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The #1 Relational Skill Isn't What You Think

Calvin and I are in Ft. Lauderdale, Spring Break 2024

The other day, I asked Calvin (my husband) what he thought made our relationship so great. He paused, took a breath, and said, "Total acceptance. You always accept me for who I am. I never feel like I have to worry that you'll judge me, and I definitely felt like that in past relationships."

I loved his answer. Accepting each other for who we are—the good, the bad, and the ugly—has fostered a deep love and emotional safety between us. I'm proud of this because acceptance in long-term relationships is no easy feat. I know this both personally and professionally.

In the past, a lack of acceptance (also known as judgment) was a powerful tool that I used (unconsciously) to push men away. I didn't yet know how to tolerate deep closeness and intimacy. To protect myself from what I wasn't ready for, I'd focus on the things I didn't like about the person until they grew so big that I couldn't see anything else. At that point, disgust would set in, and the relationship would end.

Acceptance might sound simple, but it's far from it. It's easy to accept our partners when they do what we think they should do, when we agree with their decisions, and when they act according to our expectations. Most people can easily accept their partners for their samenesses. It's a whole other ballgame to accept our partners for their differences. It's one of the hardest things for people to do. Instead, they judge each other. They get annoyed at each other because of those judgments. They criticize each other. They don't understand each other. They take things personally that aren't personal. For example, the man who goes to the gym every day judges his wife for sleeping in and skipping her workouts. He gets annoyed at her when she complains that she doesn't like her body. To him, going to the gym is easy. He doesn't understand why it would be hard for her. In reality, she struggles with depression and can't get herself to get up and go workout, despite sincerely wanting to. He doesn't understand that because he doesn’t experience depression the same way she does. As a result, he gets irritated at her, rather than expressing empathy. Then there's the wife who judges her husband for being messy. She's very organized and neat. She can't understand why he isn't the same. Every time she sees laundry left undone, she gets enraged. When the dishes pile up, so does her resentment. She assumes he doesn't care enough about her to do more cleaning when, really, he struggles with ADHD and organization. He'd love to be better at executive functioning tasks, but he can't be, and it's painful for him to be reminded of this by his wife all the time. These are just two examples of how the inability to accept each other's differences leads to pain and disconnection in relationships. Judgment, criticism, and attempts to change the other person, hurts. The disappointment you feel when the other person remains the same, burns. Most people have wounds from their families and our society around never being good enough. Being in a relationship with lots of judgment and criticism might feel familiar, but it doesn’t feel safe, supportive, loving, or healthy. On the other hand, in a relationship where there is acceptance of each other's samenesses and differences, there is the opportunity to heal those exact wounds. In those relationships, you can finally be enough. That’s why acceptance is the most essential relational skill.

Journaling prompts:

  1. What do you criticize in your partner, a friend, a parent, or a sibling? Why is it so hard to accept those things? What happens if you replace your judgments with empathy? What thoughts and feelings emerge for you as you think about this?

  2. What do you need to stop criticizing yourself for?


This blog was originally published on Substack


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