"Andrea, just love him." These were the surprising words a wise friend had for me when I called to consult her after having a particularly bad fight with my boyfriend, Sanjay.
I was ready to walk out of the relationship one night when we were at each other's throats. I yelled at him, "You're impossible. I love you, but I can't keep doing this!" I left our Upper West Side apartment shaking with anger and hurt, storming down Broadway until I found a hotel to see if a room was available. I eventually returned home late that night, but realized that I had to do something different or our relationship would not survive.
I explained our drama to my friend, sharing how conflicted I felt. Her advice stopped me dead in my tracks. I suddenly realized the mistake I'd been making my entire life. I had been perpetuating the turmoil in our relationship by continuing to focus on Sanjay's flaws. Instead, I needed to accept him as he was and commit to loving him. I needed to fully accept myself as well and not let the fear of rejection prevent me from being open and honest with my feelings. I have always been an extremely guarded person. Although I was raised by a loving family, I experienced considerable turmoil when I was growing up and learned to isolate myself emotionally, almost always avoiding conflict as a means of protecting myself. As a result, I had a very tough time opening up and sharing who I really was.
So when I finally met the love of my life, I wasn't ready.
I wanted to be close to Sanjay, but found it very difficult to do so. I kept finding fault with him. I wanted him to change to fit me. Yet somehow we kept the relationship alive, and, after a few years of dating, we moved in together, choosing a sunny apartment across from the Natural History Museum. We had chemistry galore and loved each other passionately. Yet I would keep him at arm's length when it got too difficult — which it often would. We fought — a lot.
Sanjay had his flaws. I had mine. But he was a truly good guy and we loved each other unremittingly. I realized that if we were to stay together, our path forward to a committed and fulfilling relationship would require a profound approach — or more so, a radical one.
What was that new approach? It's what I have come to call Radical Acceptance.
I believe radical acceptance is the key to making a relationship not only work — but thrive. It's been the key to making my relationship with Sanjay incredibly deep and rewarding.
So, what is radical acceptance?
Radical acceptance means loving someone fully for who he or she really is — flaws, short-comings, weaknesses, warts, and all. It signifies loving someone without judgment. It is love filled with empathy and compassion.
Radical acceptance is the essence of unconditional love. It creates so much safety that the "lovee" can truly be him or herself. To radically accept someone means: I know of your flaws, failures, weaknesses, and short-comings. I still love you.
Studies have shown that people feel good about themselves after they have given a gift. Radical acceptance is gift-giving on steroids, thus an immense opportunity for the giver to feel better, because it truly is the most powerful, valuable gift you can give to someone.
Just think for a moment how it would feel if you knew your spouse or significant other fully accepted you — ALL of you? Wouldn't that be the most liberating and empowering feeling imaginable? In my observations, only a lucky few have achieved such a status — but it is my belief that almost every one can. I say almost every one because radical acceptance requires a considerable amount of work, so only those willing to put a lot of effort into their relationship can get there.
I came to the concept of Radical Acceptance over time based on my own experiences; by carefully observing and discussing others' relationships; and by connecting the dots between the research my company, YourTango, has conducted on love, along with some powerful insights from a couple of other pivotal thinkers and writers in the love and relationship arena.
My wise friend who counseled me to "just love him," certainly planted a powerful seed around the notion that I should quit analyzing my relationship with Sanjay and simply love him as he was. Then, after reading Thomas Moore's brilliant book Soul Mates: Honouring The Mysteries Of Love And Relationship, I was led to my epiphany to start a media company devoted to love and relationships. I was moved by how Moore calls for people to embrace the darkness, the murkiness, the shadows of a relationship and the people in it as a means to truly connect on a soul level with one another. I was also moved by the Imago communication framework originated by relationship expert Harville Hendrix, who is an important source of inspiration for a key aspect of Radical Acceptance — indeed it's the basis of what I describe as Radical Communication.
Over a number of years, I had unwittingly developed a crucible in which these sources of inspiration, along with plenty of heartache and soul searching in my personal life, ultimately crystalized into the concept of Radical Acceptance. As I thought through it, I determined that it was a powerful formula with five distinct steps (see below). And then I practiced and experimented extensively with them to be able to personally claim that Radical Acceptance truly works.
