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Three Tools to Build Relational Tolerance and Prevent Conflict

Couples typically come to therapy hoping to cultivate feelings of warmth, love, and connection in their relationship. I want those outcomes for you, and I love helping partners regain connection. But sometimes I also encourage the couples I work with to set another goal - tolerance.

There are elements of every partnership that are displeasing to one or both people but that do not necessarily rise to the threshold of unacceptable dealbreakers. These can include things like:

  • Having a temper - getting hot and angry quickly

  • Shutting down during conflict, being silent and withdrawn

  • Directing or micromanaging the other person

  • Being defensive when receiving feedback

  • Bringing up old arguments that aren’t currently relevant

  • Speaking condescendingly, loudly, or sarcastically

Often one of these behaviors provokes another. For example, when your spouse rants, you might roll your eyes. Marriage counseling involves creating a new context that organically reduces your conflict cycle. A therapist can help you find out more about what exactly is happening in the heat of the argument, gain perspective as to why each person acts the way they do, and cultivate a sense of empathy for each other around your shared challenges. In short, effective therapy can change many of the unpleasant dynamics in your relationship.

Even happy couples hurt each other sometimes.

No matter how successful couples therapy is for you, I can almost guarantee that you and your partner will both still behave in irritating, distressing, or invalidating ways, at least sometimes. But your slip ups will be less intense than before, and you’ll deescalate before causing harm. When I work with couples, I build in the expectation that displeasing behaviors are a permanent part of any relationship, even healthy ones. However, happy, healthy couples can ride out each other’s occasional unpleasant actions without retaliating or making the situation worse. This is not the same as ignoring your partner when they irritate you (pretending the behavior is not happening or covering your ears and shouting “la la la”). Instead, you see their behavior and intentionally choose not to escalate in return.

Tolerance fosters connection

In Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy (IBCT), the framework I use with couples, this mindful noticing without trying to make your partner do something different or protesting to them is called tolerance. Tolerance involves seeing that your partner is doing something you really dislike, but not trying to stop them. Tolerance does not equal approval or enjoyment - you do not have to think happy thoughts or tell yourself that you should be okay with what they’re doing. Instead, tolerance means acknowledging but not resisting reality. Especially if you’ve told your partner many times before how much you dislike it when they do something (like interrupt you, look at their phone when you’re talking, repeatedly remind you about chores), telling them again right now while you’re triggered probably won’t help and will only hurt. And tolerance doesn’t just help you get through the hard moments - partners who can tolerate each other’s tough behaviors end up having conversations where they share more vulnerable emotions and speak in less blaming, attacking ways. It might seem counterintuitive, but willingly tolerating your partner’s unpleasant tendencies can actually lead to deeper connection and fewer fights.

Try these three steps to experiment with building your tolerance.

1. Define a tolerance target.

We all come to relationships with different pain points and capacities to tolerate certain types of behaviors from our partners. There is no cut and dried answer to what actions are unacceptable, because each person’s threshold for specific irritating or unpleasant behaviors differs. Apart from abuse, which should never be tolerated, it is up to you to determine what you can live with. To start building up your tolerance, each partner can pick a moderately irritating behavior of the other’s that they don’t like but can live with. Start with a habit that is annoying but not enraging or devastating.

2. Practice noticing and neutrally naming the behavior.

The next time the behavior happens, tell yourself that it’s happening. Your mental dialogue might sound something like: “Ok, here it is again. I really don’t like when she walks away in the middle of an argument, and she just did. Ugh. All right, even though I hate that she’s walking away right now, I’m not going to do anything to stop it. I really want to say something, but whenever I do she says I’m controlling her and pretty soon we’re in a big fight. I don’t like this. I want to go after her. Argh. Ok, I’m still not doing anything to stop her.” You might find yourself really wanting to do whatever you usually do in that situation (running after them, snapping back, storming out). Notice how challenging it is to do something different and try to surf that new challenge like a wave.

3. Use self-care to soothe yourself

Because increasing your tolerance is hard work, you might feel extra edgy, wounded, or raw. After tolerating a behavior that you would normally resist or argue against, tend to yourself by doing things that meet your own needs. Choose self-care strategies that will help you and not hurt your partner. If your partner hates it when you vent to your mom about your fights, now is not the moment to call your mom. Self-care should feed you without fueling the conflict.

What if the idea of tolerance bugs you?

Some couples are troubled by the idea of building tolerance to unpleasant behaviors instead of changing those behaviors. Why should you get better at living with something unpleasant? Why can’t your partner just change (and vice versa)? However, change and tolerance are not mutually exclusive. You and your partner can - and should - work on changing the ways that you bump up against each other, bug each other, and poke each other’s sore spots. But while you’re doing that work, you will continue to irritate each other. In the meantime (and maybe forever) tolerance helps you survive heated moments without adding fuel to the fire. Strengthening your tolerance muscles empowers you, giving you options when you are triggered other than reacting in a reflexive way that typically leads to an explosive fight.

Tolerance is a gift to yourself

One final point. Sometimes couples see tolerance as tit for tat. You might ask, “I tolerate you interrupting me, why can’t you tolerate when I correct your driving?” Although your partner will certainly benefit if you increase your tolerance, ultimately tolerance is not an offering to your partner, but an offering to yourself. Feeling emotionally rattled and escalating every time your spouse shuts down during an argument transforms something that already hurt (them shutting down) into a bigger hurt (a spun out fight). What would it be like if you could roll with their actions just enough that you arrived intact at the next moment without adding electricity to the conflict? Tolerance is not a concession, but a practice of self-love, keeping your foot off the accelerator so you can act with intention rather than impulse.

Marriage counseling can give you tangible tools for tolerating tough moments and connecting even when you and your partner irritate each other. I am here to help you build tolerance - which, in turn, will build a sustainable, nourishing relationship.

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