Can I accept difficult feelings in a relationship?

Mara Katz LCSW-CArticles, Marriage Counseling

On Radical Acceptance – What is it? And why does it matter in relationships?

“Unacceptable.” How many times do you think or hear yourself saying that something is “unacceptable?” We all have expectations about our own and others’ behaviors and we all find ourselves in situations where we feel that these expectations have been unmet. Sometimes we end up in a position where we need to accept the unacceptable and that’s where the concept of radical acceptance comes in. Simply put, radical acceptance is accepting things as they are and our feelings about them, but there is nothing simple about this. The “and” is so important here, because that is where feelings and facts are both acknowledged.

Radical acceptance can be of critical importance to the repair of stressed or damaged relationships. Relationships with others often require us to alter or reduce our standards and we do this with the expectation that we will get a benefit in some other area. One example would be the fastidious partner, who likes a tidy, orderly house, but decides to partner with the “packrat,” presumably because the relationship is satisfying in other ways. “Acceptance” often gets confused with “approval,” so for the sake of clarity, acceptance, in this context is acceptance of the facts without judgment of them as “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong.” This may include conceding that events happened and cannot be changed, reconciling a characteristic or trait of another, or understanding the limits of our own control. On the other hand, approval means saying something is okay.

When one partner in a committed relationship hurts the other, whether seemingly intentional or unintentional, the hurt partner may experience conflicting priorities that make ending the relationship undesirable or much more difficult. Practical matters, emotional connections, children, community – all of these factors and others – may play a role in decision-making and it can feel paralyzing to make the best decision for all involved. Staying may feel like compromising too much, but leaving feels like a loss too painful to bear. So, what do you do when all options feel unfair? When what you want or need is not what you have? Radical acceptance can bring you closer to figuring that out. Recognizing that facts and feelings do not always seem to match is the first step. A part of this process is naming the facts and the feelings, in spite of how painful they may be, and acknowledging their truth.

Radical acceptance is “radical,” meaning we accept the situation and our feelings wholeheartedly or “all the way.” Again, the importance of accepting the feelings becomes the motivation for change. Radically accepting a situation enables us to better understand our limits and is the foundation for making choices and making change. Remaining in or leaving a relationship is a choice and the basis for that choice is highly personal and, as such, is dictated as much by feelings as by facts. It is relatively easy to say, “If X ever occurred, I would Y,” when we are not experiencing the wide range of conflicted feelings that would be involved. In this way, the advice of friends or loved ones can add to the confusion and make us feel we are letting others down or showing some sort of moral weakness. This too can be eased with radical acceptance.

It is important to recognize that radical acceptance is only a part of the recovery process. It is what gives us the space and motivation to truly engage in repair with a clear understanding of what repair does, and doesn’t, look like. It is the beginning of the difficult, but rewarding, process of repair and recovery.

For more information on the role of couple therapy in this process, please e-mail me at