Hopefully all of us can agree that a great relationship is based on mutual respect and love. Those are pretty clear principles to aim for, but it’s useful to look at the details of what that means to us and how we can go about creating that kind of relationship.
One of the key ingredients of a mutually respectful relationship is accountability. We need to be accountable for our actions and the effect we have on the person we love.
In this article, I’m going to discuss what accountability looks like in a relationship, the different ways in which it can go wrong, and what we need to do to achieve the perfect balance of accountability to build healthy relationships with a solid foundation of respect.
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What does it mean to take accountability in a relationship? When you take accountability in your relationship, it means that you accept responsibility for the things you do, and the impact that this has on the people around you.
True, deep accountability goes a step further. Rather than just accepting responsibility, you actively seek it out and claim it.1 Someone who is being accountable will regularly say things like “ok, that’s on me. Let me work out how to fix it.”
Accountability is essential if you want a healthy relationship based on mutual trust and respect. When we try to avoid accountability, we’re telling our partner that we can’t be trusted to own up to our own mistakes, let alone fix them.
Given that accountability is so important to a healthy relationship, it’s reasonable to wonder why anyone wouldn’t want to hold themselves accountable. After all, we all want to have more respect, trust, and security in our relationships.
Unfortunately, there are several things that can make someone reluctant to take accountability in their relationship.
Some people will have grown up in families where they were always expected to take the blame for everything, whether it was their fault or not. This can make them extremely sensitive to being blamed and reluctant to hold themselves accountable in case it gets thrown back at them in the future.
Other people will have learned that life is easier (for them) if they don’t bother holding themselves accountable. If they can blame others, they don’t have to do any of the difficult work of changing themselves or their behavior.
Taking responsibility for your actions can also be quite difficult if you struggle with self-esteem or self-confidence issues. Saying “I did that and it was wrong” takes a lot of courage, and not everyone will be in a position to show that courage all of the time.2
You might have a suspicion that you know why your partner doesn’t want to take responsibility or hold themselves accountable, but be cautious in making assumptions. In my experience, most people who dislike accountability have multiple reasons… and laziness is only one small part of it.
If you’re dating someone who won’t take enough accountability for their actions, you’re left feeling frustrated and hopeless. If they won’t accept the times when they’ve done something wrong or when their actions have hurt you, it’s hard to imagine how your relationship will ever change.
This frustration and hopelessness can destroy the trust and respect you feel for your partner. It can even leave you feeling contempt for them, which is sometimes described as one of the ‘Four Horsemen’ that signal the breakdown of a relationship.3
It’s easy to see why taking too little responsibility and accountability is damaging to your relationship, but what about too much? Why is taking too much responsibility a bad thing in your relationship?
You might be surprised by the ways that taking too much accountability and responsibility can be bad for you, your partner, and your relationship.
Holding yourself accountable for things that you’re not responsible for is bad for you. You’re left trying to control something that you, by definition, can’t control. That can leave you feeling both guilty and powerless.
This can be especially difficult if your relationship does break down in the long run. Studies show that people who feel accountable for keeping a relationship going can feel particularly badly when they “fail.”4
When you hold yourself accountable for your partner’s actions, you’re also taking away their incentive to hold themselves accountable. They don’t need to work to become a better person (or a better partner) because you’re there to shoulder all of the blame.
This can lead them to stagnate. It’s almost always going to be easier for them to blame you than to look for ways that they need to change.
As a very simple, low-stakes example, imagine you and your partner have agreed on how to divide the housework, and taking the trash out is your partner’s job. They keep forgetting which day is garbage day and so they don’t take it out in time.
You could take responsibility for that, saying “Oh, that’s my fault. I forgot to remind you.” But it’s not your responsibility. You both agreed that it was theirs. If they needed a reminder, they could set one on their phone. Doing so is (or should be) their responsibility.
Again, this is a low-stakes example. Your partner is unlikely to be held back in life because they didn’t learn how to take the bins out on time. But they’re not going to learn personal responsibility and accountability if you keep stepping in.
