How to Have Truly Happy Relationships, or, The A’s (Acknowledgement, Appreciation & Acceptance

To make an analogy, let’s say that each partner has 10 self-esteem ‘dollars’ in their ‘bank’ to begin with. Some of these may have been lost or gained through their life experiences and the ways they’ve interpreted them until the present moment, but nevertheless, as two stand-alone people, they’ve got about 10 dollars to begin with. Practising the three A’s simply facilitates keeping their ‘self esteem banks’ topped up. Unless they are at a reasonable and stable level, the person will feel unable to truly be themselves in the relationship (so will fall into traps such as losing themselves in the relationship, rescuing or trying to be what the other person wants them to be subconsciously, taking the other for granted, etc). 1. Acknowledgement - validating worth, showing respect Acknowledgement: being able and willing to agree that your partner is having the experience that they say they are having. A lot of the time in relationships, one or both partners don’t feel ‘heard’ by the other. The couple might talk lots, about lots of things, but as individuals they might not feel that their thoughts, feelings and emotions are validated by the other person. This affects their sense of worth in the relationship, and worth as a person. Often when one partner starts to express something, the other partner has one of two responses, which have been conditioned into many of us in our childhood: a) to try and ‘fix’ the problem, rather than just listen b) to try and defend against what they’ve said as though it were a blame statement. Often, they don’t mean either of these, there are no subversive manipulatory intentions, they just want to talk, to foster emotional intimacy. And the result of the two points above? Feeling misunderstood, feeling a lack of sense of connection, feeling alone, like it’s easier to shut out rather than open up to the other person. Giving acknowledgement often means practising Active Listening. Which means that when you are in a conversation, particularly an important one, you don’t spend the whole time planning rebuttals or trying to convince the other person that you’re right. Not at all – in doing this, you don’t really listen to what the other person is saying, but rather you subconsciously put your perspectives on everything you hear. Active listening means actually consciously listening to what the other person is saying, and accepting that their experience of reality is different to yours (everyone is an individual, and so everyone experiences things differently – we all see the world through different mental and emotional lenses). Active listening means allowing yourself to accept that there isn’t one true reality, and that your thoughts, feelings, emotions and views have just as much credence and worth as those of the people around you. They have worth too, no more or less than you or any other being.

An example of showing acknowledgement could be like: a)” It sounds like (or It seems) you... [paraphrase in a sentence or two what your partner’s experience seems to be] b) That must feel... [Guess as to how such an experience must feel] c) I’m sorry you feel [guess as to what they’re feeling]” And so, by acknowledging your partner, by actually truly and genuinely listening to them, you allow the relationship to form strong bonds, a solid foundation, and to actually deal with problems as they arise. Instead of each conversation being tiring and taking self esteem dollars out of both partner’s bank accounts, it allows for conversations to air thoughts, feelings and views to be swept up from under the carpet and aired, eliminating seeds which could one day fester. And when the two of you feel truly heard, it’s possible to reach win-win situations of genuine negotiation and compromises where needed, such that everyone involved feels that their needs are being taken into account and that solutions are made, not the seeds of further problems or the brushing of more things under the carpet. 2. Appreciation – truly caring and valuing Appreciation: Telling your partner what you like about him or her. Many couples do appreciate each other, but the problem lies in it not being frequent enough. Just as it’s not effective to do an hour of exercise once a month to increase your cardiovascular fitness, it’s not effective to only say something nice about your partner once in a blue moon. The more frequently you do it, the more you build up your partner’s self-esteem bank, and this strengthens the foundations of intimacy and affection in the relationship. Expressing true appreciation unconditionally, without an ulterior motive or expecting appreciation in return, can be a very powerful tool. It can help your partner let go of blaming you, and to stop being defensive. It can be helpful to express appreciation that is specific, precise and graphic. For example, instead of saying: ‘I like that you’re such a nice person’, saying: ‘i really enjoyed that you helped that lady with a pram down those stairs at the train station, i think you’re a kind and caring person and wanted you to know how much i appreciate the little things you do for me too, like making me a cup of tea this morning when i woke up. Things like that really warm my heart.’ Can be more clear and convey what you mean more successfully. 3. Acceptance – unconditional Love Acceptance: Loving your partner just as they are, warts and all. This usually occurs after the first two A’s have manifested, and rightly so -- it takes time to develop genuinely unconditional acceptance. While Acknowledgement and Appreciation are both things you can ‘do’, acceptance is a fundamental shift in attitude.

A common fear for many people regarding accepting their partner unconditionally is that if they do, their partner will walk all over them. True acceptance in a healthy relationship means healthy and flexible personal boundaries for both people. It requires respect and trust, and also not wanting to control or manipulate the other person. It means a willingness to compromise, to hear and validate them, and to allow yourself to be heard and validated by them. Because, when people feel fully accepted, they do their best to make their partners happy as well as making themselves happy, rather than walking all over them – this is where respect and trust are vital. Acceptance doesn’t mean that you’ll love your partner unconditionally if they were smarter, thinner, richer, healthier, etc. It means loving them as they are, completely, right now. One way to practise acceptance is to try to tune in to the positive intention that your partner has at any moment, and encouraging and fostering this. Truly loving someone and accepting them also entails calling their bluffs, and holding them accountable to themselves (be careful not to confuse ‘themselves’ with ‘you’; they’re still accountable to you, but this is their choice to make, and not your prerogative to enforce). Acceptance means trust. It means being able to be truly open and honest with your partner when something happens, and not telling them that things are okay when you don’t really feel that they are. It also means not making excuses for them, or enabling destructive behaviour patterns to continue if you are being harmed. It means loving yourself in equal measure to loving them, and standing up for yourself with healthy boundaries. Accepting your partner doesn’t mean you never have disagreements – if anything, it means you may have more, but they actually get solved instead of leading to arguments and wearing each other down without getting anywhere. It means that you will always love them, despite their imperfections, because you see who they really are and are okay with them, just as they are, and as they grow.

Practising the three A’s may be scary, especially if you feel that your own self esteem balance is low. Taking the risk and starting the ball rolling is, however, usually worth it if you are in a loving, non-abusive relationship, if you feel worthy of being in the relationship (if not, this is something that may be one of the ‘risks’) and you and your partner have a positive connection. NB: This information has been inspired and paraphrased from Chapter 1 of Jonahan Robinsons’ book ‘Communication Miracles for Couples: Easy and Effective Tools to Create More Love and Less Conflict’ (Conari Press, San Fransisco CA, 2008).

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