Seven years ago, Andy Paquette got caught.
His wife, Maryellen, found out he was having an affair. She was home on maternity leave from her teaching job, with a newborn and a toddler. Paquette told her that he needed time away from the family. “I said I needed to leave the house for a bit, to stay at a hotel. Here she is with a newborn and a three-year-old, and I’m saying I can’t be here! It still pains me to say it, to realize what I put my wife through,” Paquette says, embarrassed.
He ended the affair and moved in with his parents. “I ran away from everything,” he says. “My oldest daughter probably doesn’t remember. I hope she doesn’t remember. It was bad.”
Paquette is a successful guy. He runs his own consulting firm out of Massachusetts, traveling all over the country, advising leaders and helping steer organizations. In his business, you make a mistake, you read about it in the paper the next day. He worried that any error would kill his company, that then he wouldn’t be able to provide for his family. His performance had to be perfect. His organization had to be perfect. High stress, long hours, demanding job.
He didn’t, though, talk about work at home, didn’t tell Maryellen about his worries about the company, his worries that he wasn’t good enough. In fact, he didn’t tell her much about anything. Then there were his in-laws. They were always at the house, over-involved in his family, bossy, intrusive. “When I would see their car in our driveway, I’d just continue driving on and go somewhere else,” Paquette admits. Essentially, his solution for his marital problems was to sit in silence with “a Mountain Dew and a bag of Doritos.” The affair completed the trifecta of his coping mechanisms. “I was just running away from things I wouldn’t deal with. I was unable to speak up for myself in my marriage.”
Maryellen’s godmother, a therapist, advised her and Paquette to start couples’ work, but not with just anyone: She recommended Terry Real, a marriage therapist who specializes in pulling relationships back from the brink of divorce.
Real’s approach departs from the neutral position most therapists assume that can take months or years to effect change. Instead, Real and the therapists he trains use what they call “loving confrontation.” Basically, they call people on their crap.
Paquette and Maryellen’s first meeting with Real lasted eight hours. “It was hardcore,” says Paquette. “There was no messing around.” They talked about the affair. The in-laws. Money. They talked about how Paquette didn’t like to talk. “There were a lot of issues my wife and I had never addressed, honestly, that led to us working with him,” Paquette explains. Sometimes Real had Paquette leave the room and talked only to Maryellen; sometimes she left and it was man-to-man. “He talked to my wife about the physical intimacy of the affair — that almost made me sick, but at the end of it, after each session, it felt very cathartic,” says Paquette.
Real told Maryellen, “You need to kick your mother out of your marriage, and if you can’t do it, I will.”
“He didn’t let me off easy either,” says Paquette. “If I gave him a one-word answer, he said, ‘That’s not an answer.’ There was many a tear shed. But it was the first time ever that I felt I was in a safe place, with someone who called me out for my BS and called my wife out for some of hers, and let me know that it’s okay to feel the way I’m feeling — it doesn’t mean I’m bad or a failure.”
Paquette and Maryellen worked with Real for about three months, sometimes weekly, sometimes every other week, for an hour or two at a time. Ultimately, Real and Paquette hit upon this: Paquette was afraid of telling Maryellen how he felt about just about anything, because Paquette was afraid she would leave him. “Terry told me that being alone and being lonely were two different things. I was afraid of being alone, but it’s okay to be alone. Feeling alone is a different thing.”
In the end, in fact, the origins of this fear were pretty obvious. Paquette’s mother abandoned him, his brothers and his policeman father when the boys were very young. Raised by his father, his father’s friends and his grandparents, Paquette grew up primarily around men. “There’s probably a distrust of women in there,” he admits.
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Traditional therapy has a design flaw when it comes to men, says Real. It’s based on slowly nurturing people into higher self-esteem, but most men are operating on a level of grandiosity. What they need, argues Real, is plain, direct honesty delivered with respect. “I’m clear as day about his difficult behavior, and at the same time, I’m rooting for him,” says Real.
For example, a patient of his — let’s call him Frank — had a very harsh father. Which, in turn, is how Frank treated his kids, straining his relationship with them — and, of course, his wife. “Put both your butt cheeks on that chair!” Frank would yell. Or: “Don’t eat like an animal!”
“That’s crude, shaming, not instructive,” Real told Frank, bluntly. “You’re telling them they’re losers. You’re fathering from an old-school script. The rest of us have moved on, we’ve outgrown that.”
One day, Frank barked an order at his 9-year-old son, who responded with, “Dad, can you please say that to me nicer?”
Real asked, “Do you know who made it possible for him to say that?”
Frank answered, “My wife.”
“No,” Real offered back, “you. You’re responsible for him feeling safe enough.”
Frank started to weep.
Says Real, “I reach inside and shake hands with the good man, and we work together to push the adaptive child out of the way.”
The “adaptive child” is a set of behaviors for coping that develop during childhood; every adult has them. Those behaviors helped the child cope with difficult situations and even survive devastating ones. But those behaviors can sabotage the adult, becoming automatic attack and defense mechanisms that resist logic.
We marry partners who we believe can help us heal that wounded child, explains Real. But that can’t happen when two wounded children are yelling at each other. The solution is to care for your own adaptive child — a tough slog “when your partner is in your face screaming at you, when you’re feeling abandoned, when you think your relationship is a mistake and you’re trapped it in.”
He uses the example of his own marriage. “I’m a fighter; my wife is a fighter,” says Real. “We could let our adaptive children fight with each other all night long. What we have to do is deal with our child ourselves, not foist them on our partner. Put your child on your lap, put your arms around him, love him, take his sticky little hands off the steering wheel and put him in the back seat. I will take Little Terry and put him behind me. I will protect him from the blast coming from my partner, he is completely protected. I tell him, ‘But don’t you try to deal with Belinda, let me deal with Belinda, I can do a better job.’”
The sad fact is, we, as a people, have very few relationships skills. We’re not taught them, and rarely see anyone else doing it well. So after Real reintroduces men to their emotional histories, he teaches couples specific communication skills: how to turn crabby complaints into loving requests, how to actively listen and stop defending yourself, how to establish healthy boundaries.
A lot of the problem is that couples often fight the same fight for 40 years, says Real. “We marry someone who is exquisitely designed to stick the burning spear into our eyeball,” laughs Real. “This doesn’t mean you’re in a bad marriage, it means you’re in a marriage. Our culture gives us no tools or help in how dark that gets. And it gets very dark; there’s a dark night of the soul there.”
The way out of the darkness, he maintains, is to take a deep look at yourself and keep the focus on that inner child of yours, no matter how much you might want to remove the burning spear from your face and stick it in your partner’s eye. “When we’re in it, and you have the spear in my eye, I’m one triggered human being,” says Real. “I’m all about my childhood and my wounding. I want to get out of that wounding and get you to do the nice thing for me that would heal me, and when you don’t, I retaliate. But if I can give it to me, then I can get what I need and I can do something different with you and that heals the wound.”
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Seven years after the affair, things are much improved for Paquette and Maryellen. “Honestly, I’m speechless about what I did to her and that she stuck with me through all this. Luckily, it’s now a true partnership,” Paquette says. “We brainstorm together — about my work and hers. I will never again let anything get in the way of me saying how I feel. And my wife has more of a backbone about putting up proper boundaries [with her parents].”
“The end result is a new way of looking at and dealing with life, my marriage, myself, my work,” he continues. “I use all this Terry Real stuff at work all the time. My wife and I joke about me being Andy 2.0 now. I do and say things now that Andy 1.0 never would have. I’m a completely different guy. I shudder at the thought of where I would be if I wasn’t.”