I work with many people on difficult relationships with their parents, siblings, children, friends, employers, and partners. Most of the time there is some pattern in place of trying to change the other person, defending efforts that the other may be doing to change us, or just cutting the person off. The following covers a model that gives us a new option.
An old supervisor of mine often said that we always have 3 basic choices in relationships:
A. Stay connected in anger/depression (status quo)
B. End the relationship (cutoff)
C. Make the best of what is possible (transformation)
All are viable and justified options at any given time with any relationship, but the work I usually do with my clients is move from A to C (most of them see B as a last resort). One obstacle in this is the belief that other person needs to do the changing. This usually brings reactions like “I shouldn’t have to do that, she should just start listening to me!” or “I have been doing that but he just doesn’t get it!” or “If he would just do what he is supposed to, then I wouldn’t have to deal with this anymore!”
That brings me to a brief model of option C.
The Acceptance Model of Change
1. Accept. Real acceptance of someone means that you make peace with how another person is, good, bad, and ugly, without judgment, and without requiring them to change. You can still disagree with how someone behaves or the choices he/she makes (and can speak your mind on this too), but you accept that the other person lives differently than you do. This means some wants/needs of yours may never be met by this person. One helpful tool in doing this is to really examine this person’s life from his/her shoes to understand what he/she has lived through (developing empathy). In this context it is often easier to understand why someone is a certain way. Another part of this is acknowledgment of your own shortcomings (we all have some), and working on forgiveness. If it is simply not possible, or healthy for you, to accept what they are doing, or what they have done, then option B, or at least getting more distance, may be a better option.
2. Expect. Part two is that whatever way the person behaves that troubles the relationship (criticism, lack of support, role failure, guilt trips, etc), you begin to expect that this will continue indefinitely, and then prepare for how to deal with it. If you can prepare for comments or types of situations ahead of time with honest but more productive responses (and have been working on acceptance), you can start to transform the communication style of the relationship. This is also an ending of the fantasy of the other person changing how they are, which can be very difficult. Therapy is great for working through these types of situations and developing new ways to communicate, and possibly working on assertiveness and communicating your experience of the interactions in new ways.
3. Make the Best. It would be wonderful if we could all have loving, healthy, and respectful relationships, that can go to the depths of contact that we would want all the time, but that simply does not happen. In this final stage, you would work on having the best relationship you can form with this person as he or she is, not how you wish him/her to be. Start to think if the areas that are actually OK with the person, and do more of those and expand them. For example, think of something that the other person cares about that you can take an interest in that would be a good way to connect.
Doing all of this can take years for it to really work through and setup new patterns, but some change can occur quickly. Additionally, there are some other elements to consider. First, sometimes people do change (from a new insight, a life changing event, a new relationship, therapy, etc). Being able to hope for this and give opportunities to embrace growth, without becoming disappointed if it doesn’t happen, is an important skill and is part of what makes the second step difficult. Second, there is another thread throughout all of this, which is your own personal development and ability to communicate honestly about your life and feelings. This model does not mean bottling up your thoughts and living an inauthentic relationship with someone.
Revised 02/17/19, Previous version: 02/14/10