What Happens in a Relational Life Therapy Boot Camp?

Can couples really LEARN to be more relational in a weekend?

I wondered that, myself, when I signed up for Terry Real’s Relational Life Therapy Boot Camp in New York City in October of 2018. My wife (my co-adventurer) and I were in equal parts skeptical and willing to find out when we committed most of the entire weekend to finding out.

The answer was a resounding “yes, but…”. Rather than being the kind of simple “yes” that comes with going through some sort of magic, cathartic car-wash that guarantees that our vehicle would never get dirty again, we understood that we’d learned a bunch of tools and perspectives that — if we used them — would ensure we’d be on the same page moving forward and always able to find each other in repair and reconnection. These were treasured tools and they’ve been of benefit to us every week of our lives since.

So: profound change, in a weekend? Yes. If you follow-up by doing the work going forward.

Fast forward 16 months to sunny Puerto Vallarta, Mexico where I was gathered, with about 40 other therapists (and again with my wife!) to learn, from Terry Real, how to teach the Boot Camp to others, myself. I was now a fully certified Relational Life Therapist who’d transitioned my private practice almost entirely to couples’ work. As 2020 draws to a close, I’m proud to have been the first trainee to have presented Terry Real’s Boot Camp, as he empowered us to do it, and also to have done it a second time, with co-leader Kristy Gaisford, LCSW.

“Boot Camp” summons up images of push-ups, running miles in weighted backpacks, crawling under barbed wire, and scaling tall walls, none of which happens during our weekends together.

What then DOES go on in a RLT Boot Camp weekend? Here is what I can offer, but — as they say — nothing replaces being there for it.

When we begin the weekend we start by noting how very different it is to gather with the intention to be both honest and merciful towards ourselves and each other, as we enter into learning. The everyday “real world” fosters relentless criticism, beginning with self-criticism. We take those bad feelings and most often project them outwards onto the people we most care for. It’s what I call a bad-idea-gone-wrong.

What is it like to be self-accepting, even as we figure out why we’ve done some of the same self-defeating things over and over again? And what, by the way, is it that we are doing as we alternate between the “same old” patterns and the “old same” patterns that cause guaranteed friction and disappointment with our partners? Why on earth would we do it in the first place? What is in it for us?

In a RLT Boot Camp we figure this out. Specifically.

Then we talk with each other, and hear what kind of adjustments other people have made, as individuals and parts of a couple. What sort of success and disappointments has it brought them?

We identify how we characteristically react when we fall away from the center of relational health. How tough is it to deal with us when we get “that way”? We ask and tell. How bad does it get? We consider it, out loud. And we share it with others, only to discover that we aren’t alone at all; others have these same issues. We begin to gain comfort in the realization of our own shared humanity.

We go back over the basics of what is needed in relationships — in our lives! — in order to feel safe. Without these things all relationships will either be fleeting, superficial, dangerous or disappointing.

We come to understand our unique losing strategies — things that we employ automatically — that keep us, often, in “stable misery.”

After identifying everything that we do wrong (on a consistent basis!) we consider what a set of winning strategies would look like. What would it take to build a life together, based on these principles? Just how good could the future look? And what is it, exactly, we are supposed to do? We provide examples, through stories and sharing, of what this looks like and sounds like in everyday life. These examples make it clear that none of us are in any elevated realm above anyone else and that these are daily human challenges. It isn’t the least bit pie-in-the-sky; there are specific tools we use — which we share and practice in the Boot Camp — that can make life instantly better on a daily basis if we use them.

Finally we consider what it might be like to live a contempt-free life, in which full-throttle intimacy is held in the highest regard and worked towards by both partners in a relationship.

When I experienced the Boot Camp in NYC in 2018 and again in Mexico in early 2020, we were still gathering in person. The challenge was to adapt the training to Zoom and The Cloud without losing the dimension of shared intimacy. To my pleasure, and some surprise I found that both times I’ve been involved in teaching the Boot Camp people who were strangers a few hours ago connect with emotional richness and support, despite living hundreds (or thousands!) of miles away from each other.

Honesty and vulnerability are compelling things. The more you give in to them, and share them with others, the more you want to continue doing that.

Is a Boot Camp right for you? It is a significant investment of time and money; but something happens when you reach a point where you are determined to invest in the right direction and get something from it. It’s hard to know what to call it, because it is not magic. It is, rather, what Dr. Stephen Johnson alluded to in the title of his book about characterological change years ago: it is “The Hard Work Miracle.”

by Jerry Sander, LCSW


Jerry Sander, LCSW, is a graduate of New York University’s School of Social Work. He is a father of four and has been in private practice for 35 years. He has trained extensively in couples therapy through the Relational Life Institute with Terry Real, is a certified RLT therapist, and is an adjunct instructor for NYU in their MSW program in Westchester. Read more, click here.