The Critical Difference Between Unconditional Acceptance And Enabling Unhealthy Behavior

Photo: fizkes / Shutterstock
couple hugging

“I’d been pondering this, and concluded that there must be some people for whom difficult behavior wasn’t a reason to end their relationship with you. If they liked you — and, I remembered, Raymond and I had agreed that we were pals now — then, it seemed, they were prepared to maintain contact, even if you were sad, upset, or behaving in very challenging ways. This was something of a revelation.” — Eleanor Oliphant 

**Names and certain details changed to protect identities.

“Are you guys coming or not? I’m leaving now so if you want to get in…”

I was in San Francisco picking up three Lyft passengers. Monica*, who was halfway into my car, had just yelled this to her two girlfriends, who were back at the entrance to the club. 

Chelsea and Sydney* ran over in their heels. They seemed in upbeat spirits, hair still impossibly straight even though (as I later learned) they’d been dancing for hours inside a packed and sweaty nightclub. 

The tension between the three became immediately apparent. In an overly-politely tone, addressing Monica* as if she were glass, the two friends asked her whether something was wrong.

“It’s fine — I’m just ready to go home,” Monica answered curtly, making no attempt to hide her irritation. 

For the remainder of the ride back to her house, she didn't say a word. Once there she got out, muttering a barely audible goodbye before closing the door.

Talk between the two remaining girls ignited almost instantly. Their uncensored voices re-emerged, tones now charged with passion and authenticity.

“I don't know what the heck is up with her,” one commented incredulously.

RELATED: Women Who Do These 15 Things Get Ghosted By Men — For Good!

“Do you think she’s like, jealous of us or something?” the other wondered out loud.

“Probably. But it’s not our fault we have boyfriends. Maybe if she were happier when we went out, she’d attract someone too. I’m getting fed up with it, not gonna lie.”

“Honestly, I’m just like over it too,” her friend agreed.

“Maybe she needs to be on her own for a while. Get her life together.”

I knew I could only form a limited opinion of what I was hearing, since there was so much information that I wasn’t privy to — I knew nothing about the context, history, or background of these girls’ friendships, for instance (Were they just not that close? Had they not known Monica for that long? Did they just not like her that much to begin with?). 

I also didn’t know whether Monica had made healthier attempts to communicate with her friends about the emotional issues she was facing, that had either gone ignored or been dismissed.

As Lisa Halliday wrote in her book Asymmetry: “They use violence when words don’t work, but sometimes the reason words don't work is that the ones holding all the cards don’t appear to be listening.”

Still, even with the limited information I did have, one thing seemed clear: the judgment permeating the car heavily outweighed the empathy.

Perhaps justifiably so. The girls’ response wasn’t out of the norm; I think many people would have reacted similarly. Monica’s behavior that night sounded like it had been (admittedly) emotionally immature and unpleasant to be around.

Yet I also think that sometimes we lose sight of the bigger picture and fail to separate behaviors from the entire person. We forget that even the most evolved of us have our occasional “moments of emotional immaturity.”

I’m sure many of us can think of a time when we weren't in full control of our emotions. A time when despite how hard we'd been trying, or the work we'd put in, one day we reached our tipping point.

As holistic psychologist, Dr. Nicole la Pera put it, “Whenever new stress enters your life in whatever form — you’re dealing with a sick relative, you’ve just brought home a new baby, or you’re going through a breakup—your tools might go straight out the window. That’s human. Our access to emotional maturity changes as we do, responding at different points to our environment, our hormonal state, whether we’re hungry or tired.” 

I recall a day when I’d rested my back against a tree in a grassy field. Seemingly out of nowhere, a wasp came and stung me.

Half an hour later, my coworker plucked out what I’d thought had been the stinger but turned out to be the creature’s leg. Though I’d initially been upset at the wasp, when I thought about him flying around out there, aimlessly and down one leg, my anger began to dissolve.

He attacked me, but he doesn’t deserve to suffer, I thought. I began considering his reasons for having stung me. He must have felt threatened and surprised. If I’d encountered a beast fifty times my size, wouldn’t I have reacted in a similar manner? 

Picturing him now as a scared little creature, compassion took the place of my anger.

Rather than trying to be difficult for the mere sake of it, or to make a statement, I considered that the Lyft passenger that night, like the stinging wasp, had probably also been acting from a place of hurt and fear.

