…Version of my podcast smart sex smart love. We’re talking about sex goes beyond the taboo and talking about love goes beyond the honeymoon. My guest today is Winifred Reilly, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, author and lecturer who focuses on helping couples create loving and satisfying relationships. In her NERT, nearly 40 years of clinical practice in Berkeley, California, she has helped more than 1000 couples build strong loving relationships, no matter how frustrated they were, or how long they’ve been stuck. She’s the author of the relationship advice blog, speaking of marriage, and the author of it takes one to tango, a book that empowers one partner in a marriage to create far reaching positive changes, even if the other partner does not join in the effort. She has written articles that are published in the Huffington Post, read simple, real simple, Reader’s Digest the good men project, the and red book, when Fred has also been interviewed by NPR, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, and WebMD. Welcome winner, Fred. It’s a pleasure, nice to meet you. Really nice to meet you, too. I’ve been wanting to have you on my show for a while after I, I’ve always liked the title of your book. And then I bought it and I not read the whole thing, but I’ve read a lot of it. And I think it’s a really important like in therapy world, we always talk about No, you’ve got to have another partner to work through these issues have got to come in as a couple. And I think the general population feels the same way. But you said wait a minute, not always. And so I guess my first question to you would be, can you talk about what it means when you say it takes only one? Yeah, you know, conventional wisdom is always says it takes two, you need two people with an equal commitment, you need two people putting two feet into solving the problem. And then in order for good things to happen, you have to meet in the middle, you have to meet each other halfway, you have to compromise. And unfortunately, that’s just not exactly how it works. On You know, what happens if you’re in a relationship where you know, your desire for change, it’s like 80 to 20, or it’s, you know, 6040 or 9010. You know, one partner has a longing for change, a vision for change. And the other one, you know, digs in his heels, or she says things are fine as they are, or they say, I’m too afraid. And, you know, couples therapy, you know, is the first step toward divorce, or maybe they’ve got one foot out the door, or they have so much anxiety, you know, there’s a million reasons why someone doesn’t engage. And so the problem with the it takes to paradigm is that it keeps people stuck. It’s a disempowering model. When really,
if you know, it’s like one person taking the lead, can create change, you know, it’s so so rather than be disempowered, or wait for your partner to change, I mean, everybody listening here, has probably already tried to change their partner, and has discovered that there’s this limited efficacy there. I know we say even with superpowers of a psychotherapist, it doesn’t work. Right. Right. Especially Yeah, well, as you hear, when you hear about, you know, my challenge of figuring all this stuff out, you know, as a therapist, it doesn’t make a difference, especially, you know, a friend of mine said, if you’re married to a therapist, you’ve really signed up for residential treatment.
Well, so that’s one of the things I loved about your book is that you were open about your own journey and your own sharing, which is very much the way I do my work as a humanistic type therapist. So you said you had to tackle your own relationship struggles by yourself one to Tango approach. Can you tell us about that? A little bit?
