Terry Real has been known to welcome participants to his popular couples therapy conferences by asking: "How many of you are therapists? And how many of you are normal people?"
Hey, I laughed, and I'm the daughter of a child psychologist.
Humor is helpful when talking about difficult topics, and Real will dive into a dicey trifecta when he arrives in the Twin Cities on Friday to lead a conference, titled "Narcissism, Infidelity and Trauma."
Real, the Boston-based author of "The New Rules of Marriage" and a consultant to "Good Morning America," will share the stage with another heavy hitter, Esther Perel, author of "Mating in Captivity" and consultant to the Emmy-winning Showtime series "The Affair."
Perel's recent TED talk on modern lust has tallied nearly 6 million visits.
Minneapolis psychologist Pam Staples calls the event "a therapist's dream come true," noting that this is the first time the relationship gurus have offered a workshop together. The duo picked Minnesota because we're chock-full of "renegades rethinking couples therapy," Perel said.
But curious nonprofessionals are welcome, too, in our 50 shades of normal.
"It's wonderful to have the public, who are actually our consumers," Perel said by phone from New York. "It really becomes a Town Hall."
Just not your grandmother's Town Hall.
The idea for a joint conference on sex, lies and narcissism started about three years ago, when the two therapists — each a fan of the other's work — began teleconferencing in hopes of shaking off stale theories used with couples facing the devastation of an affair.
"We need a new conversation about infidelity," Perel told Real, who heartily agreed. "Terry and I are coming to Minnesota together to create a different conversation about the subject."
The "old conversation," he noted, sounds something like this:
"The unfaithful partner is a criminal. The goal is to support the hurt partner and rehabilitate the unfaithful partner for his or her crime. There's the assumption that an affair always indicates pathology or that you're in a bad marriage," he said.
Betrayed partners now are likely shaking their heads and asking, "So, what's the problem?"
"What's left out," Real answers, "is the heart and soul of the unfaithful partner. There are two people who need to heal, and the relationship needs to heal."
Perel agrees. The "oldest taboo," as she calls infidelity, is typically spoken about as black and white, as victim and perpetrator, "when, in fact, it is way more nuanced than that."
In fact, they note, the relationship might not be fatally flawed. In fact, the cheating partner is likely not a criminal, but a confused human being. In fact, the betrayed partner might have nursed longings of his or her own.
In fact, most couples who face infidelity stay together.
What kind of partnership they create post-affair — perpetually grim or surprisingly grand — depends on whether each is willing to do very tough work, independently and together.
"The unfaithful partner and the hurt partner have extremely different experiences," Real said.
"When the affair is disclosed, it's often a relief for the unfaithful one and a disaster for the hurt one. Our job is to negotiate these very different agendas."
But first, the partner who strayed must apologize unequivocally. "It's terribly important that the unfaithful partner acknowledge what he or she did and how hurtful it was," Real said. "It's really a tall order for the betrayed to have empathy before that."
Research on trauma, Perel added, shows that a genuine apology, and acceptance of the pain one has caused, can begin the healing process.
"We look at hurt and betrayal on the one hand, and growth and self-discovery on the other," Perel said.
The therapists might ask the partner who strayed: "What lit up in you that was asleep or dormant and missing? How can you bring the aliveness that you found outside the relationship back into the relationship, assuming you want it?"
"People can actually love their partner and the last thing they want is to hurt him or her," Perel said. "Yet they have an affair because we live in a culture where we think we deserve to be happy. Most people we see are not chronic philanderers (i.e., the troubling narcissists). One day, they cross a line they never thought they'd cross."
The betrayed spouse may need time, sometimes years, to gather information and ask questions, such as: "Why did this happen when you tell me you love me? Did you come back for me or the family? Did you hope I'd leave you?"
This partner also is encouraged to regain power by sharing his or her own truths. "Maybe he or she wasn't served by the marriage, either," Perel said. "One person's breaking of the agreement and asking for more can be an opening for the other to say, 'You think I wasn't thinking about it? But I didn't do it!' Now you, too, get to claim more. It's not just the unfaithful person who has longings."
If given space and time, the betrayed partner can reject the "angry victim" mentality and replace it with empowerment, compassion, even renewed vigor.
Quite often, Real said, the hurt partner will experience a tremendous resurgence of sexual passion along the way to healing. "It's a general awakening," he said.
That's likely why Perel has been asked if affairs can actually help marriages.
"Should marriages have an affair? Sure. Have cancer, too. And, yet, people say an affair, like cancer, has given them a new perspective.
"Some couples will die on the vine," Perel said. "For others, it's the beginning of a new marriage."
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum