It’s not rocket science to know that rejecting your spouse is a really, really painful thing to do. But, think about the opposite for a moment: if I asked you to sit down and list the things you do regularly to communicate your unconditional acceptance of your spouse: how long would that list be?
First though, let’s start with the opposite of acceptance-rejection. I think it is clear to everyone that it hurts to be rejected, but it is worth knowing how severe that impact is in marriage.
A study from 2013 looked at the psychological adjustment of individuals who had grown up experiencing rejection from their parent and they were rejected by their spouse.
As a side note here; this is something we should be aware of. We tend to choose a spouse who will continue to treat us the same way our parents did: either for good or bad or more typically, for a mixture of those. We’re comfortable with the familiar and so unless we experience some personal growth between receiving caregiving from our parents and entering into marriage, we tend to perpetuate generational problems.
These researchers found that:[i]
- 72% of men and 68% of women who received acceptance from both their parents and their intimate partner were psychologically healthy and adjusted.
- On the other hand, 71% of men and 60% of women who experienced rejection from both their parents and their intimate partner showed serious psychological maladjustment. (Psychological maladjustment meaning that they showed high levels of hostility and aggression, overdependence, negative self-esteem, and self-adequacy, were emotionally unresponsive, emotionally unstable, and had a negative worldview).
We don’t tell you this to make you feel messed up – just to point out that rejection is a very severe experience with very real, very detrimental impact.
The scary thing is, we do this to each other all the time in marriage. Every time your spouse makes a bid to connect with you and you decline – that’s rejection. It might be tiny, it might be big. Everything from declining a bid or proposition for sex that night to ending a hug a little early to an invitation to converse that just elicits a grunt.
We think of rejection as a spouse with a suitcase leaving a note behind on the bed – that’s the most severe, dramatic type, but what about those times when your spouse is trying to talk to you and you’re like “…Huh? Hang on, I’m on my phone.” A thousand minute rejection like this compound to the severity of the one major walk-out kind of abandonment.
It is really important to stop and consider the way we think about rejection because most of us intend to be (or want to be) loving, kind, engaged spouses. But… we also drop the ball a lot and may not fully grasp the cumulative severity of this.
Let’s look at the positive side now and talk about acceptance.
The Important of Acceptance
The first thing to look at is unconditional regard which is one form of acceptance. Unconditional regard is the basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what they say or do.
In Christian language, this is brotherly love coupled with the effort of separating the sinner from the sin. (Carl Rogers originally birthed the idea of unconditional positive regard – not sure if he’d agree with Caleb’s Christianized definition, but it works for us!)
A study looked at college students in romantic relationships – I’m presuming most were unmarried but I think the principles apple to marriage. Here’s what he found[ii]:
- Negative conflict acts as a mediator between unconditional regard and relationship satisfaction by the effect is has on unconditional regard
- Negative conflict may lower the extent to which an individual feels accepted or understood by hi or her partner which then has an influence on relationship satisfaction.
In plain English… Fighting in marriage makes you feel less accepted and less understood, which decreases your satisfaction with the marriage.
Another study unpacks this dynamic even more. These researchers looked at how you responded to your spouse’s behavior, or, more specifically, how you accepted your spouse’s behavior.[iii] They found:
- Acceptance of your spouse’s behavior (be it positive or negative) was a significant mediator between the behavior and your personal relationship satisfaction. In other words, how you viewed your spouse’s behavior was almost as significant as the actual behavior itself.
- How you accepted the behavior (as positive or negative) determined your own response. This is how if you see something as negative you’re prone to respond negatively. This creates an escalating reaction is marriage. One spouse does something innocently that is perceived negatively, so the other responds negatively and it escalates from there. But, good news, the same can also happen positively.
So, what can we do with all this information?
Watch your perception.
I know, depending on my own particular mood or feeling that day, that I can interpret the same behavior either positively or negatively. For example, if my husband is excited and I’m not, I can either be irritated or I can allow myself to be infected by his excitement.
The point is to work towards choosing the best possible interpretation of our spouse’s behavior. This builds relationship satisfaction. Where we’re not sure that we like what we see, we need to find a constructive way to ask or challenge our spouse about that. Or, if you sense your spouse may have misinterpreted you, be willing to clarify without getting defensive.
Not only do we need to watch our perception, but we also need to infuse a lot of positivity into our marriages – humor, hugs, affirmation, affection etc, because just as negativity escalates, so does positivity.
Rejection Sensitivity is very real and can be very painful. If you’re the type of spouse that readily perceives, expects and reacts intensely to rejection, we’ve got a bonus, privately listed audio file to help you.
