Accepting “Good Enough” Friends and Partners

It’s pretty much to be expected that the people who matter most to us also happen to be the ones with whom we spend the most time. Unfortunately, there can be a downside to getting to know someone really well. Not only do we become aware of their flaws or shortcomings, but we may hone in on them, allowing them to create emotional distance. We may even start to distort or exaggerate the negative traits of the people we love most based on our own “inner critic” or internal defenses. Basically, the closer we get to someone over a period of time, the more likely we are to trade in our rose-colored glasses for a fairly unflattering magnifying mirror. Taking this perspective is a way of trying to protect ourselves, but it paradoxically keeps us from having fulfilling relationships.

The Critical Bias

This critical bias can manifest  in all of our relationships but can be especially prevalent  in romantic unions or close friendships. Many of the people I work with start to have longer and longer lists of complaints about the people to whom they’re closest. “She never thinks to do me favors when I’m always doing nice things for her.” “He always talks over me when I’m telling a story. It’s so disrespectful.” Of course, every friend and partner is a flawed, imperfect human being, as we all are, so there is some reality to these complaints. However, the critical lens people adopt toward others often serves the purpose of creating what feels like a safe emotional distance and drives a wedge between them and those close to them.

The reasons we become overly cynical, nitpicky, or critical have a lot to do with our early lives and how safe it felt then to be emotionally close to others, to be vulnerable to them. Everything from our early attachment patterns to the “critical inner voice” that formed out of experiences that hurt us in the past can start to inform how we perceive loved ones. We may try to fit them in with molds from our history, or we may feel especially triggered by things that tap into old, painful emotions.

Much of this is an unconscious process and requires a lot of reflection on our earliest lessons about relationships to understand. For instance, if we experienced a lot of rejection, we may be extra sensitive to dismissive behavior. If we felt intruded on, we may feel easily overwhelmed or put out by others. Whatever our adaptations may be, we can start fresh in our current relationships. We can learn how to be more accepting and less reactive in ways that benefit us, those close to us, and our relationships in general. We can start to accept other people as “good enough” rather than expecting a kind of perfection.

1. Embrace Independence

There are two ways that embracing independence benefits a relationship. The first is that having our own life helps us remember who we are as individuals. Staying aware of the things that light us up and make us feel the most ourselves is an important principle to keep in mind when sharing our lives with someone else.  Not only does it help us have healthy and respectful boundaries, but it invites us to be less reactive. When we over-rely on another person to make us feel happy or complete, we forget our personal power to act in ways we respect and pursue things we value.

The second way independence benefits a relationship is that it helps us respect our partner or loved one as a separate person. When we’re close to someone, we sometimes forget that they are their own person with their own sovereign mind. It’s helpful to keep this perspective when we’re in conflict with that person or trying to “win” a fight. We should try to remember that their point of view and reactions to a situation belong to them. Their story may be different than ours, and that’s okay. The best we can offer is an effort to understand and empathize with each other’s unique experience and to meet it with compassion. This doesn’t invalidate our reality. It just validates the other person’s experience as separate from our own. This opens the door to more honest communication and more empathy on both sides.

2. Repair

No matter how much we strive for perfection, ruptures will occur in any relationship. Miscommunications will take place. Our defenses may go up. People will make mistakes. When this happens, rather than building a case or turning against the other person, we can try to repair the situation. Repair occurs when we’re willing to let our guard down and be vulnerable. We can be honest and direct about our feelings without using language that victimizes us or blames and demonizes the other person. We can then invite the other person to do the same. We can even make the decision to unilaterally disarm, saying things like, “I care more about being close to you than I do about winning this fight.” Being the first person willing to be vulnerable is an act of strength, and it usually leads to a better outcome and response from the other person.

