Confessions of a Marriage Counselor

I have a confession to make. I want to be accepted for who I am. I hear this lament from so many couples, it's universal. I bet you've even had the same thought yourself. Our culture teaches, “I'm okay, you're okay,” unconditional love, and win-wins for all. So what's the problem?

I know it well. When my wife, Ellyn, criticizes me, I often think, “Hey, get off my back.” But this is just a camouflaged way of wanting unconditional acceptance. I'd rather she accept my behavior so I don't have to take a closer look at what's going on, work to improve myself, or negotiate a compromise with her.

In almost any disagreement where strong emotions are involved, a part of me wants her to acknowledge that I'm right. Being right is simply another way of wanting acceptance. I don't want to have to make the effort to explain myself, listen to her, or concede.

So let's say I finally get what I want–unconditional acceptance. What would that mean? In my fantasy, when Ellyn felt judgmental she would withhold criticism and demands on my time or energy. She would speak up when it is convenient for me to have her speak up. She would point out her observations in a kind, positive and caring way.

But what would this really give me? If I always got what I wanted, I would avoid the struggles of clarifying my deeper desires. Often these desires are revealed only through the give and take of spirited or argumentative discourse.

Over time, I would stop inquiring about Ellyn's fears, hopes, desires, insecurities and concerns because in order for her to unconditionally accept me, she would have to deny much of her identity. I would ultimately find Ellyn had become uninteresting and boring. It would be a terrible price to pay for getting what I wanted.

Wanting to be “accepted for who you are” is a problem when your partner has asked something difficult of you, and you would rather not make the effort. What's even worse is you're not facing the truth about the situation. You're blaming your partner, holding them responsible for your discomfort. You want them to accept you, not to point out shortcomings in your behavior, flaws in your personality, or weak spots in your character.

It's about courage.

Look, when you speak up and stop manipulating your partner to “accept you unconditionally” you will then begin to experience the things in life that REALLY make life worth living! Personal growth happens when you're finally willing to be vulnerably honest with your spouse without blame or complain. And that's when you'll experience the real breakthroughs in your life – in every area of your life. But it takes courage. You've got to be willing to open up. Be vulnerable. Tell the truth. Listen to your partner's truth without blame or complaint.

You may feel like you are walking a high wire without the net. The risks are high. I think the rewards are even higher.

Your situation might be entirely different. But I'll bet some times the thought crosses your mind that you'd like to be accepted for who you are. And when it does, consider taking another look at yourself.

Until next month,
Dr. Peter Pearson, Ph.D.

© Copyright MMIV The Couples Institute

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Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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