The Role of Tolerance in Relationships: “Knowing How” 

Welcome back to our journey in relationship tolerance. In my last post on the role of tolerance in relationships: “knowing when”, I talked about what tolerance is and why it’s crucial for our romantic relationships. In this post, I’ll be talking about knowing how we actually practice tolerance in a relationship. This can be demonstrated in a four-part process: 

  • 1. Picking the Behaviors to Practice On 
  • 2. Identify and Neutrally Name the Behavior 
  • 3. Urge Surf the Distress 
  • 4. Distract

Knowing how is just as important as knowing when when looking at the role of tolerance in relationships.

 1. Picking the Behaviors to Practice On 

This step, although seemingly small, is actually very important. It can be very difficult to practice tolerance on the fly when we are frustrated by something. Especially when we haven’t had a chance to unpack why. If we define, “Okay, I know that my partner likes to yell at pedestrians when she’s driving. And I reasonably believe this won’t harm me in any way to work on tolerating it, maybe I can practice tolerance here.” This will keep things relatively clear and predictable for when this actually does happen and feelings are elevated. 

2. Identify and Neutrally Name the Behavior 

It’s very important to work on noticing when this behavior comes up. Perhaps noticing how you feel before the behavior happens and then what happens internally. Annoyance. Frustration. Being enraged. Devastation. Noticing the feeling experience is crucial to working through the distress. From there, it can be helpful to examine how what you’re feeling and what you’re thinking in real time.

For example, “Okay, I’m in the car with my partner, it’s likely that they could yell at pedestrians, but I’ve committed to practicing tolerating this…. Okay, they’ve yelled at a pedestrian. I’m noticing that I’m bubbling with frustration. I’m noticing that I want to say something about it. I feel frustrated that she won’t acknowledge that it happened again. I’m going to look out the window and I’m going to practice my grounding coping skills while I’m still in the car.” If we can narrate the story as it’s happening – almost as if it’s happening to someone else – it will help create emotional distance from the intense feeling of frustration. 

3. Urge Surf the Distress 

The fun part. Urge surfing the distress. Meeting with a therapist can help you define what coping skills might work best for you, but generally grounding tools like cognitive exercises, or somatic tools, like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or visualization are excellent skills to try to alleviate the in-real-time distress. Creating a scale can often be helpful to be able to say “Okay, I started this at a level 9, but I tried a couple of coping techniques, and now I notice that I’m at a 6… it’s helping me manage my feelings/experience.” Urge surfing the distress is not meant to take the feelings away, it’s meant to make the experience of having the feelings much more manageable. 

4. Distract

Oftentimes it can be helpful to have a constructive and intentional time to discuss how you felt this went, like in therapy or via journaling, but one of the best things we can do when we are riding through distress is to move our attention to something new. Whether it be going outside for a quick walk, putting on a show, calling a friend, etc. The final step of tolerance is the ability to divert attention from the situation. 

Be careful to not fall into the trap of score-keeping. Sometimes when we are in distress in our romantic relationships (like when we’re aggravated and attempting to practice tolerance), it can be easy to arrive at thoughts like “I’m doing all of this work to tolerate, but what are THEY doing? Are they challenging themselves as much as I’m challenging myself? What about a couple of days ago when they nitpicked when I did XYZ…” This kind of score-keeping erodes compassionate connection. It says, “I’m not actually safe here in this connection, so I have to stand on guard and compare myself against you.” Receiving partners may experience this as threatening. It’s so important to notice score-keeping behaviors and potentially reframe the thoughts in a more compassionate lens… you and your partner are on the same team working towards the same ultimate goals (connection, mutual compassion, togetherness, growth, etc.). 

In following the four-part system, the role of relationships tolerance and “knowing how” will become easier in time and with practice. This in turn will create kinder and more patient relationships, enforce more open and connection-based dynamics, and create an opportunity to utilize mindfulness and emotional regulation skills to foster smoother partnerships.

Article written by Caroline Quintanilla, LCSW, a licensed Chicago therapist who specializes in treating a variety of mental health disorders with evidence-based treatments. To schedule an appointment with her or one of our other therapists, contact

Similar Posts