Book review: Us, and normal marital hatred

What caught my attention to Terrence Real’s interview in the New York Times is its title: A Couples’ Counselor Takes on “Normal Marital Hatred”.

Now, that’s an interesting expression !

After reading the interview, I decided the couples’s counselor book was definitely worth a look. So here is my book review of Us, by Terrence Real.

What is “Normal Marital Hatred ?”

Terrence Real explains that the first phase between two partners is one of harmony: the bliss of falling in love, the hormonal and emotional high, the delightful infatuation. In this phase, both partners are enjoying their feelings, and pay little attention to the proverbial red flags. You may have a sense that you want to live your whole life with someone. You do not necessarily register the fact that he, or she, has never held down a job for long, seems to be easily angry, or is in fact not available. Nothing seems insurmountable.

After a few years (a famous writer here in France wrote a book called “Love lasts 3 years”!), the infatuation and hormonal high subside, and both partners stop putting their best foot forward all the time. You end up face to face with the actual real man, or woman.

Surprise! He, or she, never held down a job for long, is an angry nightmare to live with, or is still living with his wife / husband. And that’s really a problem now.

The idealized version of your partner is gone, you now have to live with the real one. There is a sense of betrayal: he is not what you thought he was. She is not what she seemed to be at the beginning. Where is the person you fell in love with ?

Here is the beginning of “Normal Marital Hatred”. You hate the flaws that you did not see for so long, and it’s the only thing you can see now. You even construct an version of your partner at his or her worst in your head (the narcissitic one, the nagging one), and for a while, this is how you define them.

Should we worry ?

This phase is entirely normal, and entirely temporary. If both partners have some emotional competence, that is (and do not declare “Love lasts 3 years!” and quit to find the next infatuation).

In fact, this is when the real relationship starts. If everything goes well, it leads to another really satisfying phase of profound feelings of love and trust – despite the flaws, that have been negotiated, and have to be renegotiated from time to time. Living in that “Us” space is really precious, because we need a few years to get there. It is not something we can attain multiple times in our lifetime.

This is not the first time I read about this idea. You can find it described skillfully for example in the book of John Bradshaw, Post Romantic Stress Disorder. It is the first time though that I find it described in so provocative, but accurate terms of Normal Marital Hatred. But these words are not the only gifts of this book.

How do we get there ?

Us is not specifically a book for us, survivors of sexual violence. I think it could be very useful for most people who are or want to be in a long term relationship, and who are not in optimal emotional health. It makes for a big potential readership, and we are definitely part of it.

I did resonate with what Terrence Real says because it is about consequences of trauma, in its broad sense, on relationships. A few examples he gives are about sexual trauma, most of them are not, but I’m not sure it is that important. The consequences are overall the same.

You see, normal marital hatred is not only about seing the current flaws of your partner, once the hormonal tide subsides. If only it were that simple.

It also exists because we are carrying emotional baggage into the relationship. Our current flaws maybe coping mecanisms from an old trauma carried forward. We can, for example, constantly try to defend ourselves from perceived attempts to control and trap us, which can in reality be genuine signs of love and caring. We can also dissociate at the first hint of emotional intensity, or anger, in our partner. And I’m even not talking about our sexual life, which can turn into a minefield.

Another important issue related to past trauma is our deep, secret hope, that we will find someone who will take care of our traumatized selves, hear us, validate us, and heal us. I remember feeling this, admittedely not really consciously, as soon as my first love story.

I can see now that hoping a 17 years old boy will find a way to heal an incest victim is a futile hope indeed. Nobody can, not even an old, wise, experienced therapist. All others can do is support us (and in the case of a wise therapist, guide us) while we heal ourselves. We all do expect our partners to heal us to some extent, but in doing so we set them up for failure.

But the part of us who is carrying this hope is not our adult self: it is our traumatized, often very young, self. This part of us does not have all the information needed to assess and negotiate our relationships clearly. Nevertheless it is the part of us that reacts, hopes, and then gets very disappointed and angry, when irrealistic expectations are not met.

All this can turn us into very confusing partners to relate to, to say the least.

To complicate the matter further, we usually are not the only ones with issues in the relationship. The other party does also carry emotional baggage, and is also hoping we can heal him or her.

No wonder it is so difficult.

How do we get out of there ?

The first message Terrence Real delivers is a classical one, but it is a fundamental advice so it’s still worth giving: if you want good, satisfaying relationships, work on your own stuff. There is no way around it. The quality of your relationship to others can not surpass the quality of the relationship you have with yourself.

The second useful piece of advice is less classical, but all the more worth giving: when interacting with your significant other, try to identify from which part of yourself you are reacting and talking: is it the wise adult, or the traumatized one, often a child, really ? Often, it is the latter, acting from a place of trauma and fear, fighting for its survival. This is not a good, constructive place to be for a love relationship. Go for a walk, splash water on your face, call for a time out. Heal and treat the traumatized part of you well, but don’t leave him or her steer the relational wheel. They will make a mess out of it.

And then, there is an explanation of how to resolve disagreements, upsets, and relational issues: talk about issues and do not sweep them under the rug. But in doing so, there are a few rules that we should follow if we want to be heard, like offering advice to our partner on how to repair the relationship.

All in all, do I recommend reading this book ?

Yes I do. Very much so.

I have only two points in this book that I don’t agree with:

  • Sometimes, it feels like all is needed is a confrontation and a quick interpretation of the impact of our past: “aha, this is why you are quick to anger, you took it from your father !” I call this instant therapy. My experience is that it does not work: rewiring our brains takes time, and repetition. Making people believe they should be able to snap out of their emotional funk in one session is misleading.
  • This is a book about “Us”, so understandably, the exclusive focus of the book is on salvaging relationships. But when one of the partner is a narcissist, and / or verbally or emotionnally abusive, in some if not all instances, the best thing to do is simply to leave. It does not serve the intent of the book, but I think it would have been worth mentionning.

But overall, this book is very good. Usually, I’am happy when I find one or two ideas contributing to my well being. This book contains many, many such ideas. It is definitely worth reading, and re-reading. It can help sort out our current relationship. It can also help making sense of past relational failures, and prepare us for future relationships. It can help us grow.

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