So how does it work? Radical acceptance provides the crucial cues to your partner that you are committed to your partnership and truly and fully love him or her. It then backs up these cues with a virtuous proactive cycle, including actions and communication, that just gets stronger and stronger as it is practiced.
When you practice radical acceptance, you essentially practice unconditional love ... but so much more because it is so incredibly active and deliberate. It truly is a practice, starting with the active compassionate acceptance of yourself — flaws, shortcomings, weaknesses and all. You commit to loving your partner fully. You go the extra mile to communicate effectively with him or her, making a concerted effort to let him know that you do not judge him, that you truly do love ALL of him — including the parts that appear scary, foreign, difficult, weird or hard to love. You prioritize your partner. You dedicate yourself to the practice of radical acceptance and keep doing it, again and again and again.
So rather than letting Sanjay push my buttons and getting upset at the things that disappointed me, made me feel angry, and caused me to fight back, I decided that I would accept the parts of him that upset me and simply love him — all of him. To love him fully, to always have his back, to even love the traits that are hard to love. Wow. Talk about transformational!
There were a number of problems in our relationship that would cause us plenty of heartache. One set had to do with him feeling frustrated with me because I work so much and am reluctant to take time off. Even when I'm not working, I am often stressed and distracted. This has taken a serious toll on our personal lives. Sanjay wants to be supportive of me and my career success — and he has been — but he can also feel hurt, angry and frustrated, which comes out typically in the forms of criticism and a short temper. I have learned to accept that side of him and perhaps more importantly, I have learned that I must dial back on my work and ensure he knows that I am focusing on him and our kids more frequently so that he doesn't feel frustrated in the first place.
Sanjay also tends to be quite vocal and impassioned in his criticism. This used to drive me crazy and led to a number of explosive fights. But I've now learned not to get defensive and get sucked into a downward spiral. Moreover, I have learned to look at both why he might be extra-critical and why I find this so painful and threatening.
I confess that this was hard. And it still is. I cannot claim to have mastered it. But I am committed to the concept of radical acceptance and can say (shout! sing!), unequivocally: It works.
Still, it's not a quick fix — far from it. It takes wisdom, maturity, patience, compromise, a willingness to let go of the small things and the need to be right. And most of all, it takes a lot of work. It truly is a practice. I am discovering that it is the most important, meaningful work of my life.
All of us have parts that we consider weak, foolish, wrong, unworthy of being loved. We work hard to keep those parts of ourselves hidden. Having those weaknesses exposed can be scary — terrifying, in fact. But radical acceptance offers you alchemy, because it turns the scary stuff, the painful stuff, the things that make you want to run away, into blessings and opportunities. When your beloved is willing to love even those unlovable parts, and draws "out into the light all the beautiful belongings that no one else had looked quite far enough to find," to quote a line in my favorite poem called "Love" by Ray Croft, you'll feel an unparalleled level of commitment from that person. And that's about as big and powerful as it gets. Why? Because it means that you are totally safe no matter what. It means you don't have to hide. It means that you don't have to fear rejection because your imperfections are exposed.
In addition to alchemy, it creates a beautiful virtuous cycle because, when you are free to be who you truly are, you are more likely to: 1) connect in honest, authentic ways, which enhances emotional intimacy. 2) Be open to sharing more of yourself because you exist in a safer realm. 3) Be less stressed and more compassionate, thus reducing the amount of negativity, blame, anger, and judgment in your relationship.
Radical acceptance means that you don't have to keep having that same old fight over and over. And over. Even more powerful is that you reduce fear by creating an atmosphere where there is no judgment. Communication thrives and a collaborative environment takes root. As noted above, radical acceptance not only helped me be more accepting of Sanjay, it caused me to reflect on how I was contributing to Sanjay's frustration, and take responsibility for my role in the friction.
Now, you may be thinking: Isn't radical acceptance just another way of settling? Or passively allowing someone to be a jerk or abusive or self-destructive? Emphatically: NO, it is not. There are two important points to make here:
1. Radical acceptance makes you stronger. It is empowering. It is a bold, powerful choice. It is not rolling over. It is not resigning yourself to subsisting on crumbs. Frankly, it's a lot easier to fight and stay stuck in old crappy patterns than to exhibit the strength and perseverence required of Radical Acceptance.
