Learn how to create a conscious relationship using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for relationships.
ACT For Relationships
In the early days of your relationship, most people find it hard to believe that in the not-too-distant future, all those blissful feelings will be gone.
That instead, they’ll experience anger, frustration, fear, rejection, contempt, or even hatred.
This is mainly because, like the weather, feelings change. The same could be said about our feelings of sadness, happiness, despair, anger, etc.
However, this also means that those blissful feelings can come back again.
What Is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)?
Acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT (pronounced as the word “act,” not as the letters A-C-T), is a revolutionary new development in human psychology created by psychologist Steven Hayes.
ACT is based on a set of powerful principles that help you develop “psychological flexibility.”
What Is Psychological Flexibility?
Psychological flexibility refers to the ability to adapt to changes with openness and awareness, and to take effective action guided by your values (the things that you hold important in life and that you want to stand for). (*)
Put more simply, psychological flexibility includes:
1. The ability to be present or “mindful.”
2. The ability to take effective action.
Although ACT was originally developed for psychological problems, its core principles can also be applied to relationship issues.
The more you increase your psychological flexibility, the more you will be able to effectively handle difficult feelings, change self-limiting beliefs, and change self-defeating behaviors so you can build healthier relationships.
Does Everlasting Love Really Exist?
Because feelings are fleeting in nature, it is not realistic to assume that feelings of love can be everlasting.
During the “honeymoon phase” of a relationship, feelings of love are more intense, last longer, and come back more quickly than they do later on.
However, this phase doesn’t last long (usually lasts from six months to two years). When this phase comes to an end, many people break up, reasoning, “I don’t feel in love anymore, so clearly this is not the right partner for me.”
What many people don’t realize is that a meaningful relationship only begins to develop once the honeymoon phase is over. The new feelings of love might not be as intense or intoxicating, but they are more fulfilling and authentic.
This is why it’s more helpful to think of love not as a feeling, but as an action – the feelings will come and go, but the action is something under your control, regardless of how you are feeling.
Just like you can feel angry but choose to act calmly, you can also feel out of love, but choose to act lovingly.
One key theme in ACT is to stop trying to control how you feel, and instead, choose to take the right action.
Applying ACT to your relationship means choosing to handle your own emotions more effectively, act with love, learn to accept your differences, and appreciate what your partner has to offer.
“It takes two to tango. Without my partner’s willingness to work on the relationship, how can anything change?”
Many books and articles on relationships focus on using skills and techniques like:
- Effective communication, assertiveness, and conflict-resolution skills.
- Developing activities to cultivate affection and intimacy.
While these skills are important and useful, they are out of your direct control.
For example, you may master assertiveness, but you cannot guarantee that they will respond to your assertiveness in the way that you would like.
Similarly developing shared activities will help your relationship, but they also require your partner’s cooperation.
ACT, on the other hand, helps you focus on what is in your control:
- Defining and acting on your values in order to become more like the partner you ideally want to be.
- Learning how to handle the painful feelings and stressful thoughts related to your relationship
- Stop acting in ways that make your relationship worse
- Accepting what is out of your control
This in turn increases your empowerment and fulfillment.
As you shift your focus to areas that are within your direct control, you may discover that your partner is beginning to make positive changes spontaneously.
This makes perfect sense. It is hard to keep complaining and criticizing around someone who became open, warm, and willing to put all differences aside.
More Communication Is Not Always Better?
While communication skills, such as negotiating, bargaining, and reaching agreements may work in the marketplace, they are not enough in a loving relationship.
Communication can cause problems:
1. Your partner may be unwilling, or even unable to talk about certain topics. When communication is your only tool, this may leave you feeling stuck and frustrated.
2. One partner may be better at communicating their feelings and needs than the other, which creates inequality.
3. Effective communication does not come naturally to most people. So people may become defensive and start blaming each other. This can only exacerbate the original problem and even create more problems.
4. Communication often comes with hidden agenda. One partner or both are trying to get the other person to change in certain ways, which is controlling and doesn’t honor the other person.
Try to think of the biggest source of conflict in your relationship, did communication solved it?
To sum up, relying on communication alone to solve problems and improve the relationship is not enough. Loving actions can help here.
Top 7 Tips On How To Create A Conscious Relationship Using ACT
#1. Remind Yourself That You Are Both Hurting
When we fight with or distance ourselves from the people we love or they distance themselves from us, we both feel hurt.
Your partner may not reveal his pain to you. They may get angry, leave the room, start drinking, refuse to talk to you, but deep inside, they hurt just as you are.