3. Be Aware of Magnifying

I’d never advise anyone to overlook the things that hurt them. However, we should be aware of times we are ruining our own mood by being cynical or feeling easily annoyed. At these moments, we may be magnifying small things, making them much bigger in our minds. If we’re having a big reaction to a small behavior or reading much more into what a loved one is saying or doing, it probably has more to do with us than them. As I mentioned before, at these times, old feelings may be triggered inside us, and our reactions may have little to do with the present.

If we notice ourselves exacerbating a situation, it’s helpful to take pause and be curious about our reaction. We shouldn’t hate ourselves or the other person. Rather, we can offer ourselves some compassion, asking “I wonder why I’m feeling this way.” “Does this situation remind me of anything?” “Is there something deeper I’m feeling like fear, hurt or sadness?” “What might help me calm down and feel more myself?”

4. Show Appreciation

When we get too focused on the negative, we should try to step back and look at the bigger picture. Is this thing I’m critical about representative of the way I really feel toward this person? It’s a real gift to ourselves to take some time to connect with our own feelings of appreciation. Instead of focusing on how our partner didn’t text us back this afternoon, we may think about the loving greeting they gave us when they walked through the door.

Again, this is not about glossing over things that actually hurt us, it’s about seeking balance in our perspective and not allowing our own inner critic to sabotage our real feelings. It’s also about accepting that the other person is not perfect. They may be pretty bad at communicating over the phone, but is that really a representation of how they feel about us? Maybe they make us laugh, talk to us about how we’re feeling, or are generous when we need help.

Taking time to remember what we value in the other person is actually a kind act toward ourselves. It makes us feel good to appreciate the joys we can get out of the relationship. Rather than trying to make it the other person’s job to fulfill us at all times and in all ways, we can appreciate what they uniquely offer and seek out other things that fulfill us as well.

5. Be Compassionate

A good reminder when we’re struggling with someone else is to have compassion, not just for the other person but for ourselves. Our friend or partner may have a whole world of things going on inside them that we don’t fully understand, so we can try to have a little patience in allowing them to get through their struggles. On the flip side, we can be kind to ourselves when we have reactions that we don’t fully understand. Most of us are more critical toward ourselves than anyone else. Having a more compassionate attitude at times when we or those we love mess up benefits everyone.

In general, we can try to be a bit more light-hearted about the things that don’t matter that much and more direct about things that do. Having compassion helps us separate the two, because it gives us the time and space to sort things out rather than immediately reacting. Instead, we can be curious about the other person and ourselves. We can call upon our toolkit that invites us to remember our independence, our forgiveness, and our appreciation of the other person. When we lose track of our compassion, we’re far more likely to write people off and potentially lose an important relationship. By being less judgmental, we find new ways in ourselves to nurture a friendship and thrive in a relationship, both as an individual and as a pair.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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4 Comments

Donn

what a ridiculous article. Sure… I just be friends with a bunch of lame people who don’t care about me cause hey… that the best I can do and deserve.

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Star

I think it is more about accepting the people in our lives as imperfect. Of course there must be mutual love, respect and care… But in the end, no one was made for us. They were not born to satisfy my every need, anticipate every hurt and understand every thought. For so long I rejected friends because they were not 100% what I wanted. I ended up alone for a while because no one will ever be 100% what *I* want. They are just them, for me loving another means accepting their shortcomings (within reason, ibviously abuse and nastiness should never be tolerated). And sometimes when I fight with my mom or boyfriend, and I’m absolutely FUMING, I have to actively calm down and remember that in order to have a loving relationship I also need to sacrifice my pride and act with care and understanding. Do I want to compromise or do I want to be forever alone? I have never met anyone in my life who does not require compromise to relate to. That is what I took away from the article, something I am processing for myself as I manage conflict.

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Abs

Really lovely article. I can be emotional in my reactions and sometimes hold on to small things… and I hadn’t thought how my trigger could be reminding me of something from the past rearing it’s head. Also the gratitude does feel good, and quite empowering to notice good things in others. Thanks!

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