Four Ways To Build Acceptance In Your Marriage
1. Consider how you can show your acceptance of your spouse’s positive behaviours.
This is simply the idea of reinforcing what you like so that you get more of it. This is not selfish. Just reinforce the positive. If your spouse is reaching out to you, don’t reject it; accept it, affirm it, be thankful for it. The more you do this the more likely he or she is to continue to perform those same behaviours.[iv]
2. Make positive assumptions about the reasons behind your spouse’s negative behaviour.
This is a fun one! The interpretations you give to your spouse’s behavior will affect how you respond to it. If you think he’s being spiteful and mean, you’ll likely respond in a negative way. But if you give him the benefit of the doubt, and attribute the behavior to him just having a bad day, then you will be more likely to respond in a positive way.[v]
This is common sense but it’s hard to do! It is how you break yourselves out of a negative cycle. You give your spouse permission to have negative feelings but you choose not to engage in them. Responding with empathy or comfort can create a bonding moment rather than an emotional escalation into a fight.
There is evidence that individuals in satisfying relationships tend to exhibit “pro relationship responses” in response to negative partner behaviours.[vi] This includes excusing transgressions, making positive attributions about their spouse’s negative behaviours, and communicating constructively with one’s spouse. You can see how this is where the power of acceptance really shines.
Acceptance is a willingness to go around your spouse’s humanity at times and just hold them. That is powerful.
We’re not saying you should overlook major issues that should be confronted or tolerate abuse however much your spouse might minimize it. We’re just saying we all have our human moments where our sin or our carnality shines through; when we’re not at our best and we get our ‘ugly’ on. If you can respond to that with compassion and empathy you can create a different outcome than just coming back at it with the same negative response. Remember the Proverb, “A soft answer turns away anger.”
3. Don’t respond to negative behaviour with more negative behaviour.
This is how downward spirals are created. Your spouse exhibits some negative behavior – you respond with equal or greater negativity. This is a failure to show acceptance. If you guys are stuck in that rut, try doing something differently that is, at the very least, much less negative or hopefully even positive.
4. Verbally affirm your acceptance of your spouse.
Use intrinsic affirmations for this.[vii] Intrinsic affirmations are the verbal affirmation of your unconditional acceptance of your spouse based not on what they do, but on who he or she is as a person.
Be intentional and serious about complementing your spouse on the stable and enduring aspects of who they are. This is such a powerful thing.
We live in a culture that makes fun of father in popular media and is constantly asserting that wives are not thin enough, young enough, good enough moms, etc. Introduce intrinsic affirmations and all of a sudden you have this tremendously affirming, accepting, positive force within your marriage.
Some examples of intrinsic affirmations are:
- You are such a loving, caring wife.
- One of the things I really appreciate about you is how intentional you are about connecting with the kids through play or conversation.
- You’re such a great provider for our family.
Remember, you’re affirming qualities of character.
The complement to these, are extrinsic affirmations. For some reason, these are easier and we tend to do these more readily. These are the verbal affirmation of temporary events, deeds or accomplishments that come out of a conditional acceptance that is based on meeting my expectations as a spouse.
They might include sayings like:
- Wow, thanks for cleaning the house up today!
- Good job on supper tonight.
- You’ve got the car nice and clean.
- Great work on the lawn.
We need the little thank-you’s and affirmations, but the research shows that intrinsic affirmations have much more of a deep, lasting impact on the relationship. So, make sure you use both intrinsic and extrinsic affirmations on your spouse!
Researchers looked at intrinsic and extrinsic and their impact on spouses. Here’s what they found:[viii]
- Participants who recalled intrinsic affirmations from a romantic partner that affirmed who they were as a person showed increased relationship satisfaction. Participants who recalled extrinsic affirmations that affirmed a deed or accomplishment did not show the same increased relationship satisfaction.
- Secondly, “recalling intrinsic affirmations from relationship partners increased pro-relationship responses and relationship quality relative to recalling extrinsic affirmations”. Spouses start responding more positively and creating an upward positive cycle in their marriages.
- The results of the study seemed to indicate that individuals in romantic relationships who remember times when they were intrinsically affirmed by their romantic partner are more willing to give their partner the benefit of the doubt during future transgressions or future negative behaviours. In addition, it is likely that their partner will respond by being more understanding and more forgiving of them in return. It acts as a buffer for the transgressions and conflict that does come from time to time.
Your call to action today is to work on intrinsic affirmations. In so doing, you will be intentionally demonstrating acceptance towards your spouse.
[i] Abdul Khaleque and Ronald P. Rohner, “Effects of Multiple Acceptance and Rejection on Adults’ Psychological Adjustment: A Pancultural Study,” Social Indicators Research 113, no. 1 (August 2013): 393–99, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11205-012-0100-2.
[ii] Duncan Cramer, “Facilitativeness, Conflict, Demand for Approval, Self-Esteem, and Satisfaction with Romantic Relationships,” The Journal of Psychology 137, no. 1 (January 2003): 85–98.
[iii] Susan C. South, Brian D. Doss, and Andrew Christensen, “Through the Eyes of the Beholder: The Mediating Role of Relationship Acceptance in the Impact of Partner Behavior,” Family Relations 59, no. 5 (December 2010): 611–22.
[vi] Amie M. Gordon and Serena Chen, “When You Accept Me for Me: The Relational Benefits of Intrinsic Affirmations From One’s Relationship Partner,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36, no. 11 (November 2010): 1439.