It’s important to remember this.
In your journal, try answering the following questions:
- Aside from looks, what did I find most attractive about my partner?
- What personal qualities did I most admire about my partner?
- What did we enjoy doing together?
- What made those times enjoyable?
- What do I miss most about the early days of our relationship?
When you’re in a state of conflict and tension, it’s easy to overlook all the positive aspects of your partner and your relationship.
By deliberately asking yourself the questions above, you get in touch with your feelings of love and warmth.
After answering these questions, check-in with yourself for any shift in your emotional state. Do you still find it hard to acknowledge your partner’s positive attributes?
If so, then you’re probably in a great deal of pain.
Take a moment to acknowledge that you are hurting and tell yourself something kind (think of what you might say to your best friend if they were in as much pain as you are, and say it to yourself).
#2. Recognize Your Mutual Pain
When we’re in pain, we tend to see our partner through the filter of harsh negative judgments.
This obviously is not very effective and would only cause you to lose touch with who your partner is – the person you once admired.
Using mindfulness, you create a space between your issues and yourself, enough to allow you to describe the issue without judgment.
1. In your journal write about the major issues in your relationship. Try to do this using a nonjudgmental description.
For example, instead of writing “My husband is a lazy bastard,” write down, “My husband does not often help out with the housework.”
It might be hard at first to refrain from being judgmental, especially when you’re in pain, but try to notice the judgment each time, cross it out and write something nonjudgmental instead.
2. After describing the issue, describe the painful emotions the issue triggers.
How this issue makes you feel?
Anger, resentment, and frustration are typically surface emotions. Beneath them, you’ll usually discover feelings of hurt, guilt, shame, fear, sadness, feeling rejected, neglected, unappreciated, unloved, etc.
Acknowledge the feelings of anger, but also try to “go deeper” and uncover any underlying feelings of hurt.
3. Allow yourself to acknowledge openly and honestly, that this relationship has been painful and that it’s completely natural to feel the way you do, given what you have been through.
4. Now, take a few minutes to reflect on how your partner has also suffered.
This might be challenging, especially if your partner does not usually talk about their feelings.
Try to think about what it must be like for your partner to be on the receiving end of your criticism and complaints.
Do they tend to hide away from their pain?
Do they tend to ruminate, replaying old events and incidents over and over again?
Do they tend to get angry and yells, letting anger and resentment eat them up?
Acknowledging that you are both in pain makes it easier to tune into caring and compassion, both of which are essential ingredients for moving from conflict to resolution.
A technique that can help you feel compassion toward your partner is to picture them as a little boy or girl: upset, or crying.
Your partner has the body of an adult, but deep inside, there’s a little child who’s suffering.
So imagine this little boy or girl—and think about things you can say or do to reduce their pain.
#3. Acknowledge The Ways You’re Trying to Control Your Partner
If you had a magic wand that could magically transform your partner, what would you want to change?
Most people would answer: More responsible and disciplined, or more easy-going and laid-back, or a better communicator and loved, etc.
The point is, we are all control freaks at heart – we like getting what we want.
Children may cry, yell, stamp their feet to get their own way.
Even though most of us learned that we can’t always get what we want, it doesn’t stop us from trying.
As we become adults, our methods of manipulation evolve. We may yell, snap, criticize, swear, slam doors, cry, withdraw, or give the “silent treatment.”
Are We Really In Control?
The truth is there is a lot that we can’t control.
For example, you can control how you treat others, but you can’t control how they respond to you.
Put simply, the only things you can reliably control in your life are your actions.
You may discover that as you learn to let go of trying to control your partner, they will start doing more of what you want.
The less you demand and control, the more likely they are to be receptive to your wishes and spontaneously treat you well.
While there is no guarantee that this will happen, positive change is very common.
You can still ask for what you want but assertively rather than harshly.
Take a few minutes to do an honest self-examination.
1. Write a list of control tactics you use when you don’t get your own way.
2. Try to assess how effective they were in the short run and what they cost you in the long run.
|What my partner says or does that I don’t like||What I say or do to get my partner to change||How did these control tactics affect our relationship?||Did this change my partner in the long run?|
Use “Workable” or “Not Wrokable” Instead of “Right” or “Wrong”
Workability is a very important concept in ACT.
It refers to how well our action work in the long run to create a rich and meaningful life.
So if what you are doing is enriching your life in the long run, then it is workable.
