Couple therapy can best be thought of as a delicate balancing act between the concepts of acceptance and change for both partners. The most common dynamic in couples presenting for counseling is that both partners are wanting to see change in the other, as the solution matches each of their narratives about the relationship and where the problems stem from. At the same time, both are resisting the change the other wants because it would feel like giving into a narrative that they don’t want to validate.
Consider the following description of a couple’s problem (not taken from a specific client example):
Jeremy and Michael have been experiencing greater conflict since moving in with one another. One thing Michael did not know was just how particular Jeremy would be about keeping the apartment clutter-free and organized as a daily need. He appreciated how together Jeremy seemed, including how clean Jeremy had kept his apartment when they were dating. But now, he feels the pressure to become as strict about tidying as Jeremy is, or else Jeremy seems irritable.
Jeremy’s anxiety about clutter originally stems from some traumatic experiences he had growing up around having to move into foster care multiple times due to his parents experiencing difficulties keeping the home a sanitary space (an emotional sensitivity). Although Jeremy fully understands that the current apartment is nowhere near that level, he has never before had to cede some of control over his living area to someone new. This brings up a visceral anxiety for Jeremy that is very uncomfortable, part of his Fight-Flight-Freeze reaction, which he can’t simply turn off.
Jeremy feels frustrated that Michael is not willing to adapt to his needs when Michael works from home (an external stressor) and has time in between his meetings and during breaks to get things done. Jeremy did not respond well to the comment from Michael suggesting that Jeremy was the problem by having such high standards.
In this example, each partner is pushing for a clear change in the other and each partner wishes for acceptance in the other:
Jeremy wants Michael to change his tidying habits by doing it more frequently.
Michael wants Jeremy to take responsibility for his anxiety by acknowledging that he has high standards.
Jeremy wishes Michael would accept that he has anxiety about clutter in the house, and not hold that against him as Michael seems to.
Michael wishes Jeremy would accept that Jeremy is not a tidy person by nature, and it’s not a high priority activity for him.
The question is: what is their way out of this relationship problem? To answer this, one would have to understand the mechanics of why each partner is feeling stuck:
Michael resists making tidying-up a priority because it feels like Jeremy simply expects him to make a sizeable change without being willing to acknowledge the scale of it.
Meanwhile, Jeremy resists working on re-examining his relationship with both clutter and anxiety, as this would play into Jeremy’s assertion that he is being ridiculous in his attention to it.
The truth is, Jeremy might well benefit from doing that work in or out of therapy, but this is not a context that allows him to feel able to consider it. Both are tied up in their shared Problematic Pattern of Interaction, causing both to feel more stuck.
Why Acceptance is the Best Starting Place in Couple Therapy
It is the struggle over whose narrative is the correct one that often keeps couples feeling stuck in a cycle of escalating conflict. As long as this is the tenor of the discussion or argument you’re having, you are both losing out. However, the good news is that both partners’ (in this case Michael and Jeremy’s) narratives are not completely at odds with one another. They can be integrated, which the DEEP formulation in IBCT serves in large part to address.
It is feeling judged rather than accepted by the other that causes the brunt of the damage from this disagreement to their relationship. Any unilateral change made by either partner is unlikely to work in the long-term because it almost guaranteed to lead to resentments that serve as the underlying fuel for future arguments.
Instead it is by finding the right balance between acceptance and change that they can face the issues between them together more effectively:
Paradoxically, if Jeremy acknowledges more about how his unique history informs his anxiety, this might cause Michael to have more empathy for the reaction he has to clutter and why that reaction is there for him.
Similarly, if Michael expresses support for Jeremy finding a better process for his anxiety, not in the context of Jeremy being wrong in the argument, but instead out of genuine concern and care for him, then Jeremy might be more willing to listen to Michael’s suggestions to work on this for himself.
When the change comes spontaneously and out of each partner’s natural motivation for the relationship, it is much more sustainable than behavior that comes out of coercion or aversive behavior. Whereas coercion can get temporary compliance, these changes tend to be short-lived.
What Does It Actually Mean to Accept?
