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?