are the parts I liked the least. If you’re going to do the practical parts, you should just get a therapist to walk you through it, or take his online course or something like that. I don’t think a book is the best place to do it, but that might just be me. [41:51.4]
But the critical first step is remembering love, getting seated in a part of you that wants to repair to begin with. As hurt, disillusioned, and angry as you may be, nevertheless you say to your woebegone partner: “Why, yes, you can be a real jerk sometimes. Oh my God, there are times I’m not sure I even love you anymore or you, me. But, for goodness’ sake, don’t just stand there in the doorway sopping wet and cold. You know you can be such a disappointing, hurtful, imperfect, mess sometimes. But hey, it’s okay. I’m almost as imperfect as you are. What are you waiting for? Door’s open. Why don’t you just come on in?”
Great book, Terry Real’s Us, and I recommend it to everyone. I’m hoping to update my recommended reading list. It’s been in flux in the past few years. I think the version on the website is a couple of years old, and this book will be near the top of my recommendations for relationship books. Maybe in the future, I’ll be able to do a full episode covering the full book, kind of a review. If you’re interested in that, let me know. [42:57.0]
And, hopefully, this sunk in for you to understand the dual dynamic in a common relationship pairing of the good girl, the good, stable, secure, nice girl, and the bad boy, and in this case, it’s not the obvious criminal type of bad boy. This is more of the corporate bad boy. If you are interested in reading more of these type of case studies, I highly recommend Terry Real’s work.
Thank you so much for listening. I look forward to welcoming you next time. Please share with me whatever you think of this episode. I love to get your feedback and your comments. And please share this with anyone that you think could benefit from it.
Thank you so much for listening. I look forward to welcoming you to the next episode. David Tian, signing out. [43:38.4]
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