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The Power of Terry Real’s Relationship Grid for Therapists and their Clients 

Updated: May 26

The Relationship Grid, created by couple’s therapist Terry Real (2007), is a framework that helps individuals understand their relational patterns and move towards healthier, more balanced relationships. This grid is a helpful tool for those looking to improve their relationships and for therapists guiding their clients through the complex dynamics of interpersonal connections. The model serves as a map to understanding the dynamics of self-esteem and boundaries in our interpersonal connections.

Source: Terry Real (2007)


Understanding Self-Esteem and Boundaries

The Relationship Grid is based on the idea that our relational patterns are influenced by two primary factors: self-esteem and boundaries. Each of these exists on a spectrum, with self-esteem ranging from toxic shame to grandiosity, and boundaries from being 'boundaryless' to 'walled off.'


Self-Esteem: From Shame to Grandiosity

On the vertical axis of the grid we can see self-esteem. At the lower end is toxic shame, where an individual might feel inherently flawed, unworthy, or less important than others. This is different from healthy shame, which is a normal reaction to certain actions and can be constructive. In contrast, the upper end is grandiosity, where a person feels superior to others, often resulting in judgmental and contemptuous attitudes. Both these extremes can be detrimental to forming and maintaining healthy relationships.


Boundaries: From Boundaryless to Walled Off

The horizontal axis represents boundaries, essential for defining where we end and another begins. Those who are boundaryless often lack a clear sense of self, making them susceptible to external influences and prone to seeking validation from others. Terry Real uses the analogy of a reptile when it comes to boundarylessness – the individual takes on the temperature of it’s environment. On the other end, individuals who are walled off have erected such impenetrable emotional barriers that they prevent intimacy and deep connections, often out of fear of vulnerability or engulfment.


The Four Quadrants: Maladaptive Relationship Styles

The intersection of these axes forms four quadrants, each representing different maladaptive ways of being in a relationship:


1. Walled Off and Shameful

Individuals falling into the 'Walled Off and Shameful' quadrant are often battling intense internal struggles. Their sense of shame—a corrosive feeling that not only questions their actions but also their very worth—can be so overwhelming that they erect emotional barriers, not out of a desire for solitude, but as a defense mechanism against further pain or rejection. This fortress, however, also keeps out intimacy and connection. Therapy for such individuals might focus on gently dismantling these walls, validating their worth, and slowly building a bridge towards self-compassion and acceptance. It's about fostering an environment where vulnerability is seen not as a weakness, but as a courageous step towards healing and connection.


2. Walled Off and Grandiose

The 'Walled Off and Grandiose' style is characterized by an armored superiority. Here, grandiosity serves as a shield against any threat to the self, including intimacy. They often exhibit a facade of self-importance and a lack of emotional vulnerability as well as project an image of self-sufficiency and disdain for others, often leading to isolation. These individuals might express dismissive attitudes, demonstrate a lack of empathy, or frequently engage in one-upmanship. This grandiose behavior can often be a defense mechanism, meant to protect against feelings of vulnerability or inadequacy. These individuals tend to maintain emotional distance from others, which can lead to a pattern of isolation. They might have an outward appearance of confidence and self-assuredness but their relationships are often superficial as their grandiosity acts as a barrier to genuine intimacy. In social situations, their need to maintain this shield of superiority can make them seem aloof or arrogant, pushing others away and reinforcing their isolation.


3. Boundaryless and Grandiose

The 'Boundaryless and Grandiose' quadrant is marked by a lack of respect for the emotional and psychological boundaries of oneself and others, so there is a sense of emotional violence. Individuals in this category may exhibit behaviors that are domineering, controlling, and sometimes even abusive, often justified by a narrative of victimhood. Their actions can be a misguided attempt to maintain connection and assert their worth. Therapeutic strategies might involve helping them recognize the impact of their behaviors, developing empathy, and learning to establish and honour healthy boundaries. This is about shifting from control to collaboration, from domination to respect.


4. Boundaryless and Shameful

Those in the 'Boundaryless and Shameful' quadrant are often driven by an insatiable need for external validation. Pia Mellody would call people in this quadrant love addicts (Mellody, P., Miller, A. W., & Miller, K. 1992). Their own sense of self is so intertwined with the approval of others that they may lose sight of where they end and others begin. The therapeutic journey involves cultivating a stronger sense of self, one that is not contingent on others' perceptions. It's about learning to value oneself independently, setting and communicating boundaries, and finding intrinsic sources of self-worth.


Striving for the Center: Healthy Relationships

This centre is where individuals feel protected and connected at the same time. Here they can connect authentically, communicate effectively, and maintain a solid sense of self.


Therapeutic ways of working with the four quadrants

For individuals with low self-esteem who feel anchored in the “Walled Off and Shameful” quadrant, the journey involves cultivating a sense of personal value that is not reliant on external validation. This process can be nurtured through the development of skills or talents, leading to an internal sense of accomplishment. Encouraging clients to engage in activities that promote self-efficacy, such as volunteering, learning a new skill, or even small acts of self-care, can reinforce their sense of self-worth. Finding an external circle of support, a new hobby, joining a group of people and gaining a sense of community and belonging. The goal is to create experiences that allow individuals to say, “I am capable,” thereby countering feelings of shame and inadequacy with evidence of their competence and value.


