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You Get The Behavior You Tolerate

(3 minute read)

I once heard a Fortune 500 CEO tell an audience “You get the behavior you tolerate.” He was talking about subordinates in a corporation, but he could equally as well be talking about relationships of all kinds. If someone close to us is behaving in a way that is making our life miserable, there’s a chance that we’re allowing that to happen. And a possibility that by refusing to tolerate this behavior we might be able to change the situation.

At this point you might be thinking to yourself “That’s crazy. I yell at my romantic partner all the time, but the behavior will only change for a day and then it’s back to normal.” Tolerating behavior doesn’t just mean that we keep our mouth shut and a smile plastered on our face. We may scream and shout, withdraw, humiliate and retaliate, but as long as we’re trying to change the behavior of the other person, we’re tolerating that behavior.

And this is exactly what happens in so many relationships. We bitterly criticize the drinking habits of our spouse, hoping that the force of our objections will change the behavior. We’ll explode that our loved one is late again, or give them the silent treatment for having flirted with someone else at a party. As parents, we will nag incessantly for our children to get up in time to catch the bus, or to do their homework.

In each case we are trapped. We are trying our best to get the other person to change, but in the meantime, we’re tolerating their behavior. It’s easy to slip into this pattern, because it’s very natural for us to ask other people to modify the things we object to. Most of the time, people accommodate us and reduce their drinking, flirting or tardiness, or whatever else is bothering us.

But sometimes, for whatever reason, people don’t or can’t change. So we ask again. And they still don’t change. And we escalate with various kinds of punishment — screaming, shouting, withdrawing, etc. Sometimes that works, but often not, at least not for the long term. And even if it does work, it leaves all kinds of bad feelings in its wake.

So what does it mean to say the we won’t tolerate a behavior? It begins with the recognition that we can’t change another person. Other people get to choose what kind of behavior they’re going to exhibit. We, however, get to choose how we’re going to respond to that. Let’s look at some concrete examples:

The Drinker

Frank and Sally get along fine except for one thing: When they go to a party he gets drunk, behaves inappropriately and embarrasses Sally. She’s nagged, begged, cried and shouted, and each time Frank is apologetic but does it again a few weeks later. Sally is trying to change Frank, but in the meantime, she’s getting the behavior she tolerates. Instead she could do any of the following:

  • Refuse to go to parties with Frank when there is alcohol present.

  • Leave any party when he starts to get drunk.

  • Decide that Frank’s behavior is not something that she’s willing to live with and move out of the apartment (or ask him to leave) for a trial separation

  • Decide that Frank’s inappropriate behavior reflects badly on him and him alone, and that she has no reason to be embarrassed.

Each of these solutions put power back in Sally’s hands. She no longer has to tolerate Frank’s behavior…even in the case where she decides to take no action.

The Chronically Late Partner

The one thing that drives John crazy about his partner Mike is his inability to be on time for anything they do together. As a result, they are always late for movies, late meeting up with friends, and late going to work. John spends a good deal of time waiting for Mike. The two of them engage in a dance of recrimination and apology, but nothing changes. No matter how angry John gets, or how he emphasizes the importance of being on time, the same thing happens again and again. John is doing his best to change Mike, but in the meantime, is tolerating his partner’s behavior. Instead, he could do any of the following:

  • Inform Mike that he will wait for exactly five minutes and then leave for the movie, party, work or other event.

  • Agree to wait for Mike only in situations where John has something else to do. For example, meet in a coffee shop where John can read or work, or where John has friends to talk to, or a phone call to make.

  • Decide that lateness is one of Mike’s quirks, and that’s outweighed by his many other fine qualities. Ensure he doesn’t get put in a situation where he’s caught between Mike’s lateness and someone else’s needs, and live with the issue.

  • Decide that Mike’s inability to be on time is an indication of Mike’s lack of respect for him, and this is not something John is willing to accept. Inform Mike that if things don’t change over the next weeks or months, John will move out.

In each of these scenarios, John stops trying to change Mike’s behavior and decides what he is going to do himself to deal with the chronic lateness of his partner.

And what happens when we stop tolerating the behavior of our loved ones and behave differently? Very often, things get worse. The other person begins to test our resolve. Mike might be later than usual, or react with anger when John doesn’t wait for him, or become depressed when John says he’ll move out if things don’t change. Frank might escalate his drinking, or his behavior might become more inappropriate, or he might start a fight with Sally. In each of these cases, the underlying message is “I liked it better when you were tolerating my behavior, I don’t like the change, and I want you to change back.” It’s tempting to give in and fall back into the old patterns. But for those of us who can understand that the other person gets to choose their behavior, and we get to choose ours, it’s possible to stick to the decision and maintain our new stance.

Sometimes our new stance brings a relationship into a crisis that is resolved only by partners moving in different directions. Often, however, a determined change on our part leaves space for our partner to change in a positive way. If we stop trying to make the other person change, the dynamics of the relationship are modified, and that modification allows our partner — who is no longer being nagged, criticized, threatened or cajoled by us — to voluntarily do things differently.


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