Yeah. So. So I go into it in great length in the book, because it basically is how I started to take the theories I was learning and the stuff I’d learned in graduate school, and the work I was doing with my clients. And I thought, if my own marriage is difficult, rather than give up, how about if I actually experiment with all the theories that I know? So if I back up a little, my husband and I were young when we got together, and we had terrible skills, we had terrible role models, we had no idea. Two of us are very headstrong. So there was a lot of there was a lot of head banging. And a lot of you know, it was very fat, you know, just flood a lot of passion, but a little too much. Yeah, so we, you know, we, we thought, Oh, well, you know, you know, all you need is love, right? So, anyway, around around 10 years or so. And it was we were getting worn out because of these kind of circuitous arguments, you know, Pete We’ll call up couples therapists, like, you know, we have the same argument over and over, I’m banging my head against well, so it was we sort of felt like we were on the hamster wheel in hell, and we just couldn’t, actually. And so rather than give up, rather than get a divorce, and we had tried couples therapy, where one of our therapists said, You guys are so great together, except when you’re not. When we’re not, I’d have no idea why you’re fighting like this. I mean, it was crazy. So I thought, Okay, I will take everything I know. And the key pieces of what I was working with were, I was trained in a developmental model. And the simple explanation for that is, people progress from the kind of honeymoon connected stage to needing to be able to deal with difference, and you need to be able to deal with with a little space that and that, that the counterintuitive ideas, when you have the capacity to stand alone, and stay connected to yourself, you’re you have a greater capacity for intimacy with another person. And so I think I’ll say some more about that in a bit. But I was going with the principle of, we have to go up the developmental ladder, and the place that most people get stuck is the stage where you have to deal with your differences. We can’t go to sameness. We’re not on a honeymoon, we can’t, we aren’t going to be able to agree. And how am I going to hold myself steady, in the face of your disapproval or your disagreement, or your lack of validation, or, you know, your your name calling or whatever, you know, whatever you do when you get anxious, and you feel like you’re threatened. And so I thought, okay, so we have to get ourselves, I have to learn how to deal with difference, I have to be able to stand on my own feet. And I also had a lot of training in systems theory, which basically says, when you change one part of a system, you influence the whole system. And so I thought, okay, so if I can’t get my husband to buy in, you know, it wasn’t that he was like, a hate therapy, and I won’t do it, he just thought, I don’t get this this thing about needing to be separate in order to be connected, like, you know, and so he wasn’t really on board. And he thought I joined some kind of a call to action. I was like, Okay, I’m just going to take, I’m just going to do this. And I thought the other principle, so there’s that and the other principle of paying more attention to yourself and less attention to your partner, stop trying to change your partner, and change yourself. So I thought, Okay, what is the one thing that if I could change that, I would not want to leave my husband. And the thing I wanted to change was how I felt when we argued, and how I felt when we argued was that I would be disoriented. He was good. And so it was like he was it was like being in squinting with him, you know, and he would just throw out all this stuff. And I be like, I get it. And it was very confused. And wait a minute, I thought we were talking about like, your shoes on the stairs. And now we’re talking about my personality, like, how did we get there. And it was just like, an A. And so I thought, that’s the experience that I need to change. So when I tell people, you know, pick one thing to change, it’s sometimes it’s a behavior of yours, I’m aggressive, or I’m too wimpy, or I’m not nice, or I don’t say thank you, or you know, but sometimes it’s an experience how I feel about myself when I am with you. That’s a lot of it for people. And so that was a thing I worked on. And it took a long time for me to actually be able to stay present when my husband when we were having an argument when he was kind of switching subjects and calling me names. And the way I did it was that I would actually had to step outside the room for a minute and reconfigure my thoughts. And then I’d be like, hold on a minute, I got to pull myself together. And then it would come back in and then I get lost in outcome. And eventually, I didn’t have to leave the room. And so I discovered that you and that was really where my experiment with unilateral change, one person taking the lead. And what’s surprised me, but not because I knew the theory was that as I was changing, he began to change and it wasn’t because of my instructions. It was that the velcro of what we were doing. He wasn’t sticking on the same things. And he began to let more things go or it was nicer not to be going on on that wheel. So that’s that’s actually how I began to work with this and started bringing this to my clients. With flight. You can do it you don’t actually have to and you don’t actually have to Get your partner’s buy in. In fact, it’s fine not to have your partner’s buying because it’s your work. Which doesn’t mean you doesn’t have any work to do.