So when assessing your action, instead of judging them in terms of “right” and “wrong,” try evaluating them in terms of “workability.”
#4. Rediscover Your Values
Values are your heart’s deepest desires for the person you want to be and what you want to stand for in life
ACT defines values as “desired qualities of ongoing action.”
Put simply, values are what you want to do on an ongoing basis.
For example, if you value connecting with your partner, you’ll find ways every day to connect with them: pay attention to what they say, hold hands, spend quality time with them, etc.
Keep in mind that values are different from rules. While rules are rigid, values, on the other hand, are about doing what’s truly meaningful to you and what gives you a sense of lightness and expansiveness.
Imagine a miracle happened and your partner suddenly turned into your “perfect” partner: no faults, always there for you, meeting every need and desire.
- How would I change?
- What would I stop, start, do more of, or less of?
- What sort of personal qualities would I develop?
- What attitude would I cultivate toward my partner?
Take a few minutes to do an honest self-examination and answer the following question:
- What sort of partner am I?
- What sort of partner do I want to be?
- Is there a gap between who I want to be and the way I am acting right now?
Imagine that it’s ten years from now and you’re celebrating the last ten years of your relationship with your family.
Imagine your partner making a speech about the last ten years of your relationship and the role that you have played in their life.
Imagine what, in an ideal world, you would like them to say. Imagine them describing your character and your strengths – those are your values.
#5. Take Action Guided by Your Values (Valuing)
While it’s important to define your values, it’s only when you act o them that your relationship will improve.
The act of taking action guided by your values, is known in ACT as valuing.
While there’s no such thing as a right or wrong value, there are certain ones that are vital a rich, full, and meaningful relationship.
These values include caring, connection, and contribution.
- Being intimate and close to your partner
- Opening up and sharing what you’re thinking and feeling
- Dropping the pretense and letting your partner know who you really are
- Be there for your partner
- Support and help your partner
- Show your partner that they matter to you
- Act lovingly and kindly toward your partner
- Be more accepting and forgiving
- Give your partner whatever you can to help them in life, including assistance, guidance, encouragement, and inspiration.
- Invest time and energy in order to help your partner on their journey in life
Imagine how acting lovingly in time of conflict and while discussing issues can improve your relationship.
Start thinking about simple values-guided actions you could do to enhance your relationship.
Think about words you can say to your partner that will deepen your connection or shows them that you care.
For example, “I love you,” “I appreciate having you in my life,” “I’m here for you,” “Let me know how I can be of support.”
Text messages and e-mails are also considered to be spoken words.
Think about actions can you take that will contribute to your partner’s well-being.
For example, cooking dinner, holding hands, stroking hair, helping your partner with her chores or tasks, organizing a night out, etc.
FREE Printable Relationship Worksheets (PDF)
#6. Give Your Partner Your Full Attention
Nothing can communicate care like giving someone your full attention.
When you and your partner first met, you were both attentive to and curious about each other. You were both very much “present.”
Unfortunately, over time, the magic wore off.
After a while, you knew so much about your partner that you gradually started to lose interest. You may still appreciate them and you might find yourself curious to know about their world. But as time goes on, you seem to notice more and more flaws.
This is the case for many relationships. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Think of someone you greatly admire. It could be a world leader, an author, a movie star – someone you dream of meeting.
Imagine that person walking into the room. You certainly would give them your full attention. Imagine how you’d notice what they are wearing, how they are talking, their facial expressions and their tone of voice.
Imagine how you’d be keen to get their opinion and reflect on everything they say.
Imagine how you’d see their quirks and accept them as an oddity or eccentricity.
In such moments, you are fully present. You experience a deep sense of connection.
This is what you need to practice when spending time with your partner.
#7. Add Spirituality to Your Relationship
What Is Spiritual Relationship?
A spiritual relationship is a different understanding of the purpose of a loving relationship.
It does not require you to be religious or part of any organized religion.
It is about acting in a way that is aligned with your “spiritual” values, such as inner peace, compassion, acceptance, etc. It’s our way to recognize our connection to everyone and everything in this universe and to strive to increase this connection through our thoughts and actions.
In a Spiritual Relationship, loving actions become your primary tool for solving problems and improving your relationship.
This is different from the non-spiritual relationship where communication is used as a primary tool for problem-solving and improving the relationship in general.
By using loving actions your focus shifts from “How can I resolve this problem?” to “How can I behave in accord with my highest spiritual self?” When you use this approach, you move from trying to “fix” your partner to enjoy your relationship. You may later discover that the problem isn’t there anymore.