Another approach for individuals positioned within the “Walled Off and Shameful” quadrant would be to have some curiosity around their emotional defences. What is the root of this adaptation? Therapy would aim to create a space where clients can safely explore and express their vulnerabilities, understanding that doing so is an act of bravery rather than a sign of weakness. This process involves affirming the client's inherent value, challenging the internalized narratives of inadequacy, and fostering a sense of acceptance and self-compassion. Techniques such as reflective listening, validation of emotions, and gentle confrontation of self-critical beliefs can encourage a shift from self-judgment to self-acceptance. The goal is to guide clients towards recognizing their worth and to cultivate the ability to connect with others through a shared sense of openness.


For those in the “Walled Off and Grandiose” quadrant, the task is to foster connection and compassion. It’s about stepping down from the pedestal of superiority to a place of more equality. Work in therapy can involve chipping away at the grandiose façade to reveal the fear of inadequacy that may lie beneath. Therapeutic interventions may include challenging distorted beliefs of superiority, promoting humility, and exploring the fears that drive the need for such a protective shell. Therapeutic work may involve building some awareness of the grandiosity and seeing where the roots for it are. Also, promoting the understanding that vulnerability is not a weakness but a universal strength seems can be helpful. 


Individuals in the “Boundaryless and Grandiose" quadrant often exert control and impose themselves onto others, sometimes aggressively, due to an inflated sense of self-worth. The therapeutic approach with these clients is to first establish a therapeutic alliance where their strengths are acknowledged, allowing them to feel seen and valued without judgment. The next step involves introducing the concept of mutual respect and reciprocity in relationships, which may be a new perspective for them. Therapy sessions may incorporate role-playing exercises that help these individuals understand the impact of their behavior on others. They are encouraged to practice listening skills and to reflect on others’ feedback, promoting empathy. Mindfulness techniques can be beneficial in helping them stay present in conversations without dominating them. They may also benefit from assertiveness training, not to assert dominance but to learn to express their needs without overpowering others. This helps them find a balance between self-assertion and consideration for the boundaries of others.


Those who are "Boundaryless and Shameful" often have a porous sense of self, heavily influenced by others to gain approval and avoid rejection. Therapy with these individuals focuses on helping them to develop a solid sense of self. This may involve exercises to discover their interests, values, and desires independent of others' opinions. Practicing self-affirmation and self-compassion exercises can strengthen their sense of self-worth. Boundary-setting exercises are crucial; they may start with small, non-threatening situations and gradually build up to more significant boundaries. Role-playing can be used to practice these skills in a safe environment, and homework assignments might involve setting boundaries in real-life situations and reflecting on these experiences.


The key with all of those maladaptive ways of relating within the relationship is about bringing some awareness to the behaviour and the impact it has on the relationship. Finding out how the individual learned that particular behaviour. Terry Real likes to emphasise that we hold ourselves the way we have been held. It’s about connecting back to the wounded inner child and finding the adapted young part that is trying to still fight the battles that were reminiscent of the childhood environment – either learned behaviour through emulating the parents or responding to their parental caregiving – or a mixture of both.


In conclusion, Terry Real's Relationship Grid serves as a profound tool for understanding and navigating the intricate dance of human connection. It underscores the necessity of balancing self-esteem and boundaries—two important elements that shape how we relate to ourselves and others. The journey towards the center of the grid is a path of rediscovery and healing, where individuals learn to embrace their worth while respecting the separateness of others.


The model’s power lies in its ability to shed light on patterns of behavior that, while once protective, may no longer serve us in adulthood. It provides a structured yet flexible framework for identifying relational dynamics and developing strategies for change. By fostering an awareness of these dynamics, individuals can begin to unravel the narratives of their past, understand their present behaviors, and actively shape their future interactions.

Take the First Step Towards Healthier Relationships

Understanding the dynamics of your relationships is the first step towards positive change. If you find yourself resonating with any of the quadrants in Terry Real’s Relationship Grid, know that you don't have to navigate this journey alone. As a couple’s therapist, I specialise in helping individuals and couples find balance, enhance communication, and build stronger connections.

Ready to transform your relationships? Contact me today to schedule a consultation and start your journey towards healthier, more fulfilling connections.



Bibliography and further reading:


Bradshaw, J. (2005). Healing the Shame that Binds You. Health Communications.


Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Hazelden Publishing.


Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Crown Publishers.


Hendrix, H., & LaKelly Hunt, H. (2004). Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. Henry Holt and Company.


Mellody, P., Miller, A. W., & Miller, K. (1992). Facing Love Addiction: Giving Yourself the Power to Change the Way You Love. HarperSanFrancisco.


Real, T. (2002). How Can I Get Through to You? Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women. Scribner.


Real, T. (2007). The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Know to Make Love Work. Ballantine Books.










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