• The quality of our relationships is central to our overall health and wellbeing

  • Therapist Claudia Behnke explores one of the tools that she uses to help clients improve their relationships and attachment patterns

Terry Real's Relationship Grid is a transformative tool for understanding and improving how we relate to others. This model benefits those seeking to enhance their relationships and therapists assisting clients in navigating complex interpersonal dynamics. It highlights the crucial roles of self-esteem and boundaries in shaping our relational behaviour.

Graphic credit: Terry Real  

Core elements: Self-esteem and boundaries

At the heart of the Relationship Grid are two dimensions: self-esteem and boundaries. These dimensions are depicted as spectrums. Self-esteem ranges from toxic shame to grandiosity, while boundaries span from being totally without boundaries to being walled off. 

By identifying where you fall on these spectrums, you can gain insight into your relational style and areas for growth.


The self-esteem spectrum

The vertical axis of the grid represents self-esteem, with toxic shame at one extreme and grandiosity at the other. 

Toxic shame involves a deep sense of unworthiness, making individuals feel fundamentally flawed. In contrast, grandiosity is characterised by an inflated sense of superiority, often resulting in condescension and a lack of empathy. 

Both extremes hinder healthy relationships by either undermining self-worth or promoting disconnect through superiority.


The boundaries spectrum

The horizontal axis of the grid deals with boundaries, which are essential for defining personal limits in relationships. People who are without boundaries often lack a clear sense of self, seeking constant validation from others and being easily swayed by external influences. 

On the opposite end, those who are walled off create rigid emotional barriers, avoiding intimacy to protect themselves from vulnerability.


Identifying your relationship style: The four quadrants

The Relationship Grid offers a unique perspective on relational styles, revealing four categories based on the intersection of self-esteem and boundaries. 

Understanding which quadrant you fall into can be a powerful tool for self-reflection and personal growth, helping you to better understand and address your relational challenges.


1. Walled off and shameful

  • Traits: These individuals experience intense shame and build emotional walls to shield themselves from further pain or rejection. This defence mechanism, however, also blocks intimacy and genuine connection.
  • Therapeutic approach: Therapy focuses on bringing awareness to these emotional walls, validating self-worth, and fostering self-compassion to allow for vulnerability and deeper connections.


2. Walled off and grandiose

  • Traits: Marked by a sense of superiority, these individuals use grandiosity to protect against threats to their self-esteem. They often appear aloof and disdainful of others.
  • Therapeutic approach: The goal is to challenge these superiority beliefs, promote humility, and help clients understand that vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness.


3. Without boundaries and grandiose

  • Traits: Individuals in this quadrant lack respect for boundaries and can exhibit controlling behaviours stemming from an inflated sense of self-worth.
  • Therapeutic approach: Therapy aims to develop empathy, establish healthy boundaries, and shift from a controlling stance to one of mutual respect and collaboration.


4. Without boundaries and shameful

  • Traits: Driven by a need for external validation, these individuals have a weak sense of self and are heavily influenced by others.
  • Therapeutic approach: Key goals include building a strong sense of self-worth independent of others' opinions, practicing self-affirmation, and learning to set and maintain personal boundaries.


Path to healthy relationships

The aim is to move towards the centre of the grid, where a healthy balance of self-esteem and boundaries is achieved. Here, individuals feel secure yet connected, fostering authentic interactions and effective communication.


A Journey of self-discovery and growth

Terry Real's Relationship Grid provides a structured approach to understanding and improving relational dynamics. By identifying your position on the grid, you can address maladaptive patterns and work towards healthier, more fulfilling relationships.


Take the first step towards healthier relationships

Terry Real's Relationship Grid provides a structured approach to understanding and improving relational dynamics. By identifying your position on the grid, you can address maladaptive patterns and work towards healthier, more fulfilling relationships. The framework allows for a deeper self-awareness, helping you to pinpoint specific areas that need attention and growth. By recognising and modifying these patterns, you can develop more effective communication skills and foster stronger emotional connections. 

Understanding your position within the grid can provide valuable insights into your relational patterns and areas for growth. Seeking professional help can be a supportive step towards healthier, more fulfilling connections. As a couple's therapist, I specialise in offering the guidance and support you need to move towards balanced and meaningful relationships. You can contact me using the link below.

Claudia Behnke is a verified Welldoing psychotherapist in London and online 

Further reading 

The impact of narcissistic abuse in relationships

The anxious-avoidant dance: What happens when these attachment styles combine?

3 tips for mindful communication in intimate relationships

Stop people-pleasing and start setting boundaries


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. 

Mellody, P., Miller, A. W., & Miller, K. (1992). Facing love addiction: Giving yourself the power to change the way you love. Harper San Francisco.

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.