I go, okay, because I love what you’re saying. But I mean, I think a lot of people listening would say, they would feel resentful, and it would be really difficult for them to only be the one taking the lead. What about my partner? What do you say to that? Yeah,
okay. So first of all, it would be great. If, if your partner you know, was jumped on board, and maybe your partner will. But you see, if you think about like, like, why, why I wasn’t resentful, was that I felt empowered. I felt like, I’m no longer going to be driven crazy by this nonsense that this guy does, when he feels cornered. And eventually, I could just see through it, it was really empowering. And, and so it’s, it’s kind of, I’m going to tell people take a leap of faith, you’re not dragging your partner’s carcass around, you’re not taking responsibility for all their garbage, you’re just empowering yourself to be in a different position. For you know, here’s another example of how it works. People are like, I no longer am going to get in the car with you, when I think you’ve been drinking so much. If I have to take an Uber, or I’m not going to stand by when you’re shouting or shaming the kids, it’s just a no pass anymore. Or I’m going to start talking about sex, whether you’re uncomfortable with it or not. It’s like that’s what I mean by unilateral change. If you think about it, all change really is unilateral. Somebody comes up with a good idea. Let’s invent the light bulb. Somebody comes up with a good idea, and then goes about trying to make that thing happen. You know, in the rest of the world, we’re like, yeah, be a leader in a relationship. Oh, no, we’re supposed to be in tandem. And so yeah, be a leader take a lead. He’s, you know, it’s, it feels good. You know, I never say instantaneous either doesn’t mean like, you know what to do. And it’s really fast. It took a year for me to stop having my head spin.
That’s helpful to know, because people I do think want more instant results. And when they don’t get that, they just drop it because they think, well, they’re going to feel like I’m doing this all by myself. My partner’s not doing anything. And if I’m not seeing results, then what’s the point?
Yeah, well, I like to say there’s this Japanese proverb, which is false seven times stand up eight. It’s like, if the thing you’re doing isn’t getting you there that I mean, I literally experimented with, how come I get so disoriented? How do I lose my IQ? When I’m arguing with this man? It’s like, it’s like, how do we get how do I feel? So like, what, what? And then I just realized he just changed the subject, you know, and we laugh about it. Now, we don’t fight like that. We laugh about it, because it was like, you know, it’s a friend of mine said, if you’re losing on the subject matter, go for character assassination. It’s like, and I was like, wait, I’m trying to be fair, Robert’s Rules of Order. You should talk I should talk. It’s just, you know, and so once I sort of saw it, it didn’t have that. Destroy. I was like, Oh, he’s just scared. Oh, he just feels threatened. All right, I can relax. He’s just saying a bunch of stuff. Really, you know, and then I could go, you really think that? Let’s go back a minute, you know, and it was just then the whole, it just, it just dissolved it but but like I said, not instantly it took it took a long time. But I was committed because I I was I didn’t want to leave this guy. Like the therapist said it was really good, except when it wasn’t.
Yes. And I like what you’re saying, you know, you when we think of systems theory, in the therapy world, we’re always thinking of it in terms of pathological right? One person’s not hold keeping their own, they’re holding their own weight up or whatever. So everyone has to, you know, come in and and recalibrate to it like when cars, wheel doesn’t work, all the other three wheels have to work, but you did it, you shifted into something positive and said, Wait a minute, if you do something different in a positive way, then it can create a positive into the family.
If you think about its ecological theory, yes. I mean, training is ecological family systems where if you clean up one part of a river, you know, suddenly there’s fish, you’re you’re working the whole system, if I’m, if I’m managing my reactivity, we can’t really have an escalating fight. You know, or you could start yelling, and I could be like, Hey, do you think you might want to slow down there a little honey? Like, you know, but if I go and you go, and you’re gone, you go, you know? So systemic change is that you begin to change your piece of the system.
And there are times that you don’t advise this when a client comes in and you’re like, No, no, no, this is not a situation With this will work.
Yeah, when basically this just one condition when you’re not safe in the relationship and I don’t mean, not safe like because your partner is, you know, gets grumpy or like, you know, I mean, like if there’s domestic violence, if you’re if you’re, if there’s kind of psychological abuse, and your focus needs to be on making yourself safe, not figuring out what your part is, it’s good to figure out what your part is, but not focusing on I’m just gonna let my partner kind of do their thing. While I that’s like, Nah, don’t do this. This is now for you.
Okay. All right. And in the book, you talk about five things that you should do to take the lead. Yeah.
