The idea of acceptance—to openly allow what is, without resisting or doing battle with it—has clear benefits for all involved. An acceptance mindset is something many of us strive to obtain, but this clearly doesn’t come easy. In my work with couples I frequently hear one or both partners state the need for greater acceptance in their relationship or marriage.
But is acceptance always a good thing? Can acceptance go awry?
By the time Joan and her husband Stanley arrived at my office, a painful distance had developed in their relationship. And ever since Joan started practicing “acceptance” about eight months prior, she was becoming increasingly frustrated and impatient with her husband. According to Stanley, she seemed angry all the time and less communicative then ever.
Joan’s therapist had told her that practicing acceptance would be good for her well-being. And it was based upon her therapist’s recommendation that Joan brought this idea into her marriage. But Joan misinterpreted acceptance, so what she ended up doing was suppressing her feelings whenever she was displeased with her husband. Rather than appropriately confront him when needed, Joan mentally told herself, “Just bite your tongue and accept this…,” while at her core she was more upset about things than ever.
In short, Joan started to short-circuit her feelings; rather than listen to her emotional life, she turned away from her emotions with the goal of acceptance. The result: she started to feel emotional distance from her husband as her marginalized feelings began to pool into waves of resentment.
In Joan’s case, she was trying to accept the fact that her husband was becoming more and more unresponsive to her emotional needs. He would not stop drinking, despite the significant negative consequences that resulted; he would rarely share what happened during his work day, despite how this level of sharing made Joan feel closer to him; and he would seldom initiate sex, despite the fact that this made Joan feel undesirable and unattractive.
So in order to accept this harsh relationship reality, Joan needed to play an emotional shell game that forced her to deny important information about her husband and the overall state of her marriage. In short, she believed “acceptance” was the only way to save her marriage.
When true acceptance is in place, you are not forcing yourself to exist in a state of chronic psychological and emotional deprivation for the betterment of the relationship—to do so is to bury your head in the ground and deny the truth of the situation. Joan ended up having to suppress her own needs (and the distress over not getting these needs met) in order to stay in the relationship, which, needless to say, was not a healthy relationship in that state.
Acceptance isn’t suppression of who you are or the denial of your needs. Rather, acceptance involves fully acknowledging that there is a particular aspect of your relationship that isn’t working and that change may no longer be realistic. To accept this you must also make the conscious decision to focus on aspects of the relationship that are working—you must cultivate the positives while accepting a particular negative. In my work with clients, I have found that it is this approach that allows true acceptance to flourish.
Relationship Truism: Acceptance of what isn’t working in your relationship can only occur against the backdrop of what is working.
When the aspects of the relationship that aren’t working indicate that your core emotional needs are not being met, then problems will arise despite your best efforts to “accept” this reality. In these instances, you may feel you should deny and/or suppress your needs/feelings, a type of self-contortion that might allow you to exist in a continual state of emotional deprivation for a period of time. But don’t confuse this with true acceptance.
Remember, acceptance plays an important role in healthy marriages/relationships. But to practice acceptance does not mean you should become a martyr and endure unending pain. And acceptance should never involve violating and betraying your values and core emotional needs.
by Dr. Nicastro.