gentle and radical accountability: five key tips for people wanting to make their relationships better
Radical accountability comes from the idea that each person is accountable for the experience they are having at all times. It is not my intent to minimize the fact that people can get in some extreme situations where they feel or actually are powerless. I am looking at the idea of radical accountability as a general attitude that can be healthy for partners in a couple. We can have the attitude of “I want to be at my best when my partner may not be able to be at their best.” This is very hard to do. So, rather than looking at what our partner is doing and blaming them, we are looking at where we get stuck and what may be our part of the problem. This turn toward ourselves is the beginning of becoming radically accountable. It is normal for all of us to want to blame others for our experience, but this rarely works in moving toward a more cooperative dialogue. We need to look no further than the US congress to see that staying stuck in one position and blaming the other for their position rarely motivates a cooperative effort.
Here are my best tips for making the most out of your relationships and/or your marital therapy.
1) People are human and complicated. We have emotional/reactive parts of our brains that don’t always feel like being accountable and looking at what we can do to make things better. The logical or calm part of our brain can see that if both partners are looking at what they can do to make things better in the relationship, things will likely get better. We can probably even get to a place where we can know that even if our partners don’t seem ready to make changes, we can still be helpful by trying to look at our part of the problem or improvement. However, when we are struggling with our partners, especially if we have been struggling for a long time, we are not likely to be coming from the logical/calm part of our brains. We are probably coming from an emotional part of our brain. To make it even more difficult, the emotional parts of our brain moves much faster than the logical parts of our brain. This is what often makes it much more difficult to slow or stop our reactions, unless we are quite mindful of these reactions. So, what does this all mean? It means the emotional part of our brain isn’t always going to feel like “doing the right thing.” If we were to slow down the emotional parts of our brain, we will often hear it saying blaming things like, “How am I supposed to change the way I am acting when my partner does ________ (shuts down, won’t talk, yells, is so cranky, etc). It is normal that it is hard to slow the emotional/reactive parts of our brains. Let’s face it; nobody really trains us on how to do this! However, we must know that if we are coming from an emotional/ reactive part of our brain, our partner will respond in kind and it is easy to get stuck in an endless cycle of reacting to each other.
2) It only takes one to change a relationship. When I am teaching a relationship class, I will often ask students: “How many people does it take to change a two person relationship?” The answer I typically get is; “Of course it takes two people. They both have to want to work on the relationship for it to improve.” Now I have to say that I understand the sentiment. Relationships are much better when both people are working on them. However, I believe we are better off thinking about it from the radically accountable perspective of, “It is up to me to change my part of the relationship.” To make my point that it only takes one to change a two person relationship, I ask a question in a different way. If someone were to say to you that they would give you a free trip for two anywhere in the world if you could come up with a way to make your partner feel distant or angry, could you do it? I don’t think it would take you too long. When I ask students this question, I typically get the following answers: “I would become critical, dismissive or in some way make them know I think they are wrong”. If we asked this same question to most experienced couples, they would have even more specific ways they could push their partner’s buttons if they wanted to. Now, I am definitely not saying to try this at home, as it will probably work and you will win the trip for two and have nobody to enjoy it with. This example illustrates the point that if one partner wants to change the relationship in a negative direction, they really could do it. So, why not do the opposite? Why not think about a way to interact with one’s partner that is not likely to make them defensive or upset? Maybe even think about ways that are likely to make them feel more understood, appreciated and cherished. Again, I do realize this is hard and there are no guarantees, but I firmly believe it is the right direction to take a relationship. 3) It is important to know when you are speaking from a clear enough or calm enough place vs. from the emotional/reactive parts of our brains. I want to stress what I said in point number one above, the emotional parts of our brain move much more quickly than the logical/calm parts of our brain. In addition, each person’s version of acting from the emotional/reactive part of their brains may look very different. We tend to think of someone as coming from the emotional part of their brain when they appear sad, scared or angry and that can be very true. However, someone can also be coming from the emotional part of their brain when they appear distant, calculated or shut down. So how does one know if they are coming from what I would call a clear enough place to have a positive influence? One way to know this is to ask if any of the following are true in the moment. If they are not, it is probably not a good time to have an important conversation.
