I’ve noticed lately that I’ve been working with a lot of clients about reality acceptance. I know this is where I could go in the COVID direction, but I’m talking about it with clients as it relates to their relationships so that’s what I want to focus on here. In relationships, we often have resentments and frustrations with our counterparts. Partners enter marriage and inevitably discover things that they wish they had known about pre-commitment or things they would like to modify or improve in their partner.
I remind clients that, much as we might wish it, people are not fixer uppers. We don’t have the power to make people change or to change them ourselves. The only person who can change a person is that person themselves. We have to accept them as a fait accompli.
Or not accept them.
I find that clients often think this is harsh and unfair. “But if my partner could just understand my point of view they would want what I want.” Is a line of argument that I hear all the time.
Yes and no is generally my response.
If your partner loves you and you can communicate to them that something is important to you, they might be able to do the thing you want them to do BECAUSE they love you. But they won’t necessarily feel that it is justified or necessary organically or independent of you feeling it is necessary and them wanting you to be happy. If a partner is scared of heights, they might be willing to go eat in a restaurant on the top floor of a building if it was the only thing you want in the world, but they probably aren’t ever going to WANT to eat on the top floor of a tall building.
They’re certainly never going to ask you to go eat on the top floor of a tall building spontaneously and without encouragement from you.
Because you can’t make a partner want the things you want if they don’t. You can’t make them see things your way if they don’t. You can get them to go along with your desires, if they love you and are capable of it, but they likely won’t agree that they were as necessary to them as they were to you.
Which is ok. We don’t marry or develop relationships with our clones. We develop relationships with living, breathing, individuals who often don’t share our exact life experiences and perspective. With different genetic make ups and childhood environments, they have their own priorities and needs.
Our choice is whether to accept them or not.
Of course we can ask for things and I think we should. But we need to ask effectively and for the right things. An example I often use is that when I listen to the news on the radio in the car or read the newspaper, I tend to get upset about the things I hear and read. The state of the world is hard for me to accept and to process these days. As a result, I often find myself wanting to vent these emotional responses for my husband and have him comfort me (comfort me means tell me I’m right in whatever my response is to the situation). When he does this, I feel heard and I feel better. Unfortunately, he often wants me to feel better and believes that I’ll feel better if I understand why I don’t need to be upset about the thing I’m upset about. Why it won’t affect my life personally or isn’t as bad as it seems at first glance.
He’s trying to help me feel better in a way that would make him feel better.
This does not make me feel better.
It makes me angry. I feel like he’s telling me why I’m dumb to think about things the way that I do. He’s not, but that’s how it feels. So instead of succeeding in his goal, of making me feel better, I now feel worse. Instead of succeeding in my goal of feeling better and heard, I now feel discounted and worse.
So I started telling him to just agree with me that what I was upset about is terrible and, in return for that, I’m willing to feel better and not talk about that subject anymore after he does.
He does not agree with me that this SHOULD make me feel better, but he’s willing to do it since I’m telling him that it DOES make me feel better.
He’s never going to be a venter. That ain’t him.
He’s a rationalizer or a reasoner. That ain’t me.
But we accept this about each other. It might be reasonable, if this became a bigger problem and he wasn’t willing to do what works for me and I wasn’t willing to do what works for him from time to time (not push him to vent when he doesn’t want to), to consider whether we can stay in the relationship. Or not. It really depends on what the relationship means to each of us and what we get out of it apart from this area of conflict.
But the decision to stay is a choice and one we have to keep making.
To be in relationship or not. That’s the only real choice within my grasp.
There is a romance and a passion in continually choosing to stay. To see relationships for the continuous choice that they are. People who make that choice for decades are amazing. They’re determined. It’s romantic. Regardless of any hearts and flowers exchanged in the actual relationship.
It’s not harsh to say that staying is a choice and one we must make ourselves and over and over.
It’s really hard to take people as they are and to accept them for who they are. It’s really hard to accept ourselves for who we are too. Because that’s the other side. We have to accept that we probably won’t become different people just because our relationship partners want us to. We won’t suddenly love that which we hate just because our partner does. And that’s ok.
Or it’s not.
It’s really up to them.
But if we don’t accept the reality of who we are and allow our partners to meet that person, then we’ll never feel safe and accepted. We’ll always know that we’re tailoring the self that we present to be acceptable and to be accepted and that’s a difficult and exhausting exercise.
I’ve been thinking about this, in particular, as it relates to my kids. Since switching to virtual school, I’ve noticed that my now 8th grader has become much more comfortable and self-assured about who she is and what she cares about. Her political views have developed, her moral values have individualized, and her passions have become her own and not those of her friends.
I can’t help wondering if this is because the distance has helped to take the pressure to conform off of her. Middle school is a soul-crushing exercise in fitting in to group dynamics and adapting to what your community (of 13 year olds) expects of you.
I don’t know a single person who says “boy, middle school. Those were the days, wish I could do that again.” It’s so hard and painful to watch your child stamp out the individuality in themselves in order to fit in.
The therapist in me knows it is developmentally appropriate and the changes in my daughter are largely because she’s gotten through that phase and is into the next one where she wants to be different again. But I can’t help but wonder if this six month break has actually been somewhat good for her. That it has taken some of the pressure off.
The relationships are still there and still require maintenance, but some of the constant pressure has lifted now that they’re not in each other’s pockets all day every single day. It’s ok to actually listen to the teacher when no one can see you doing it and therefore there’s no risk that people will think you’re a, gasp, nerd who likes learning.
At the other end of middle school, my 6th grader has felt isolated because she’s starting at a new school (for middle school) and doesn’t know any of the kids. This month of distance learning in a new school has let her start to adapt to the increased academic requirements absent the normal social positioning and politics of a new school and new classmates. She’s able to focus on figuring out how to interact with teachers who expect her to independently manage homework and to turn it in unprompted without worrying what others think of her shoes or her hair or the way she speaks when she participates in class.
So I guess I’m wondering if the reality of middle school without the middle schoolers is actually kind of wonderful. If it’s actually releasing my kids from some of the pressure and worry.
Our schools are moving towards resuming in person learning, so I guess we’ll see. But this was an unexpected by-product of our changed reality. That’s for sure.
And I think I can accept it.