Taking too much responsibility can also mean that you overstep your partner’s boundaries. You might try to fix things that aren’t yours to fix and interfere in problems that they wanted to work on alone. Again, this damages the sense of mutual trust and respect in your relationship.
Almost all of the advice I give in relationships starts with self-awareness, but that’s because it’s the foundation for everything else you’re going to do. You need to understand yourself and your feelings, values, and beliefs before you can start to make a plan for how to deal with the problem you’re facing.
Accountability can be one of the more uncomfortable areas to become more self-aware in.5 When we’re thinking about accountability, we’re often thinking about the mistakes we make and how we react to them. This means we’re digging into areas where we feel insecure, uncomfortable, and even ashamed.
This makes it hugely important that you are kind and gentle with yourself when you’re improving your self-awareness. It’s worth borrowing the idea of compassionate self-acceptance from mindfulness practice here.
Try not to judge yourself for the way you’re feeling or your emotional responses to holding yourself accountable. Notice how you feel, accept that it’s real and valid, and then remind yourself that you are important and that you deserve love.
For lots of us, assigning blame is a knee-jerk reaction. When something goes wrong, it’s surprisingly easy to immediately think about who’s to blame, rather than how to fix it. Although this is a relatively normal reaction, it’s rarely helpful.
Pay attention to your thought processes and notice when you start thinking about who was to blame. Don’t push those thoughts away, because that can lead them to come back more intensely.[ref] Instead, try to divert yourself.
Practice telling yourself “deciding who to blame isn’t helping right now. We can talk about that later. What can I do to make things better right now?”
For example, if you’ve just tripped over a pile of boxes your partner left in the hallway, you’re not going to feel any better by focusing on how thoughtless and irresponsible that was. It’s also probably not going to help to chastise yourself for not looking where you were going. Making a cup of tea and taking some painkillers is probably your best bet.
Moving away from a blame-centered approach also makes it easier to talk about problems in your relationship. Most of the problems in your relationship (whether emotional or purely practical) are going to need both of you working together to solve them.
Creating a pattern of collaboration, rather than blame, is a great foundation for a healthy relationship.
You probably already know that apologizing when you do something wrong is going to be key to accountability in your relationship, but I’d like to dig into that idea a bit deeper. In my experience, why you’re apologizing matters a lot more than you might expect.
As children, most of us were told to say that we’re sorry, no matter how we actually felt about it. Although this was supposed to teach us manners, what it actually did was teach us that apologizing is something we do to have a specific effect on other people.
As adults, we usually apologize because we want the other person to forgive us, or because we want to make things all ok again. That’s understandable, but it doesn’t really help with improving your accountability.
Instead, try to see an apology as something you do when you haven’t lived up to your own standards. It’s not about trying to be forgiven. It’s about holding yourself accountable and doing what you know to be right.
This is important because it changes the way your apology comes across and what it means within your relationship. Apologizing because you want your partner to stop being mad at you probably won’t give them the feeling that you really understand why you shouldn’t have done what you did. It feels like you’re ‘going through the motions’.
One of the helpful side-effects of apologizing for yourself, rather than because others expect it, is that you might find yourself less resistant to saying that you’re sorry. It stops being a battle between the two of you and starts being something that actually makes you feel better about yourself.
Being accountable in your relationship means taking responsibility for your actions and the effect they have on your partner. It might sound obvious, but that means you need to understand how your actions are impacting your partner.
Empathy is your ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and try to imagine how something might feel to them.6 It allows you to understand someone else’s emotions and reactions, even when they’re completely different from yours.
You can easily see how important empathy is going to be in building a happy, healthy, relationship. Some people are naturally more empathetic than others, but you can always improve your skills.
Even something as simple as reading more fiction can help you to see other people’s perspectives and make it easier for you to understand your partner’s position.7
Of course, the simplest strategies are often the most effective. Be curious about what your partner is thinking and how they’re feeling. Ask questions. The more you understand how they think, the easier it’s going to be to predict their reactions in the future.
