“Knowing When”: The Role of Tolerance in Romantic Relationships

One of my favorite concepts in improving romantic relationships, and simultaneously one of the most challenging, is the role of tolerance. This is a skill that rarely gets talked about. It is the act of neutrally noticing a behavior you may have a desire to protest or change within your partner. Typically when I have conversations with clients around the role of relationship tolerance, there is noticeable discomfort with the idea of halting the instinctive urge to correct their partners over the things that annoy or distress them. I find that the ability to do this is a huge part of what defines constructive and open partnerships from more volatile ones. The concept of “knowing when” will highlight the role of tolerance in romantic relationships.

I always want to put a disclaimer that relationship abuse is never okay. So as we talk about relationship tolerance, please note that emotional, verbal, and physical abuse are not behaviors that should be tolerated. If you’re having trouble defining what these behaviors might look like seek a therapist or close friend’s support can help you define if things are dysfunctional.  This knowing the role of tolerance in romantic relationships does not apply here.

Relationship Tolerance

So, relationship tolerance is the ability to notice without impulsively reacting. You might be saying, “You seriously want me to just deal with it when my partner leaves his socks out for the millionth time?” or “I can’t imagine just letting it slide when my partner starts looking at their phone when I’m speaking to them.” You’d be right that there is a fine line between tolerating unwanted behaviors in our partners and letting core relationship/emotional needs go unmet. 

To sort this out, we have to look at the felt-experience in the relationship. Do you generally (more often than not) feel seen? Heard? Like your partner cares about your perspective and cares about making you happy and/or when you are upset? If your intuitive answer to these questions is yes, it should point to the idea that these behaviors that might frustrate you are likely to be ones that could benefit from tolerating, versus correcting. 

Knowing When

Part of what I see in my clients in relationships is the compulsive urge to quickly eradicate every feeling that is uncomfortable. This can be annoyance, frustration, irritation, anger, etc. So, when we become annoyed with our partners, we instinctively feel the impulse to say something. We want to correct them, to tell them that what they’re doing is wrong, bad, or unpleasant to us. However, when we choose to lean into tolerance, we’re actually choosing to engage in the relationship differently. This can have positive effects for both ourselves and the dynamic overall. More to come on how we actually practice tolerance and tolerating difficult feelings… 

Why is this necessary?

You might be wondering why this is necessary. The answer is that every single one of us will at some point be annoyed or frustrated with our partners. I find it can be helpful to role-reverse the situation. Imagine for yourself what it’s like to try and change something within yourself. Something that feels deeply engrained in how you function. Maybe you yell, maybe you leave your laundry in the dryer way past its prime, maybe you end up arriving at most events late. Behavior change is challenging for most of us. One of the greatest ways that we can honor this is by offering self-compassion in our own process of self-development. Typically when we do this, overall compassion between partners is felt and nurtured-which is crucial for satisfying relationships. Don’t we all love to feel wholly accepted by our partners?

Article written by Caroline Quintanilla, LCSW

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