Deep Acceptance In Relationships

I ended a previous article with Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous serenity prayer. The first facet of that noble triptych is “grant me the serenity to accept that which I cannot change.” Done properly, this mindset can make all the difference in relationships, but like so many things, much easier said than done, and much more complex than it might appear.

On the other hand, for some people it’s relatively easy! For securely attached adults, differences between them are generally not threatening to the relationship. The facts that I like to take this route and you like to take another, or that I’m strict with the kids and you’re more lax, or that you like to spend money on gadgets and I like to spend money on experiences, don’t become that big a deal. We know each other’s preferences, we may know something about where they come from in terms of each other’s childhoods and life experiences, and we don’t take them personally. We can maintain our sense of loving connection through these differences, and even through being annoyed, angry, disappointed, anxious or sad with outside events or with each other. This is deep acceptance.

For insecurely attached adults (on average one out of three, though people tend to hang out with like-kinds) it’s a whole different ballgame, and this is where things get way more complicated. Insecure attachment means that because of inconsistency in the parenting they received, these folks go through the world with an embodied presupposition of mistrust towards relationships.

Insecurely attached people have a felt sense of un-safety that comes before words and thought. In many ways this mistrust gets more triggered the more intimate the relationship.

This is because intimate relationships re-create the conditions of interdependence that produced the mistrust in the first place. Though it can be changed with some effort and the right circumstances, it’s baked-in and often out of awareness, which makes it that much harder to address.

How this shows up in relationships is that the kinds of differences I talked about above get interpreted as rejections, abandonments, or threats to identity. This is then compounded by emotional reactivity to those interpretations, which ironically make the situation worse.

For example, Smuin is vulnerable to feeling criticized because he had a critical father. He finds a partner Dosa, who is lively and engaging, but who also turns out to get critical when her vulnerability of feeling abandoned gets triggered. Her vulnerability came from having been mothered in an an unreliable way. Dosa was drawn to Smuin for his easygoing nature. But he’s so easygoing that he sometimes loses track of things, which pokes Dosa’s fears that he won’t be there for her when she needs him. Dosa interprets Smuin’s lapses as indications that she’s not a priority for him, and Smuin interprets Dosa’s criticism to mean that she doesn’t even like him.

However, they don’t put it all together that way in terms of the emotional patterns, what their vulnerabilities and their origins are, etc. The way Smuin sees it is that Dosa criticizes him relentlessly and he can’t get it right with her. Dosa sees him as irresponsible, including his deflecting and avoiding the issues when Smuin tries to defend himself against her criticism. They’ve gone around and around in variations of this central argument for years

Part of what keeps it going is the illusion of control.

We think if we simply tell the other person what they’re doing wrong we can get them to change. And actually this sometimes works if it’s a simple instruction and there’s no emotional interference. It’s how a lot of everyday interactions work, as well as how we learned to interact with our parents. But the emotional stakes are higher in a primary relationship. And then when you add in that inherent mistrust that I talked about before, anxiety and misinterpretations drive the show.

To illustrate the illusion of control, think about when you’re driving in traffic and late for an appointment. You have a choice. You can gnash your teeth, swear at other drivers, and try to elbow your way ahead to gain a few minutes. Or you can accept that you are stuck in traffic, relax, and ride it out. Those of us who burst at the seams trying to overcome reality make ourselves and others miserable (not to mention the health effects of stress).

But a big part of why we do that is that we think we have more control than we actually do. As drivers, we have direct influence over the car — we can steer it, speed up, slow down, all at will. It magnifies our human strength hundreds of times and can make us feel very powerful. So when we feel helpless in traffic we may try to compensate by doing things that we do have control over. Honk the horn at those other stupid people! Floor it when there’s a little opening and we can get ahead! But it’s illusory. The vast majority of those efforts will have very little impact on the outcome. If we accept that reality, then we can relax and enjoy the ride, or at least not make things worse.

Similarly, we hope to make our partners into different people who won’t poke our sore spots. If we’re insecurely attached we often aren’t aware of the roles of our own mistrust and the ways we poke the other person, either by attacking or withdrawing and shutting down. We mostly see the other person’s flaws and guard our own.

Deep acceptance includes acknowledging and understanding that we are all flawed.

The more we can accept our own limitations the less likely we are to search for our partners’ shortcomings as the source of our problems. This in turn makes it easier to accept their limitations. Interestingly, acceptance can facilitate change more than pushing for change directly. As Carl Rogers said “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” However, forcing acceptance with the expectation of change is likely to lead to more frustration. True acceptance is soft, compassionate, and sought for it’s own sake.

A question sometimes comes up about the limits of acceptance — how much should we accept poor treatment, or abuse? Unfortunately, except for extreme examples in which the answer is obviously no, there is not a simple answer.

One problem is that outside of relatively clear thresholds such as physical violence, these terms can be hard to define. For example, if I raise my voice in frustration is that abuse? Is using swear words abuse? Is it abuse to leave the room if you are feeling overwhelmed? So much depends on the context, how individuals interpret events, and so on, that it is hard to speak about it broadly. Many of these things are very subjective.

Another problem goes back to the kind of cycle I described earlier. Again, except for extreme cases, if one person is behaving badly then it’s almost universal that both are. Remember, it’s always easier to see what your partner is doing wrong. It’s harder — but more productive because you have more control over yourself— to think about your contributions to the problem and how you can work on those.

If you improve your side in a meaningful and persistent way it will have positive effect on your partner, which will at least moderate if not minimize the behavior of your mate’s that you find difficult.

John Gottman makes a distinction that can be helpful in terms of how to speak up about something you don’t like without adding to the negative cycle. The distinction is between criticism and complaint. Criticism implies that the other person is bad or wrong in some way. Complaint is a statement of dissatisfaction without imposing judgement about the other person.

For instance, “Why can’t you be on time?” is a criticism because it suggests there is something wrong with the person that makes them late. It also implies overgeneralization with the suggestion that “you are incapable of being on time.” A complaint would be something more like “I don’t like it when you’re late.” Even better would be naming the emotion that comes up for you, and then clarifying “late,” as in: “I get anxious when I expect you at 4:00 and don’t see you until 4:30.” This describes the speaker’s experience without attribution of responsibility the way “You make me anxious when you’re late” does.

So you can always say something alone the lines of “I don’t like your tone right now,” or “I don’t like the way you’re talking to me.” And if you feel you are being consistently abused or mistreated, get help to find out if your relationship can be improved, or what you need to do to take care of yourself.


Thanks for reading!

(I’m a psychologist with a private practice in Noe Valley, San Francisco)

Image Credits: Bananas, Driving


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