Question: These days, therapists are into mindfulness and radical acceptance, especially in DBT for Borderline Disorder. I am looking for someone to interview via email about radical acceptance of a different sort–accepting that a partner has a personality disorder and is pretty much never going to have the relationship skills you wish they had.
Despite the fact that people know their partner has borderline or narcissistic disorder, they instinctively keep expecting the person to change, and try to do so through persuasive means. Of course, we all know that people can only change themselves: yet partners keep hitting their head against a wall when the same kind of hurtful behavior happens again and again.
I am looking for someone to speak to this issue and help partners radically accept what is.
Answer: I am the person you want to interview on this topic. I wrote the book, Secrets of Happy Couples: Loving Yourself Your Partner and Your Life. Through my research, my private practice and my work as the Executive Director of the William Glasser Institute, I’ve found one of the biggest secrets of happy couples is an acceptance of their partner just the way they are.
I like to modify the Serenity Prayer in this way:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change; courage to change the one I can; and the wisdom to know that person is me. Living that way, we can start believing the problem isn’t really the other person . . . he or she is simply living the way they want that brings them the most pleasure. Then we need to look at adjusting ourselves so we can better manage the behavior of those we love.
Before learning this lesson, we tend to destroy our relationships with the destructive relationship habits of complaining, blaming, criticizing, nagging, threatening, punishing and bribing, all in an attempt to get our partner to change. But we rarely get the results we seek. So one thing we can do is to stop using the destructive habits and begin using the healthy relationship habits of listening, supporting, encouraging, trusting, respecting, accepting and negotiating differences.
We can change what we want by adjusting our expectations. We might even find another relationship that satisfies in ways our committed one doesn’t. One person does not have to, and often can’t, meet all our needs. So broadening our base of support can help.
Finally, we can change our perception. I ask people to go on a journey from conflict to appreciation. It usually starts over something in our partner that we have a conflict with . . . something we just can’t tolerate. I challenge people to move from that place of conflict to a position of tolerance. Simply getting to a point where you can tolerate your partner’s behavior. For whatever reason, you are choosing to stay with this person. While you are in the relationship, it will be helpful to recognize the thing that “drives you crazy” as something that’s just a small part of the total package. Focus on the things you like/love about this person and don’t give a lot of thought to the one thing you don’t like. This can move you to tolerance.
When you are at tolerance and you’d like to improve your situation even more, then you need to recognize this is something that isn’t going to change. If you are going to stay in the relationship, it’s part of the package. You can spend the rest of your time angry, miserable and frustrated or you can make a decision to accept this is the way your partner is. Accepting doesn’t mean you are condoning. You are simply allowing that your partner has the right to live his or her life the way he wants. If this is what he or she chooses, then you must accept it or go crazy yourself.
When I really want to bump people up to a high bar, I ask if they want to move from acceptance to appreciation. This is a marvelous exercise designed to take stock of just how your partner’s behavior is helping you in some way. Because I believe in the universal balance in all things, I know that something that is frustrating and irritating on the one side, has another side with benefit–you just need to be willing to look for that benefit. Your wife who is chronically late, provides you an opportunity to practice patience. Your narcissistic husband is providing you an opportunity to experience giving unconditional love. Find the benefit and focus on it. Then you can thank your partner rather than trying to change him or her.