One great habit to get into when it comes to improving accountability in your relationship is to regularly ask yourself “is this my responsibility?”
This encourages you to constantly look for things that you should be holding yourself accountable for, whilst also being aware that there are also things that you shouldn’t.
If you’re going to use this tip, it’s absolutely essential that you’re actually asking the question, rather than assuming the answer. Asking “is this my responsibility?” from a defensive perspective can encourage you to see ways that it isn’t. Doing it from a guilty perspective might leave you thinking that everything is your responsibility.
Instead, be genuinely curious. Ask yourself whether you had any influence over what happened. Ask whether you’re making decisions that you’re not acknowledging. Ask whether you’re trying to blame yourself for someone else’s actions.
Try to be honest with yourself, and make sure that you accept the answers you find. If you realize that you’re responsible for something, hold yourself accountable. If you realize that it was someone else’s responsibility, practice letting it go.
Being accountable in your relationship means being willing to change your behavior if you realize that you did something wrong. I’ve already talked about needing to apologize, but an apology doesn’t mean much if you do the same thing the next time around.
Rather than just paying lip service, genuine accountability requires that you’re ready to change how you behave if it has a negative effect on your partner or your relationship.
This is the case even when you didn’t mean any harm. Doing something hurtful by accident is understandable but you need to make sure that you don’t do it again if you want to be accountable.
One obvious sign that you’re not holding yourself accountable in your relationship is that you make excuses for things you’ve done wrong.
For example, if you yelled at your partner during an argument, you might say “I know I shouldn’t have yelled at you but I couldn’t help it. My boss yelled at me earlier at work and I was still mad about it.”
That’s an excuse, and not a very good one. When you give an excuse, you’re telling the other person that you weren’t responsible for what happened. That’s the exact opposite of being accountable and taking responsibility.
This is important because, if you weren’t responsible for what happened, the same thing will happen again in a similar situation. In that example, you’re (implicitly) telling your partner that you’re going to yell at them every time your boss yells at you.
Avoid excuses and try to provide explanations instead. For example, you could say “I know I shouldn’t have yelled at you. It’s not an excuse, but I had a terrible day at work and came home angry and frustrated. Instead of talking about it properly, I took my feelings out on you. That was wrong and I should have done better. I’m sorry.”
See how this second version shows your partner that you’re taking responsibility and that you’re aware that it’s your job to behave differently next time? That’s the magical difference between an excuse and an explanation.
It’s surprising how often we receive what we expect and require in a relationship. If you expect people to treat you badly or shirk their responsibilities, they’ll often pick up on this and behave in the way you expect.
Flip the script and use this tendency to your advantage by expecting and requiring your partner to hold themselves accountable for their actions. Point out (kindly but firmly) when they’re making excuses or failing to take responsibility.
Being open about when you feel as though your partner isn’t taking responsibility for their actions usually won’t be fun, and there can be a period of readjustment as your relationship dynamic adapts. This will usually lead to a healthier and happier relationship in the future.
If you naturally hold yourself accountable in your relationship, it can be difficult to understand why anyone wouldn’t. Usually, it’s because they don’t want to have to change their behavior or because acknowledging their poor behavior hurts their self-esteem.
Both too much and too little accountability is harmful to your relationship. Too little accountability means that you won’t change your behavior, even when it hurts your partner. Too much accountability leaves you taking responsibility for things your partner does, which lets them avoid changing their behavior.
If your partner doesn’t want to be held accountable for their actions in your relationship, you can’t force them to accept responsibility. You can encourage them by refusing to accept blame for things that were not your fault and being accountable yourself, but this won’t always work.
Accountability is essential for a healthy relationship. It’s important to find the right balance between taking too much responsibility and taking too little. Working toward healthy accountability in your relationship makes you a better partner without guilt.
Did these tips help you to find the right balance of accountability in your relationship? Do you have any other ideas? Let me know in the comments. Remember to share this article with someone who needs help with accountability in their relationship.