This is where I have the list. Okay, go ahead. Okay. All right. First one, you need to give up the it takes to believe set, you have to set aside all the 5050 fairness stuff. And the thing about we have to work in tandem as a team. I’m not asking you to carry your partner’s dead weight, I’m just asking you to figure out some way that you want to change something you’re doing and see what happens in the system. So that’s the first one second one, you just need to train a sharp eye on your own behavior. You have to figure out what am I doing here? It could it whatever your starting point is, you have to pick something. You can pick something big, I tell people pick something that you really would that you’re willing to work really hard for, that really matters, you know, if you’re if, if you’re wobbly somewhere or you’re aggressive somewhere, or you’re not receptive, or you don’t speak up, pick something, or you don’t like a way you respond to something your partner does. Those are the sorts of things like, what can what am I what I can I control, I couldn’t control my husband’s ridiculous fighting style. But I could control how crazy it made me how I responded to it, how I calmed down how I was able to manage to hold on to my own thoughts. You have to tolerate aloneness. If you think about the position you’re taking, you’re separating yourself. And you’ve got to stand on your own feet, you have to validate your own set of behaviors. Nobody you know, your partner is not going to say I really liked you taken or taken me on, you know, they’re not. I really, I’m so happy that you won’t get in the car with me. You know, when I’m like smoking a joint like, No, you know, you have to just you have to take the lead even when you’re you know, you’re not in agreement. If you ask people, like, what do you think your partner’s work is? They will never say my partner’s work is to get herself on her feet. So I don’t make her headspin No, you’re my you know, my partner’s work is she should be nicer. She should you know, like, she should be more like I want her to be, you know, not like, yeah, I really, it’s really great that, you know, she’s really challenging all our basic beliefs that people are not signing up for. Speaking of belief sets, the fourth one is every relationship has unspoken rules, we can talk about this, we can’t talk about that. I can’t challenge this. But if you bring that up, and I’m gonna bring this up, so maybe, you know, then that a lot of them are very collusive. And so you actually in order to grow out, you’re going to have to challenge some of the rules and belief sets that are not healthy or constraining you and in step out of your comfort zone. And the last one is you have to be willing to learn from your missteps. You have to take the long view, this is not an instant change thing. Although when it starts to happen, it’s it can actually kind of go from slow, slow to fast, like the day that I no longer needed to walk out of the room. It was kind of like, like I popped out of gravity, like some kind of like flow dance like, Oh, this is really nice. Why did you?
How did you know that? That you didn’t have to walk out of the room, what was changed about him
made him feel confused. I could just see that he was just switching the subject and that he looked really threatened. And he was just he was like, if he was like, I would kill my opponent before I lose. You know, you grew up with a bunch of brothers, you kill your opponent, you’d never lose. You know. And so I was like, how so fast what he’s doing, but I couldn’t see it because it was so disorienting.
So he didn’t change you changed.
At that point. He had not changed. what point did he you know, it was kind of gradual. But what I began to notice there was like, there was a time when we started to get into one of our circuitous arguments I had said Do you think you could have like a messy anything. And so he’s like, I’m too slow. And I don’t you know, I don’t live within time and I think he’s too messy. So we kind of go in on that. And so I asked him to clean up some kind of mess, and he got defensive and, and I just looked bereft. And he paused, and he goes, so let me reiterate this, when you asked me to do something, and then I attack you for asking me, you feel really invalidated and upset, right? Well, I’m like, Yeah. And he’s like, Yeah, okay, I see that now. I spent dropped dead. And it was because somehow, some kind of sticky, confusing, defensive pattern, and I really can’t tell you how that happened. But it was like, Yeah, I was just like, Okay, now I don’t have to kill this guy. Right. You know, I was just me. So we started to have more, or there’d be times where we would start to get into something. And he’s like, you know, this isn’t really good. I think we should stop. Like, let’s just knock lessness knock it on the wheel. Okay, so he began to take also leadership moves.
Yeah. Did you tell them what was happening? That you what you were doing differently? Or? No,
no, I didn’t tell him, you know, like a basic scientist mentality, which is that you don’t want to pollute the field with too much information. You know, what was he gonna do? Oh, I’m gonna try changing unilaterally and you don’t have to do a thing to say, you know, or like, Yeah, I’m gonna sneak this, you know, because he wouldn’t have thought that what I really need to work on was not being confused by his fighting style. But that was like not he had no idea I just needed to stop be annoying, or something.
