Imagine a couple: Jane and Pedro.
Jane falls in love with Pedro because of his free spirit. He’s very social (she’s not), and she loves that he can entertain people and pull her into the fray of social interactions at parties.
Four years later, the couple has a new baby. Pedro is still going out and always wants to be with his friends; he seems to have an insatiable desire to “do things” outside the house with anyone other than his family.
Suddenly, Jane is having a hard time accepting his free spirit.
Acceptance is one of the biggest and toughest issues couples face, and learning to accept each other can improve our relationships immensely.
Most simply, feeling accepted in a relationship is to feel valued and loved for who you are, not what you do. When I think of acceptance, I often think of the famous psychologist Carl Rogers who championed the phrase “unconditional positive regard.”
When we think of unconditional positive regard, most of us think of how we treat children, perhaps saying something like, “Children need to know that they’re valued and loved no matter how they behave.” For kids, we believe that unconditional positive regard is the royal road to good social development.
When it comes to our partners, we’re… uhhh… not as good with that positive regard stuff. Sure, we all know that we should accept our partners as they are, but this is much harder to do in practice than in theory. (Indeed, isn’t the basic wedding vow—“for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health”—a public agreement for long-term acceptance?)
Where do things go wrong?
One of the hot-shot couple therapies (integrative behavioral couple therapy, or IBCT) focuses explicitly on enhancing acceptance in relationships. IBCT teaches that acceptance involves learning to view previously unpleasant acts by one’s partner as more tolerable, less disagreeable, and potentially even beneficial.
One of the major ideas behind IBCT is that the behaviors and interpersonal styles that bring couples together in the first place are often the most fertile ground for relationship problems. It is in this space that we often can use some acceptance.
Think back to Jane and Pedro. They fell in love for the same reasons that they’re fighting now. With a new baby, Pedro’s free spirit and desire to go out alone leave Jane feeling hurt and abandoned.
This simple example shows us that tolerating behaviors we once loved can become really difficult when the circumstances change. For Jane, Pedro is disappearing and not being involved enough. (We’d also expect that Pedro has his own gripes, too.)
All this together leads to a big ol' mess, and I am positive you know what I am talking about. Life with your partner starts to stink. You avoid each other, you fight, there’s no nurturance, no sex, and, over time, no love.
How can we improve our relationships by practicing more acceptance?
First, seek to understand. Is there any way to for Jane to view Pedro’s “going out” in a more positive light? What if she knew that he’s terrified of losing touch with childhood friends, or that family life can feel incredibly suffocating for him? In the heat of a battle, Jane is likely to respond, “So what?! Man up and deal with your responsibilities just like everyone else.”
However, if she dares to get past that to look at why Pedro acts as he does, she may experience some softening. With softening, she may be able to explain her hurt to Pedro and invite him to change a bit based on her needs.
Second, look for positive intent. If we begin by valuing our partners and assuming that they’re trying the best they can to deal with the complexities of life, we can see their behaviors in a much more positive light. When Jane looks for the positive intent, she might see, perhaps, that Pedro desperately wants to be a good father and worries that he won’t be. He runs away because he’s not sure how to face fatherhood. Is this upsetting and unhelpful for Jane? Yes, it is! BUT, if we see the positive intent, the behavior often becomes more tolerable and the solution is clearer.
Third, acceptance is not approval. One of the primary mental health treatments for people with severe personality disorders, dialectical behavior therapy, is based on helping people learn to accept their life as it is while also encouraging change. That applies to relationships, too. We can accept while also changing and even asking for change from our partner. It would be easier for Jane to accept Pedro’s behavior if he made an effort to recognize that she feels abandoned, and to willingly stay home and help with the kid a bit more.
If we seek to understand our partners’ behaviors and to view them with positive intent (provided they aren’t truly causing harm), we can tenderly ask for change without demanding it or denying our partner’s experience.
Until next time, can you practice a little acceptance? I’d love to know how it goes, and I wish you all the best for improving your relationships.
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