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How "Acceptance" Escalates Conflict

A student of mine was recently relating to me the stories of his partner's reactivity.  Many of his needs weren't met in the relationship and he found himself angry, frustrated, and doubting his marriage.  As he finished telling me how it was for me, he let out a long breath and said, "Well, I guess I just have to be the best man I can be and accept her."

He had become confused about true acceptance and his own reactive disconnect.  His version of acceptance was a begrudging, "Fine, if that's what you need to do, go ahead." 

When your partner is behaving out of reactivity, and you "accept" his or her behavior, you are contributing to an escalating cycle of reactivity.  Sitting quietly while your partner speaks to you in a way you experience as cruel or violent, is not only painful for you, but also allows your partner to practice and reinforce his or her reactivity.  When someone is screaming at you in jackal, it can meet needs for structure and peace to respond in giraffe with an equally loud voice, e.g., 'This doesn't work for me!  Please tell me what you want to do right now or take a time-out!'.

Other reactive behaviors, however, are less obvious.  For example, your partner may have a pattern of withdrawing out of overwhelm.  Reactive overwhelm means someone is imagining threat when there isn't one.  The pattern is complex and the definition of threat is subtle and varied so it's not particularly helpful to tell someone in reactive overwhelm that he or she is just imagining things.

It is helpful to stay connected to your own feelings and needs and make requests.  When your partner says he feels overwhelmed and thus can't go to your brother's wedding with you, you may feel disheartened because of your needs for family, celebration, and partnership.  Ignoring these feelings and needs and telling your partner it's okay and he can stay home if he wants, reinforces his reactivity and adds to your resentment.

You can't cajole, educate, plead, or "accept" and hope to get your partner out of reactivity.  What you can do is cultivate true acceptance and respond honestly.

True acceptance means you are able to see things as they are without pulling or pushing.  When you are not fighting what is, there is space for your own wisdom and intuition to arise.  You can stay connected to feelings and needs.  From this place you take action and make requests.

If you have the reactive pattern of "accepting" other's behavior, hoping to maintain harmony or to be liked and included, it can be scary to tell someone when she or he is doing something that doesn't work for you.  It seems easier to analyze and blame the other as the reactive one.  No one's reactive pattern occurs in a vacuum, you are constantly, whether consciously or unconsciously, reinforcing or helping to dissolve reactivity in others.

In the example above in which your overwhelmed partner says he won't go to your brother's wedding, you can express feelings and needs and then begin a negotiation by starting with simple, do-able requests.  For example, "Would you be willing to come to the ceremony and then see how you feel?", might be a way to start a dialogue. The most important thing here isn't the nature of your request, but rather your willingness to stay in a dialogue until you find a way that both of your needs can be met.

This week notice when you are telling yourself to be accepting.  Take time to check in and see if that acceptance has a begrudging quality to it.  Remember that in true acceptance there is aliveness.  You feel the full continuum of emotions and sensations, stay connected to your needs, and take action from a sense of your own wisdom.

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