RELATED: My Ex Dropped Me At The Airport, Then Ghosted Me From His Life

On the show This Is Us, there’s a scene where Rebecca is snapping at her husband. Pregnant with triplets, she’s saddled with stress and uncertainty — but even after she momentarily pushes him away, when out with friends that day he can’t stop thinking about her and their future family. 

He leaves his friends early to return home. When he walks in, he tells Rebecca how beautiful she is. Her earlier harshness and reactivity haven’t driven a wedge between them—because Jack knows they mean she was hurting, and this makes him want to be there for her even more. 

Anger is cited as the "number one relationship killer.” 

Some flee from any signs of it in another. This can be healthy, as it teaches assertiveness and self-protection. Still, on the other end of that extreme is the person scared off by any sign of conflict, or who cowers in the face of confrontation. 

Anger itself isn’t unhealthy or unequivocally bad. It’s how it’s expressed that makes the difference. Anger is always trying to signal an important message. Sometimes it’s in response to injustice; other times it results when a boundary has been crossed, or a need is unmet. 

Orizgold described anger in Tiny Buddha as “sadness that had nowhere to go.”

In relationships with both ourselves and others, I think it’s important to take each display of it on a situational basis.

It’s a slippery slope, because many of us have trauma, and many of us are hurt.

These aren’t excuses to blindly and indiscriminately hurt others. Forgiveness and second chances are wonderful things to give, but enabling helps neither the acter outer nor the acted upon. And no one deserves to be repeatedly mistreated. 

It’s hard to speak generally about this too because there are different degrees of “negative behavior.” 

There’s saying hurtful things when you’re upset. There’s maybe acting a little quieter and “short with people” than normal when momentarily unable to communicate your internal experience. Or perhaps you’re not as patient as you usually are, and sigh or seem annoyed when someone makes a request of you.

Also, how is the other person treating you? What was their contribution to the dynamic?

RELATED: A Man Refused To Date Me Because I Looked Like His Aunt

The line of tolerance differs for everyone and is a personal decision. It’s also up to each person to decide how many chances to give.

In general (granted that it’s not abuse or extremely toxic behavior), I try to ask myself the following questions: How well do I know them? How invested am I in our relationship? How uncharacteristic is this (behavior) of them, compared to their usual pattern?

I’m more inclined to do this emotional labor the closer I feel to a person— or when the behavior is out of character for them. I’m less inclined when it’s a pattern, or when the negative interactions heavily outweigh the positive.

Ultimately it’s each of our own responsibilities to work through our issues, and not allow negative behaviors to become a pattern.

But for the people who say they care — the ones who define themselves as friends, family, and significant others — it’s incredibly healing, affirming, and kind when they are able to see through occasional snappiness and respond with compassion.

Not "I'm going to allow myself to be mistreated," but: “I want to know what's beneath this because I care about you."

I can’t say I personally liked, nor had any momentary connection with the girl in my car that night —but I do hope the best for her. I

hope whatever deeper unresolved issues her actions were indicative of, she can learn to resolve them in a healthy and supportive environment; hopefully with friends who will allow for some imperfect behavior along the way.

I’m all for holding people accountable for their conduct (and even, as a very last resort, cutting out or distancing once’s self from toxic people).

And yet I also believe in taking a closer look at situations and not immediately obeying our knee-jerk reactions, without having considered another person’s perspective.

I jokingly ask myself now—if that wasp some day wrote me a heartfelt letter explaining what he was going through at the time—how scared and vulnerable he’d felt when I’d audaciously rested my back against the tree he’d built his home inside— would it grant more understanding on my end?

Would I forgive him if he acknowledged how his momentary lack of emotional coping tools led him to externalize his fear onto me?

I’d like to think so.

With or without that letter, I can remind myself that we all have a need to feel seen and held by those closest to us — and this need doesn’t go away when we are at our worst.

RELATED: 12 Tips To Reap The Benefits Of A Casual Relationship

A freelance writer and Spanish interpreter, Eleni Stephanides was raised and currently resides in the California Bay Area. Her work has been published in Them, Tiny Buddha, Peaceful Dumpling, The Mighty, The Gay and Lesbian Review, and Introvert Dear among others. She currently writes the monthly column "Queer Girl Q&A" for Out Front Magazine.