Do you find with clients, this is a hard sell?
No, because because, um, everybody already knows that their partner isn’t changing. Like they can’t they can’t jump up and down demand scream, yell, and I don’t exactly, you know, unless they’ve come to me after they’ve read my book. I don’t exactly say you’re gonna have to do this alone. It kind of happens organically in the therapy, where I begin, when I meet a new couple, at first thing I say is, with each separate person, what is it that you personally would like me to help you with? So him basically setting the stage not like, so what’s happening with the two of you? And what is your mutual goal? Like, what do you need to work on? That you need help that if that was different, you know, when they start to talk about their partner, I’m like, Yeah, okay. And I listened to that. And I’m like, so what would you like me to help you with? And so from the beginning, this is what we’re doing.
I feel like you’re a lone voice in this field. Do you know of anyone else who’s talking like this?
Yes. Yes. So my original training was with Ellen Bader, and in a couple’s Institute where I love elevator. So I worked for like nine years with Ellen. And then I trained with with Dave snores for about a year I loved him too. And he basically both have this differentiation based model, which is that the you get better connected to yourself so that you can get connected to someone else. It’s not we get connected together, and then it’s great. I have to be, you know, if I’m leaning on, you kind of looks like this. But if I’m on my feet, it look, we can get this close.
But I still feel like both Ellen and David had did that in the context of relationship therapy, where you’re, you’re doing it in individual therapy?
Well, I’m doing it in both because you know, the secret really is in this model. Couples Therapy is really psychotherapy with two patients. Yes, it’s, it’s really, I’m going to help you become a healthier person and help you become a healthier person. And I’m going to help your system, use the healthier parts of both of you. So it really is kind of individual, to some extent. But what’s good about this, and I’ve actually started to do some trainings for therapists on this, on how to work on individual client issues, relationship issues without taking sides, like how do you you know, it’s kind of like, Oh, your partner does that, oh, you’re in bad shape. It’s like, Oh, your partner does that. That’s kind of annoying. What do you want to do with that? You know, and, and so I’m, I’m wanting to empower people. I mean, who wants to be completely at the effect of their partner’s anxiety? Right, like, right?
And still took me years might have been with my husband, 30 years. I would say it took me 1517 years to finally go. Alright, he’s right about me. I’m too angry and I go to anger really fast because I come from a family that didn’t listen to me. And the only way they would listen to me is if I got angry, and but they really wouldn’t still listen me they’d react to me, but not listen to me. Right? Yeah, right. It was terrible. I had to take the I had to do without knowing I was doing it. I had to just change myself. I knew I was changing myself, but I wasn’t sure that it would change him. And it did it freed up space, so he could talk to me.
Yeah, and so when we create, so it can go either way, you know, it’s a courageous path, because it could go either way. Which is, it can take people a long time before they can get close to you and say, Joe, your anger is really a problem. You know, it can take a while. And if we, and in you might at first be like, no, no, blah, blah, this, you know, and so, but if they don’t give up, and they stay, and they don’t get angry, it’s like, if if I’m saying to somebody, you know, this thing that you’re doing is really not healthy. And I’m not escalating, and I’m not blaming them. That, you know, it’s not it’s, they’re going to eventually hear you. And so it’s lovely thing, it’s like, you know, eventually, the stuff that your partner will tell you about yourself is actually accurate. Initially, it’s like, you’re not nice enough. And you’re you know, but really, I’m a wimp. And so it’s not it great. Yeah, right?
