Living with someone inevitably causes some point of tension, since another person has different tolerances and preferences. Couples often fight about the incompatibilities in their relationship: one may save when the other spends, one may clean directly after every meal while the other abhors dishwashing, one may like to go out with friends regularly while the other prefers to stay home. These and many other issues may cause tension which build in intensity. Many couples may escalate these issues into intractable arguments, the aftermath including each hiding (literally or emotionally) in their corners licking their wounds, wondering how it got so bad and if their relationship is doomed.
How can couples address incompatibilities without all the blame and negativity? We want to stay together, just without all the fighting.
One such way that is gaining empirical traction is practicing acceptance, especially with the help of a therapist trained in Integrative Behavior Couple Therapy (Christensen & Jacobson, 2000). Acceptance is defined as coming to terms with the unpleasant things about the other. This concept is deeper than just tolerance, but not as intense as forgiveness. This type of intervention isn’t set on changing the frequency of perceived negative behavior. It is a process by which one lets go of those things that they wish were different. By learning and practicing acceptance, couples can change the way they think and react to previously unacceptable behaviors.
Why is practicing acceptance important?
Recent research finds that the emotional reaction to the perceived incompatibility is more upsetting and harmful than the differences themselves (South, Doss, & Christensen 2010). Focusing solely on change can be a trap for couples, since it naturally pits individuals against each other. Many couples get locked into a pattern of distress, since partners tend to reciprocate negative behaviors more than positive ones, thereby creating a cycle of destruction. And the frequency of positive and negative relationship behaviors between partners is a critical determinant of marital distress (Cordova, Jacobson & Christensen, 1998).
Researchers have found that one’s own behavior, either positive or negative, seems in part to be a function of the acceptability of the other partner’s behavior, and not just an appraisal of the relationship as a whole. In other words, many of couples practice a tit-for-tat behavior exchange- and this gets them into trouble when all the behaviors are judged as negative and the acceptance of those negative behaviors are low. Acceptance interventions help to break the repetitive cycle of negative, hurtful blame and behavior.
What are the acceptance techniques?
Express soft emotions first: This doesn’t mean whisper, or skirting around the issue. Certain emotions can evoke more constructive reactions from partners than others. There is greater potential for partners to feel close to one another despite their issues when “soft” emotions such as hurt, loneliness, insecurity, fear, desire, or love are expressed. Soft emotions are more likely to evoke empathy and emotional closeness, as well as willingness to work on potential problems.
On the other hand, “hard” emotional expressions are accusatory, and communicate hostile anger, contempt, and intolerance. When seen in clinical practice they often leave the other partner feeling defensive and resentful- and more likely to respond in kind. Clinicians have long theorized that the longer couples remain angry and polarized, the more motivated they are to fight rather than solve problems.
Detach yourself from the emotion in the problem: It helps to talk about the problem away from its context; away from the emotional heat. Talking about the problem instead of engaging in the problem directly may give partners a way to reframe the problem as a common enemy that they can tackle together. Think of it as an intellectual analysis instead of a screaming crying cage-match. One way to do this is to talk about the issue as if you are a window-shopper, looking in from the outside. The more partners can discuss their problems without blaming and struggling against each other, the more they may be able to understand how this issue impacts all those involved.
Try to see the upside: Partners might become so entrenched in a perspective that the potential positives it has to the relationship are missed. Is it possible that a partner’s saving practices provided a safety net during a job loss? Do another partner’s spending habits provide much needed stress outlets in the form of vacations or fun shared activities? Thinking about what the behavior provides to the relationship as a whole might increase its acceptance.
Practice unresentful self-care: There are some realities to a relationship such as a certain job schedule or set of in-laws that are not likely to change and exceptionally hard to accept. In those cases, practicing self-care may be the best option. For example, if your partner has to work a late-night shift as part of her job, instead of getting angry because you’re home alone, come up with an alternative activity that satisfies your needs without blaming your partner.
Learning how to practice acceptance might be extremely difficult if couples are constantly seeing red. It may be best in those cases to learn how acceptance can work with the help of a therapist. It’s important to note that acceptance may not be recommended for every situation a couple encounters, especially infidelity, substance abuse, and partner violence.
More information about Integrative Behavioral Couples Therapy can be found here including resources, articles, and therapist referrals.
Christensen, A. & Jacobson, N. (2000). Reconcilable differences. New York: Guilford Press.
Cordova, J.V., Jacobson, N.J., &Christensen, A. (1998) Acceptance versus chance interventions in behaviors couple therapy: Impact on couples’ in-session communication. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 24, 437-455.
Dimidjian, S., Martell, C.R., & Christensen, A. (2008). Integrative behavioral couple therapy. In A.S. Gurman (ed.) Clinical handbook of couple therapy (pp.73- 103). New York; Guilford Press.
South, S.C., Doss, B.D., &Christensen, A. (2010). Through the eyes of the beholder: The mediating role of relationship acceptance in the impact of partner behavior. Family Relations, 59, 611-622.