Updated: Oct 4
A common relationship tip is to choose your battles wisely. In essence, this means that not every grievance is worth commenting on or holding a boundary around. It's okay to just let some things go.
The spirit of choosing your battles is similar to relational tolerance. Tolerance involves seeing something negative in your relationship, feeling annoyed or hurt, and choosing to ride out those feelings without asking your partner to do anything differently. All relationships need a degree of tolerance to thrive.
But tolerating things you don't like from your partner should not be your first strategy. Ideally, your relationship is characterized more by acceptance than tolerance.
What's the difference between tolerance and acceptance?
Accepting your partner is a bigger, warmer state of being than merely tolerating them. Acceptance involves seeing your partner from a bird's eye view, as a whole person. All their different sides and parts, together in one unique, specific human that you have chosen to love and cherish.
Too often, we look at our partners like ordering a salad. Yes to croutons, no to olives. I don't want that dressing, I want a different one. The thing is, human beings just don't work this way. You love how your partner is chill and calm, rarely escalating an interaction? That part of them lives right alongside how they get really quiet and shut down when you bring up something that hurts you. The message sent when you try to pick and choose what elements of your partner you like and dislike is that you want a curated, mail-order version of them. Not only is this simply not possible, but it also is (sometimes subtly) hurtful.
Think of times when you have felt like parts of you were unacceptable in a relationship. Yes, they want the "funny you" but they don't want the "sad you." Or your orderliness is welcome, but your anxiety isn't. Most people have felt this kind of compartmentalized love (often from parents and caregivers earlier in life as well).
Though you may not realize it, when you break your partner into pieces that you like and dislike, you are doing this same thing to them. Whether or not they have words for it, the impact still lands.
What would it be like if you could see them as a whole person? That doesn't mean that they won't irritate you - there is no relationship free of annoyance and hurt. But when that irritation rises up, what is it like to still see your partner as a whole rather than immediately dividing them into parts that you like and don't?
Change And Acceptance Aren't Mutually Exclusive
Acceptance of who your partner is doesn't mean that you can't ask for change. You can and should. But requesting change from a place of acceptance gives you space to ask for the most important change rather than obsessing about small details that don't really matter. With a stance of acceptance as your foundation, you can also see their more subtle efforts with clearer eyes rather than immediately feeling distressed that they did not completely change their personality in an instant. And when you've asked your partner for change but they still continue to show up in ways that hurt or annoy you, you can tolerate what isn't changing with more ease, because you continue to see them as a whole person rather than a pile of parts that don't meet your needs.
Why Acceptance Is Hard
As a marriage therapist, one of the biggest barriers I see to couples accepting one another is the fear that they will not be accepted. This can create a snake eating its own head effect. You resist accepting your partner for who they are because you fear they will not accept you, and your partner does the same. Ultimately, one of the surest ways to receive acceptance from your partner is to initiate a stance of acceptance toward them - not just in one moment, but as a way of life in your relationship.
Three Ways To Cultivate Acceptance For Your Partner
If you're looking for action steps, here are some to consider:
When something your partner does bothers you, try to look at the flip side of the trait that is leading them to act this way. When is that trait helpful, beautiful, or sweet?
Imagine what your life would be like if magically this trait of your partner's was gone. Would that actually be the person you want? Would you lose important elements of them that you would miss?
Think back to when you first fell in love. What would that version of yourself say about this trait of your partner's? Could that past self see them as more of a whole? Can your current self connect to those feelings of acceptance?
Finally, accepting your partner is not a final state of mind. It is a practice, like mindfulness or exercise. By continuing to work with your own reactions to your partner, you can move toward acceptance and start seeing your partner through fresh eyes, again and again.
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