While acceptance can take several different forms, which I’ll discuss a little lower in this post, I would most broadly define it in a relationship as: being able to tolerate a challenging characteristic of one's partner and react less negatively to it, usually due to a shift in one’s perspective.
It is important to note the difference between submission and acceptance. Submission happens from a position of weakness and has an “I give up” quality to it, whereas acceptance occurs from a place of strength. Acceptance is an active choice to love your partner by trying to understand and empathize with them.
In the case of Michael and Jeremy, acceptance would mean that Michael accepts that Jeremy’s nervous system is highly activated by clutter, and that this comes out of Jeremy’s own history – he comes by it honestly. Acceptance would also mean that Jeremy makes peace with the fact that clutter does not play the same role in Michael’s life that it does in his, and as a result, it is not on the top of Michael’s mind – this is not a slight or sign of disrespect, but a difference between them (and an emotional sensitivity for Jeremy).
This begs the question: are there things in a relationship that simply shouldn’t be accepted? In my viewpoint, unilateral physical abuse in a relationship, or a dynamic in which one partner fears for their physical safety, represents behavior/a situation that should not be simply accepted. In fact, couple therapy is contraindicated in cases of one-sided abuse because the therapy can be used as a format to maintain the abusive relationship over a longer period.
Beyond this (and perhaps a few special other cases), acceptance is a necessary component to getting unstuck from relationship conflict. After all, one partner’s perception of a “verbal assault” is another partner’s perception of “speaking their mind after holding their tongue.”
Suggestions for Putting Acceptance into Practice
Acceptance isn’t something that can be squeezed out of somebody like a lemon, but works best when it comes naturally from each person. The following are a few tips for how to put acceptance into practice in your relationship:
1. Learn how to define relationship problems in ways that are non-judgmental. That is, they don’t assert a “right” and a “wrong” position, but instead seek to describe more neutrally. These definitions cast the problem as involving differences rather than defects, emotional reactions rather than provocations, understandable responses to stressors rather than outrageous overreactions, and above all else, involving descriptions rather than evaluations.
2. Work on your and your partner’s recovery from conflict. While we sometimes cannot avoid our automatic reactions sparking a moment of conflict for couples, it is truly couples’ ability to recover from these events that indicate the health of their relationship. Often during the initial argument, the most raw, unpolished, or emotionally-driven versions of our narrative come out, and this can be incredibly hurtful to one’s partner.
Coming back to discuss what happened with cooler heads can help both partners come to a better understanding of what happened and (a non-judgmental version of) why. In this process, trying to understand if something you said or did was hurtful and, more importantly, why, is key to moving past the damage of the event together. Being able to apologize for this, or at least acknowledge the damage is a big part of what helps couples recover from conflict without resentments.
3. Gain a helpful sense of detachment from the relationship problem. A couple’s therapist is often able to catch things that neither partner is able to, in large part because for both partners, it is very personal. Understandably so! However, one strategy for gaining a sense of acceptance in relationships comes from the idea of focusing on tolerating instead of being expected to celebrate it.
One mechanism of change in effective couple therapy is that it gives both partners more insights into relationship patterns so that both partners can increasingly notice where things are heading in conflict and why, giving them an opportunity to react in a new way. This grants a sense of detachment from the problem that is actually helpful, because it assists each partner in seeing themselves as a part of a larger system (which truly they are).
For example, if you’ve ever been able to laugh at one of your own qualities with a partner, that suggests an appropriate sense of detachment on the issue – an acknowledgement that we can have features that bring up reactions for our partner, and that doesn’t mean we ourselves are wrong for being how we are.
Hopefully from this post, you’ve gained a sense of the importance of acceptance as a counterweight to each partner’s drive to bring about change in the other. When we assert our version of the problem and apply pressure on a partner to change, the half-hearted and temporary change that results is rarely very satisfying to the change-seeking partner.
To promote more sustainable change from both partners, acceptance is often a helpful first intervention point because it often helps unlocking the couple from the process of conflict that had them each feeling increasingly stuck.
Of course, it can be quite challenging to effectively address relationship concerns on one’s own, and so it is often helpful to have the assistance of a couple therapist as a third-party invested in supporting the health of your relationship. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in working on this via telehealth, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.