2. Two, radical acceptance works when it comes to what can generally be characterized as personalities flaws, bad habits, and differing styles and preferences — NOT character flaws. It is crucial to recognize the difference between these two concepts. He talks too loudly, doesn't clean up after himself, spends excessive time watching tv, likes a lot of kinkiness in his sex, exaggerates, eats crappy food, is sanctimonious, has a short fuse, lacks confidence, stays up all night playing video games, is 20 pounds overweight, has zero fashion sense, picks his nose, is the son of a convict, goes three days without showering, gets melancholy, is a mama's boy, gets easily distracted, mumbles, goes to the gym 7 days a week, is perpetually late ... on and on and on.
These are not character flaws. They may be frustrating and annoying as hell — and God forbid you ever meet anyone with all of them — but if he is ethical, trustworthy, moral and compassionate — in other words, if he is a good guy — he warrants radical acceptance.
But: If he is truly a jerk, abusive, overly narcissistic, or any thing along those lines, radical acceptance is probably not the answer. There is endless room for exploring this issue and who's really to blame: you or him. Charles Orlando, an insightful, colorful relationship expert who's the author of the book and Facebook page, The Problem With Women ... is Men, offers thoughts on why he treats you like crap and how this is one of the most-asked questions he receives.
Admittedly, there are gray areas with radical acceptance. I am not advocating radically accepting someone who has a debilitating drug or alcohol addiction, or some other behavior that is self destructive and clinically unhealthy. Yes, unconditional love from a partner can help an addict recover, feel safe, and learn to love himself. But that is better dealt with in cooperation with a medical and/or mental health expert on a case by case basis.
In the coming weeks, I'll be writing more about radical acceptance and how it works. But just for now, briefly, here are the five steps to practicing radical acceptance:
1. Just love him ... or just dump him. There truly is magic in commitment. If you've picked a good guy with integrity and compassion, just love him. Make that commitment and go all in. Sure, that probably won't happen in the first five minutes. But after you have gotten to know one another, you need to decide if he's worthy of commitment. If you can't decide, if you can't commit, then the default answer is clear. Just dump him.
2. Radical Acceptance requires radical communication. Successful communication is key to any mature, deep, meaningful relationship. Radical acceptance requires you both to be honest and to allow one another to express yourselves in an environment that is safe and nonjudgmental. There are things that she does that drive you crazy or parts of her past that you find difficult. Radical communication means that you acknowledge this but that you love her anyway. Radical communication offers a safe environment for you both to be really heard and seen; it offers empathy; it offers validation. This requires trust, maturity, and commitment.
3. You can't love half of him. Sure, you love that he is cute, funny, successful. Who doesn't love those attractive traits? That's the easy part. Radical acceptance means knowing his weaknesses, insecurities, and mistakes and still loving him.
4. You have to put him first ... not always, but often. Radical acceptance requires a real investment in your partner and in the relationship. You cannot radically accept someone if you never spend time together and don't create the time and space for the process to take root in a deep, meaningful way. This is not meant to all be homework. You take steps to tune into him and his needs, problems, and concerns, but this is also where you get to have fun together, relax, explore, be goofy, and create wonderful memories together.
5. Great relationships are made, not born. Radical acceptance is a practice and a process! You cannot will it into being but need to do it. As the relationship proceeds you will discover many layers that lead to new insights and can change behavior and perspective, for both partners. You will get frustrated and disappointed, no doubt, in the process. But by continuing to do it, you will reap the rewards and win the ultimate prize.
In the long run, radical acceptance has given me a sense of profound grace. It has truly been transformative in our relationship. It's helped Sanjay understand me better so that he can more fully accept me; it's enabled me to be much more compassionate with him, offering more understanding, tenderness, and empathy. Radical acceptance has liberated me of so many dark thoughts, toxic judgments, and petty grievances. It has soothed an isolated heart aching to feel loved.
That is why I am bursting with excitement to write and share my experiences. Now that you've read this, I ask you to consider allowing radical acceptance into your life. Please share your stories, poems, quotes, and sources of inspiration with me and the YourTango community. Let's help each other along this journey — and it is a journey! Amen.