For example, if you feel frustrated by your partner’s unorganization, rather than trying to “fix” him, acting in a loving way and trying to understand and accept this trait, can help you stop seeing it as a problem.
What Are Loving Actions?
A Loving Action is an intentional action that is unilateral and motivated by a desire for spiritual growth.
It’s based on commitment, rather than a fleeting feeling of love. So even, in the midst of an argument or when you feel least loving, you can still act in a loving way without changing the way you feel.
In fact, acting in a loving way is what will change the way you feel.
Put simply, you don’t have to feel your way into loving actions. You can act your way into loving feelings.
For example, if you feel frustrated that your partner gets home late and doesn’t spend enough time with you, you can choose to act as if you were loving and understanding, as an experiment and ask about their day.
This can help you focus less on your frustration, enjoy a lovely time getting to know each other better, and it may even encourage your partner to start spending more quality time with you.
What’s good about loving actions is that they are unilateral. You don’t have to wait for cooperation from your partner. This can be empowering and free you from being at the mercy of someone else.
It’s also important to keep in mind that no loving action can fail. Every loving action is experimental with the sole goal of gaining new information about yourself and your partner.
Your task here is to notice if you feel different, if your partner responds more warmly or if he becomes hostile. Whatever happens, you are learning something. This conscious learning is the substance of spiritual growth.
Identify loving actions you can perform.
Before exploring specific loving actions, try to identify things you can do to convey your love for your partner.
These could include helping around the house, getting physical, sending love notes, etc.
23 Small Ways to Improve Your Marriage
- Read books on marriage to increase your wisdom and understanding of growing a successful marriage
- Go to a marriage seminar together to invest in the success of your marriage once a year
- Seek counsel from a qualified counselor when having issues that need the wisdom of a third party
- Keep a journal of lessons learned from good and difficult times and apply the wisdom learned
- Keep a journal of the things you love about each other and review them quarterly
- Find out what each others’ love language is and start speaking it to one another
- Get a Financial planner to help you both manage and invest your money
- Use a money management system to allocate and save money
- Keep commitments to one another
- Talk to each other every day asking these three questions:
- What was the best part of your day
- What was the worst part of your day
- What did you learn today
- Have rules for arguing (Never go to bed angry)
- Eat healthy and do your best to stay in good health
- Visit each others family together
- Go on a mini vacation
- Send love note emails to one another
- Get a puppy and take care of it and train it together
- Get a card with a personalized note just because
- Save up over time to purchase something together
- Plan a date night once a week
- Do a project together from start to finish
- Work out together
- Go to a comedy club together or watch the DVD at home
- Leave love messages on the answering machine or voice mail for one another
How Soon Is Too Soon For Couples Therapy?
Most people believe that couples therapy is reserved for married couples. This is not true, people in all types of committed relationships experience conflict.
Couples therapy isn’t just about saving the marriage, it’s also about learning how to enjoy healthier relationships.
So even if you’re just dating or engaged, couples therapy can help you individually and help you grow together as a couple.
How Soon Is Too Soon?
A couple could be seriously committed even a few months into a relationship and issues can arise at any stage of a relationship.
In fact, couples are more likely to face conflict at the beginning of the relationship. This is especially true when you’ve just ended a long tern relationship or if survived trauma.
For example, you may struggle with trust issues or emotional intimacy.
Addressing such issues at the beginning can set you up for a fulfilling relationship.
So the right question here is not how soon is too soon, but rather:
- Are you both committed?
- Are you experiencing unresolved issues and differences that you can’t seem to work out on your own?
Pro Tip: Affordable Online Therapy For Couples
Get the support you need whenever and wherever you want with weekly live sessions by phone or video and unlimited messaging. With online counseling apps like online-therapy, you can choose from thousands of licensed therapists and mental health counselors at affordable rates. Use this link to get 20% off and get connected with a therapist now >>
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book ACT with Love: Stop Struggling, Reconcile Differences, and Strengthen Your Relationship with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, © 2009 by Russ Harris. All rights reserved.
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book Why Talking Is Not Enough: Eight Loving Actions That Will Transform Your Marriage, © 2006 by Susan Page. All rights reserved.
- Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Treat Distressed Couples: A Case Study With Two Couples – ScienceDirect
- (PDF) ACT and RFT in Relationships: Helping Clients Deepen Intimacy and Maintain Healthy Commitments Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Relational Frame Theory by J. Dahl, I. Stewart, C. Martell, & J. S. Kaplan (researchgate.net)