Relational Accountability: How to do it and why it matters
Updated: Feb 5
I love talking about relational accountability in couples therapy because many are relating with a (false) assumption that connection and accountability are mutually exclusive. This assumption looks like: "to hold someone accountable, we have to sacrifice connection & to be connected to someone, means to surrender being able to hold them accountable." I’ll tell you why I disagree with this.
Partners in relationships that are high in both authenticity and intimacy know that connection and accountability are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they know that accountability is a part of what helps partners stay connected and that connection is a necessary ingredient of accountability. But, let's face it, relational accountability is hard.
Here are some ingredients of being accountable in your relationship/s:
1.Owning your impact
Inevitably in relationships, your partner/s will show/tell you ways in which you’ve negatively impacted them. You will not have intended to affect them this way. Most people make this mistake: they plant themselves in the perspective that “If I didn’t intend to make you feel that way, you shouldn’t feel that way. It’s you that needs to change, not me.” This probably won’t leave either of you feeling very connected or emotionally secure. Instead: when your partner shares with you how you’ve impacted them, believe them and own it! In safe relationships, owning it will make your partner feel closer to you- it builds trust. Owning your impact is imperative in being relationally accountable.
2. Not getting defensive
This one is related to owning your impact but it extends beyond that as well. Defensiveness can be so SO so tempting. The ego loves defensiveness because it takes less work and less time than to self reflect and to see the truth in what your partner is saying. Defensiveness has a metacommunicaton of “I’m not going to let what you’re trying to tell me land with me. I’m going to instead find reasons why what you’re saying isn’t quite right. I’d rather be separate and right than connected and accessible.” Defensiveness is antithetical to being relationally accountable. Instead of looking for the ounce of falsehood in what your partner is saying, look for the ounce of truth and start there.
3. Changed behavior
Brene Brown describes trust as "not a sweeping moment. It is a collection of small marbles over time." Every time you integrate your partner’s influence into your behavior, it is a trust building endeavor. To be relationally accountable, we have to be willing to be flexible. We have to be willing to integrate a partner’s needs, not just once while they’re telling us, but again later- even when they’re not looking.
4. Accepting Influence
Accepting influence is what happens when you give up defensiveness. It is also, perhaps, the fear that leads to defensiveness in the first place. A very common expression of this fear sounds like “I am who I am, I don’t want to change who I am.” And yes, of course in relationships we need to be accepted and loved for who we are. But in a more practical sense, relationships require cooperation. If you trust your partner enough to have chosen to spend your life with them, and the relationship is generally secure and emotionally safe- accepting their influence won’t make you less of who you are, but it will make the relationship more of who you both are together, rather than a constant tug of war between the two of you.
5. Empathic Understanding
Empathic understanding is the core of meaningful relational accountability. You could be behaviorally relationally accountable and completely unempathic and resentful toward your partner and it probably won’t build trust or connection. Relating from a place of mutual respect starts with empathic understanding- with a real belief that what your partner feels and needs is just as valid and worthy of attention and care as what you feel and need.
*These topics and suggestions around relational accountability do not apply in relationships where there is emotional abuse or manipulation.