One of the key moments in any marriage struggling to get better comes when one partner or both begins to seriously consider a certain relationship conundrum or paradox. The paradox is this:
To truly find joy in a relationship, we must feel accepted and offer our partner acceptance. Yet we are fallible humans who make mistakes and missteps, hurting ourselves and our partner. How can we be accepting of an imperfect person without enabling them in their wrongdoings?
Most people worry that if they accept and love their partner as they are, they are inviting that partner to continue making the same mistakes and will end up inhibiting the partner’s growth. And so we resort to criticism, complaints, and demands, believing that if we point out our partner’s weaknesses and foibles just one more time, with a little more forcefulness, they will finally get the message and shape up. This has been the failed pattern of relationships for thousands of years, yet we still choose to knock our heads against that dead end.
Many years ago at a time when our marriage was struggling in many ways, largely due to my own mistakes and selfishness, my wife, Margo, came to me and said something extraordinary. She told me, “I want you to know that I accept you. I love you just the way you are.” She left it at that, she did not add, “But I can’t wait for you to get better!”
You might think that this extraordinary act of generosity might have given me license to behave in any bad way I wanted since my wife would love me anyway. But it was the exact opposite for me as I felt freed to change in positive ways; I was inspired to get better for myself and for Margo.
That is the miracle of accepting someone as they are. Research shows that it is this acceptance that seems to generate the greatest positive change in others. While threats and anger might force temporary change in someone, it never lasts long and damages the relationship in the meantime.
Here is the great balance to that gift of Acceptance: the additional gift of Accountability.
While it might seem counter-intuitive, experience proves again and again that we can be lovingly accepting of a person (whether our partner, children, friends, etc.), while still holding them accountable for their behavior. Acceptance of a person is NOT acceptance of their negative behavior. When Margo expressed her love and acceptance of me, she in no way resolved me of my accountability for any negatives I was bringing into our marriage.
We can deal with a person’s mistakes in effective and healthy ways without attacking or labeling the person. In doing so we help our partner to feel safe in taking their own accountability, and more open toward us.
Hint: This lifestyle of Acceptance and Accountability will become easier and more effective as YOU are prepared to always take accountability for your own failings and mistakes. As our partner senses our willingness to be an accountable person, they will feel safe and invited to be the same.