Life Lessins Blog

Acceptance in Marriage: A Misunderstood Concept (Part One)

Acceptance is one of the most regularly discussed topics in therapy. We are told that acceptance of our spouse is the key to a happy marriage. We learn that self-acceptance is an important goal in personal development. We hear that acceptance of a challenging situation is a crucial step in effective coping. 

Yet during actual therapy, the notion of “accepting” tends to elicit considerable resistance (and not an insignificant number of eye-rolls). As soon as the word comes up, a noticeable shift often occurs as the client braces for impact, ready to do battle against this unwelcomed suggestion. But if acceptance is such an important concept, why does it evoke so much pushback?

A Misunderstood Term

Our negative reaction to the term “acceptance” stems from a misunderstanding of what it means. We confuse acceptance with resignation, the notion that we must come to terms with the fact that our current circumstance, no matter how disappointing or frustrating, is just how it’s going to be. When we are told we must accept, we sense that we are being asked to give up on the hope that things can get better. We feel like we’re settling, and worse, fooling ourselves into believing that we are ok with it. But we know that we are not, and that’s why we get defensive.

In marriage, this message is particularly troubling. Hearing that we must accept our spouse makes us feel like they are getting a free pass. Or that they can’t change and there’s nothing we can do about it. We instinctively protest being told that we have to be fine with parts of our spouse that aggravate us. We know that we’re in pain, and we don’t like feeling like our experience is being dismissed. This type of “acceptance” can breed deep resentment towards our partner and lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair about any future prospects of finding happiness together.

It’s clear that we need a new definition of acceptance. Let’s see what we can come up with.

Acceptance in Marriage: 4 Premises

We’ll start by working towards a definition of acceptance in marriage (“self-acceptance” will be addressed in a future post). Formulating a correct definition of what it means to accept our spouse starts with delineating the following four premises.

Premise #1: The opposite of acceptance is rejection. 

The decision to marry is a commitment to take in the entire person, not only certain parts of them. It is a choice to fully receive the other into my world, with everything they bring. To not do so is a rejection of who they are, which is deeply hurtful and can destroy relationships.

When we reject parts of our spouse, we are saying: “I can’t love all of you. I can only love the parts of you that sit well with me.” Loving the entire person includes the parts of them that are hard for us. In fact, these may be the parts that our spouse needs us to love the most. 

This idea can be considered an extension of the Mishna in Pirkei Avot 1:6, which states that when judging others, one must evaluate the entire person favorably. The emphasis on “the entire” person speaks to the fact that in our assessment of others, we routinely zero in on the parts we like while attempting to push away the parts we don’t. This is perhaps especially true in marriage, where we tend to magnify our spouse’s less-than-sterling qualities. Yet for marriage to thrive we need to have two feet in, which means fully receiving the entirety of our partner.

Premise #2: Acceptance does not mean agreement.

Accepting our spouse does not mean we must agree with them on everything. Couples who know how to disagree with one another grow via the process of working through their differences. This is the meaning of being an ezer k’negdo, “a helpmate who stands opposite” (Bereishit 2:18). Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (the Kli Yakar) writes that when we stand opposite while facing each other, this is a stance of love. Love does not require us to be the same. It demands of us to look at one another from different points of view, care about what the other has to say, and work together towards a common goal.

Premise #3: Acceptance does mean approval.

Acceptance does not mean endorsing or approving every action our spouse takes. Acceptance in marriage cannot mean pretending that there’s nothing about our partner that bothers us. It is important not to adopt a definition that denies this fact. There will be things our partner does that we are really not ok with. We are allowed to acknowledge that we don’t instinctively like everything about our spouse, that certain parts of him or her are difficult for us. To deny this truth is to deny a reality that we all know and feel.

Premise #4: Validating our own experience.

In the process of learning to accept our partner, we must not minimize our own struggle. In the next post, we’ll explore an approach to dealing with our reactions to the parts of our spouse that we find challenging. For now though, we can establish that acceptance does not mean self-negation. Learning to make space for all parts of our spouse must not be interpreted as needing to deny or push aside the way their actions make us feel.

Acceptance in Marriage: A Definition

With these premises in mind, perhaps we can suggest the following definition. Acceptance in marriage is about love in the fullest sense. The best definition of love I have ever heard is: “to will the good of another” (attributed to Thomas Aquinas). If you truly want what is good for your spouse, this means that you want them to be married to the type of person who can meet them where they are, be willing to hear where they are coming from, and be open to working with them from that point.

Acceptance is about treating your spouse’s experience, including their thoughts and feelings, as real and legitimate. It is about viewing their behavior as coming from somewhere, as part of a context and stemming from a background that informs who they are right now. Accepting means acknowledging their perspective, which may be very different from your own, and allowing yourself to take it in. It’s about giving them the benefit of the doubt and considering that they too are trying their best. Willing the good of the other in marriage is about accepting the total package of how your partner experiences life in this moment and considering this when you assess their behavior, just as you would want them to do for you.

A Starting Point for Change

With this definition, we may be able to head off some of the above-mentioned resistance. An invitation to accept has nothing to do with resigning ourselves to an unpleasant reality or settling for what is. Rather, it is about establishing a starting point for productive conversation that can spur change and growth. It is not about gritting our teeth and bearing through difficult encounters with our spouse. Rather, it is about softening the dialogue through our willingness to hear where our spouse is coming from. It is not about overlooking behaviors that we feel are unacceptable or that need to be addressed. Rather, it is about communicating with our partner in a way that presupposes his or her good intentions. When we engage with our spouse from the starting point of acceptance, we are letting them know that although we may be struggling, we are still prepared to see them in their entirety.

Acceptance speaks only of where your partner is at this moment. It says nothing of what happens next or how things may develop from here. Being asked to accept is not about closing the door on change. It is about opening the door to let the other person in.

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