What would you say I haven’t asked you so far that you want to make sure the listeners know about your book, your work,
I want people a couple things, I want people to know that it’s actually not as hard as you think it sounds, it does sound hard. But see, it’s a lot easier than waiting for your partner to change. And, and if you have a vision for change, if you want something, and it really is empowering, to take a risk, and we don’t grow without taking risk. I mean, you know, your if you could live your life in your comfort zone, and it will be it will be very stuck and boring. And so when you when you want something, and you go for it, it’s exhilarating. But remember, it’s you’re not going to get, you’re not going to get a standing ovation when you confront things in your relationship that are not healthy. You know, and so I mean, even to this day, my husband and I are still growing, we’re about to have our 45th anniversary. Wow. And we’re you know, and, and we’re still growing, and we still, you know, have things to say to each other, like, you know, when you do that thing, this is this is what happens, and this is not good. It’s like, Oh, can you think about that, like we have not stopped growing and, and understanding the way we interact with me which any two people, you put any two people together in a space. And, you know, if you’re not the same, you don’t want the same things, you’re more often out of sync than you are in sync. And so you have to work to to be understood, you’re not going to necessarily be understood. You have to be patient, you have to you know, be curious, and you never stop actually learning things about yourself.
I think you said so many important things. But one of the most important things you’ve said that I want everyone to hear is even after 45 years, you’re still working on things, there are still issues, things get better, you probably come back much more quickly, when you have a conflict if there’s any kind of rupture. That’s what I noticed in my 30 year, but that it doesn’t stop just because you you’re a therapist, you’ve done all this work, you know,
right? No, because, you know, first of all, we don’t we’re not static, right? Well, I mean, my husband has actually recently started to have like, has an annoying behavior. And I said to him the other day, I’ve been with you for like 45 years. What How did you just start doing this thing? Like, you know, let’s say it’s not he let’s say you like started cracking his knuckles or something will be like, out of the blue. Like, really, you found a way to be more annoying. We can laugh about that stuff. Because you know, we change we get older, we can hear each other as well. It’s like, a quarter of the time you’re like What did you say? Yeah,
all right. Well tell us where they can find you your training your book.
Okay. So I there’s a link that I’m hoping that you put, which is so so I have a I have a blog, which I haven’t written in, in in quite a few years, but there’s about 50 posts in there. One in particular, kind of went viral around the world, like literally all over the world. And it was one that I wrote for my 36th anniversary called 36 things I’ve learned in 36 years. And somehow that one like really spoke to people and I’ve had People even to this day, sending me emails saying that they, they decided to do to work on one of these things at a time. You know, there are things like when in doubt, trying to ascribe the highest possible motive to your partner. Or if you think your relationship would have been easier with somebody else, you probably move on, and stuff like that. And so, so so that one is just one, you know, if people want to read, it’s, it’s got 36 things to really think about. And it’s a good one it was, and I wrote it in about 30 minutes. Great. All right, in a cafe, and I wrote it, and it was just sort of the right thing. And then there’s my book, which really talks a lot about the developmental model and growth, and how to do this unilateral thing. And it talks about the various ways in which my clients, so it’s a kind of a braiding between my learning my marriage, and my clients. And really is, it’s called, it takes one to tango and the and the editor right before it published, they put the subtitle on it, how I rescued my marriage with almost no help from my spouse, and now you can too.
I liked it. It was compelling for me to pick it up and want to read it.
Yeah, yeah. Well, it was it was and it’s a fun book. It’s not like, you know, it’s kind of a memoir, self help. Yes. And the thing about it, and the thing I bring to my work, is we’re all in the same boat relationships are very difficult. And so like, as a therapist, if my model is like, I have it all together, and you know, and you people are really behind the eight ball, it’s not really going to like to say like, oh, yeah, that’s really hard, you know, and, you know, and you know, and yeah, you know, my husband doesn’t call those drawers either. I really empathize with you, you know. And so we’re all just trying to figure this out.
Yep. It has been a pleasure having you on my show, Jennifer, thank you so much. And we will put all those links to everything that you’re talking about your book and your trainings. And then if you want if you like this podcast, and you’re enjoy smart sex smart love, you can hear more at going to smart sex smart love.com. It’s also on my website, Joe ct.com. And then you can find me on every single platform Tiktok, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and it’s at Dr. Joe CT. Dr. J. OEKORT. Thanks so much for listening. Stay safe, stay healthy, and I’ll see you next time.