Do I feel any of the following:A) I really want to talk to my partnerB) I am so curious about their perspective,C) I would love to really help them understand my experience of the situation without them having to feel like they are wrongD) Although I may be upset, I know they have a positive intentE) If they respond in a way that I do not like, I can walk away and try again later and I will be fine. If you can truly check these five sentences and be able to say ‘yes’ to one of these, you probably have a good chance of having a positive influence.
One more tip for this section: notice if you start to feel less patient. This is probably a clue that the emotional/reactive parts of our brains are taking over (these are the parts of our brain that move much more quickly).
4) It is completely okay to have a moment and come back later. However, when you come back, be willing to own your part of the situation. We all have our moments where we get triggered or stuck in a conflict pattern. Remember that in our sometimes busy and stressful lives, it is absolutely normal to trigger each other from time to time. However, the way we come back to a conversation is so important. Let’s start with how we do not want to come back to a tough conversation. Let’s say my partner and I had a conflict several hours ago and I am coming back to talk with her. “Can we talk for a minute about what happened (not waiting for an answer to see if my partner is emotionally available to talk), I want you to know that I have thought about it and what was going on was you were _______(defensive, angry, wrong, etc). Anything after “you were” is not likely to go well. We are not likely to get a loving response of: “Thank you so much for giving me this wonderful feedback, I am very excited to learn from you.” The likely response to that approach will be something like, “Well, let me tell you what you did…”. So, before you come back, you may want to ask yourself the questions from the previous paragraph to see if you are in the right place to talk.
Do I feel any of the following:A) I really want to talk to my partnerB) I am so curious about their perspective,C) I would love to really help them understand my experience of the situation without them having to feel like they are wrongD) Although I may be upset, I know they have a positive intentE) If they respond in a way that I do not like, I can walk away and try again later and I will be fine.
Once you know you are in a good place to talk, start with something inviting like, “Are you available to talk?” (and really wait for the answer). Then, you can follow up with something like “I really want to understand what happened for you and I want you to understand what I went through.” Remember, if the conversation gets stuck, it’s okay to take another break and come back another time.
5) Be willing to learn something about yourself that may not really have a lot to do with your partner. One of the hardest things about marriage is that it can often feel like our partners awaken some of the feelings that were hardest for us to feel when we were growing up. One of the best things about marriage can be that we married someone who deep down in their heart doesn’t want to make us feel that way. Most couples have a typical way of having a conflict where they tend to do a similar dance over a variety of topics. I will give an example using the names Ross and Rachel, as I am a long time fan of the TV show “Friends”. When this couple gets stuck, Ross tends to act sarcastic and ‘above it all’ when feeling hurt or criticized and Rachel tends to get angry and critical when feeling talked down to. We will refer to the way they act out when feeling vulnerable as their ‘protective parts’. It may be that Rachel felt like she was treated as not smart enough as a child and Ross had the experience of often being criticized. It is like having your own bouncer that takes over when one is feeling vulnerable in some way. Remember, this happens very quickly, so we may never know that they were feeling vulnerable. Ross is acting from his “sarcastic and above it all protector’ when he is feeling vulnerable and Rachel is acting from her ‘angry and critical’ protector when she is feeling vulnerable. Thus, we may have a war of the protectors: ‘sarcastic and above it all’ vs ‘angry and critical’. The protective aspects of their conflict can continue this dance for years and it can be very painful. However, if we can step out of the fight and really ask ourselves “what is behind this protective stance I am taking?” we can definitely stop the cycle and really learn something about ourselves. There are many examples of ways that partners in a couple protect themselves when feeling vulnerable including: shouting, shutting down, blaming, guilting, distancing, stonewalling, etc. But, there is almost always an important story to understand underneath the protection mechanism.
This article is heavily influenced by some of the excellent teachers, authors and trainings that I have been so fortunate to have been part of. For more information:
Brent Atkinson, www.thecouplesclinic.com Toni Herbine-Blank, www.Toniherbineblank.comRichard Schwartz, www.selfleadership.orgCece Sykes, www.cecesykeslcsw.com
Atkinson, B. (2005). Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy: Advances in Neurobiology and the Science of Intimate Relationships. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.Herbine-Blank, Kerpelman, D. M., Sweezy, M. (2016). Intimacy From the Inside Out: Courage and Compassion in Couple Therapy. New York: Routledge.Schwartz, R., C. (2008). You are the One You Have Been Waiting For: Bringing Courageous Love To Intimate Relationships. Oak Park: Trailhead Publications.