Marriage Help: Do You Accept Or Tolerate Your Partner?

There’s a lot said about the importance of acceptance in marriage and, of course, mutual acceptance is important to a healthy marriage or relationship.

But too often, when couples talk about acceptance, what they are really talking about is tolerating something about their spouse or partner. As a workshop participant once shared, “Honestly, I don’t want to be tolerated by my husband! To me, that feels like judgment is lurking in the shadows and may jump out at any moment…I tolerate discomfort when I get my teeth cleaned. If my husband feels he has to tolerate me then, as painful as it would be, I’d rather not be married to him.” 

Marriage Help: Tolerance Versus Acceptance

When your partner tolerates you (or, more accurately, tolerates something about you), s/he has to continuously expend energy in order to suppress feelings of judgment and criticism. In short, when you tolerate your partner, you will find that you’re frequently biting your tongue and sooner or later, you’ll erupt in frustration or anger.

Tolerance implies having to endure or “stomach” something you find displeasing about another person. And while there will be times in your relationship where you find yourself “putting up with” something your mate is doing (after all, we should give our partner the benefit of the doubt from time to time), tolerating him/her under the guise of acceptance will sooner or later backfire.

A marital or relationship foundation built on large swaths of tolerance will collapse under the challenges that come with long-term relationships. 

Acceptance, on the other hand, implies an openness to the other person, an openness to the differences that exist between you and your partner. When you accept your partner, you see and appreciate his/her uniqueness, and there is no need for emotional resistance—there is no withholding, no need to emotionally hide from one another.

Relationship Help Tip: Understanding Your Blocks to Acceptance

Often, it is our fear-based reactions that block the openness needed for mutual acceptance.  Our fears can lead to controlling behaviors, withdrawal and distancing behaviors, or attack-hostile forms of communication—all of these are obviously counter to the goal of mutual acceptance.

For mutual acceptance to be realized, it is important to reflect upon your own emotional reactions that are preventing full acceptance. Here are a few questions to get you moving in the right direction:

“Why is this particular ___________ about my spouse/partner causing me so much difficulty?”

“What will I have to give up if I move toward greater acceptance of my partner? What is my biggest fear in this instance? What will I gain by embracing acceptance?”

“What do I have trouble accepting about myself that might be blocking me from accepting my partner?”

Note that in the above questions, the movement toward greater acceptance starts with greater self-awareness and self-acceptance (not a focus on the other person).  Mutual acceptance is a relationship ideal that we should all strive toward. Often, the challenges of accepting others offers us opportunities to discover more about our own emotional blind spots.

There is potential relationship gold whenever we take the time and effort to explore our own underlying resistances—a challenge for us all.

Marriage and Relationship Resources

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Wishing Your Relationship The Best!

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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