Small Step #5

Accept what? Life as it is? Marriage as it’s been?  Verbal put-downs?  An excuse?  A lie?  Just what does “Accept It” mean?

In its broad sense, “Accept It” is a wise philosophy for living.  Much of life – the past, other people, adverse circumstances – can’t be altered, not directly anyway.  Thus, like it or not, for our own psychological well-being, we must accept it.

Most of us know this.  It’s advice we first heard as preschoolers.  Transferring it to our hearts and emotions, however, is the schooling of a lifetime.

A good definition of frustration: the difference between the way we’d like things or people to be and the way they are.  The greater the gap between our desires and reality, the greater the frustration.  To reduce frustration, therefore, adjusting our attitude is a good course, generally easier than adjusting life itself.

Within a marriage two people meshing distinct histories, personalities, and perceptions must develop a healthy amount of acceptance – sometimes tolerance – for each other.  It’s absolutely key to getting along well.  To deny acceptance is to accept frustration.  Discerning what to accept, when, and for how long, though, is the crux of the matter.

To clarify what “Accept It” is, let’s first clarify what it is not.  It is not permitting abuse.  It is not overlooking wrong.  It is not believing a lie.  It is not agreeing to an obvious contradiction.  It is not making oneself vulnerable to manipulation.

What then does “Accept It” mean?  It means that during a conversation or argument (the when), you will not immediately (the how long) dispute your spouse’s thinking or motive (the what).  Perhaps you’re objecting that this step is neither small nor easy (and I’ll accept that).  It strikes straight at the heart of your disagreements.  You don’t always believe or trust what the other is saying.  How do you get past your own suspicions?

An illustration: You spouse has just surprised you with her decision not to attend an upcoming family get-together.  Your opinionated sister will be there, and your wife says she’s about had her fill of the snide side comments about her motherhood.  Your first urge might be to counter with something like, “I’ve never heard her say that much.  Besides, you know my sister.  She talks too much.  You can’t take her personally.”  In so many words, “I don’t accept what you’re saying.”  The base for an argument is now laid.

You may not agree with your wife’s decision.  You may believe it’s a flimsy justification for spending less time with your family.  You may suspect her insecurity is talking.  Nonetheless, at this early juncture restrain comebacks.  Don’t contest her reasoning.  Let her make her case, and then consider her case.

“Why do you think my sister does that?” Or, “Did she say anything the last time we were together?”  Implicitly you’ve accepted her motive, however wrongheaded you think it is, leaving you better positioned to resolve the impasse.  “What if I stay close to you during dinner?  Is that when she says things?”  Or, “If I hear one rude comment, we’ll both move to another room.”

To sidestep brewing trouble, sometimes you have to flow with the other person’s thinking.  If you immediately challenge it, you could meet with defensiveness, silence, or volume.

Throughout therapy I must be prepared to accept what I’m being told.  For example, a husband claims his wife is being hard to please, constantly trying to control his every move.  I, on the other hand, have formed a different impression.  I see him as having minimal tolerance for anyone, especially his wife, reminding him of his husbandly and fatherly responsibilities.  Her “controlling” is more his reaction to being asked to do anything he disagrees with.

Suppose I am to summarily straighten him out with the likes of “Is your wife too controlling, or do you want to answer to no one?”  As therapeutically on target as that might be, what is the likelihood I’ll be rewarded with “Golly, Dr. Ray, what an insightful response to my own self-serving rationale.  I can tell you have a PH.D.!”?

For the sake of progress, I’ll do better not to debate his thinking just yet.  After spending more time exploring it, I’ll be more credible when I do challenge it, perhaps from a different angle.

Many marital clashes fit a similar template: Wife offers an observation or opinion.  Husband doesn’t agree.  Wife restates her position.  Husband argues why it’s even more wrong.  Wife offers additional reasons.  Husband considers those reasons illegitimate or foolish.  Wife feels compelled to defend her personhood.  The initial issue is now buried, covered by a mutual mistrust of meaning and motives.

“Accept it” redirects an interchange getting thus bogged down.  It only takes one person to acknowledge, if not in mind then in words, the other’s perspective.  The course of the argument then shifts from that of  “I think…,” “No, you don’t” to “OK, what makes you think that?”  Notice that a little acceptance is tied to small step #4, “Ask a Few Questions.”  Most of us aren’t inclined to ask anything further about something we believe is outright untrustworthy.  If we reject its legitimacy, why seek to understand it?  The matter, in our minds, deserves neither acceptance nor clarification.

Marriage: Small Steps, Big Rewards Pages 51-54
Copyright © 2011, Dr. Ray Guarendi
Servant Books