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  • Accountability in Intimate Relationships

    Accountability has become an infamous buzz word. Yet, there has been limited conversation on what accountability actually is.  Given this limited understanding and experience with accountability, let’s explore what this is and how we can achieve accountability specifically in intimate relationships.


    In order for accountability to be established there must be some sort of working definition as to what accountability means to us.  According to Merriam-Webster, accountability is an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions. 

    Much of our understanding of accountability is shaped by our experiences or lack thereof.  Yet, with the large societal emphasis on accountability, there has been a limited acknowledgement of how hard this process can be, especially when your experience is underdeveloped. Calling for and seeking accountability is a rather empowering act within interpersonal relationship which shouldn’t go unnoticed. In that same breath, there should be space to acknowledge that not everyone is experienced with doing so.  


    When a partner decides to share with you that a behavior is harmful to them, the first step is to stop that behavior. This isn’t the time to voice the ways you disagree and it’s definitely not the time to continue such behavior. 


    Once you are asked to be held accountable for harm that you have caused in the relationship it’s important to acknowledge the effects of your behavior. Try to shy away from statements such as “I know I really hurt you, but you made me angry”. These are not accountable statements, instead these are statements that place blame on your partner for the harm that you have perpetrated. Additionally, these statements shy away from the role you have in hurting your partner. 


    Partner 1: I love that we have a poly relationship but it hurts me when you have sex with a person of interest prior to telling me. It’s really important that we are able to communicate these things prior to ensure that I feel safe and secure in this relationship. 

    Partner 2: I hear you, but I was feeling really lonely and rejected since you’re so busy with work. I needed to be with someone in that moment since you weren’t around. 

    In this example, partner 1 is seeking accountability from partner 2 for their lack of communication. This lack of communication impacts their sense of security and safety in the relationship. While partner 2’s feelings of loneliness and rejection are valid, they are coexisting in a space of accountability. Check out how this conversation could have incorporated both. 

    *Scenario – do over*

    Partner 1: I  love that we have a poly relationship but it hurts me when you have sex with a person of interest prior to telling me. It’s really important that we are able to communicate these things prior to ensure that I feel safe and secure in this relationship.

    Partner 2: I am sorry for hurting you. It sounds like you’d like me to communicate that I may have sex with a person of interest. Is there any way in particular you’d like me to communicate this I want to ensure that you feel safe and secure in this relationship. As we are exploring this it’s becoming clear to me that my actions were coming from a place of feeling rejected. Do you have the capacity to explore this in addition to accountability? 


    After you have moved passed these statements, the next step is to determine ways to repair the harm in the relationship. Repair needs to be individualized and catered to you and your partner’s needs and levels of capacity. For some, this may look like never doing this behavior again, this may be going to therapy, it may even be donating to a cause that supports your clients identity. Regardless of what that repair looks like, we have to be open to the needs of the other person in order to truly work towards repairing that harm. 


    This is frequently where people may get lost when it comes to accountability. There may be this belief that you’ve apologized so the harm must automatically be forgiven and forgotten. Unfortunately, that is not how many people operate. Depending on individuals and the harm that was done, repair may need to happen more than once.  Thinking about repair as a process and not an end point can be a helpful framework to use. 


    Another important aspect of accountability is rebuilding trust. For example, you and your partner/s may have gotten into a large argument where you stormed out and refused to respond to them for a week. You may have been extremely angry and needed the space but your partner/s felt dismissed, disrespected, and devalued with your lack of communication and presence. In repairing this harm, your partner/s may have sought an apology to forgive you but that may not mediate their emotional response to you whenever there is a fight. They may experience anxiety or trepidation thinking that you may leave them whenever there is a fight in the relationship. This is not where accountability stops but where it continues to show up.

    Even in this moment after you have apologized it’s important to continue to be accountable to your partner. By acknowledging the previous harm that was perpetrated it allows for the process of rebuilding trust to flourish. In this acknowledgement, you may experience frustration or even confusion as to how these two experiences are connected. As human beings, our emotional responses are sometimes out of sync with our logic. Your partner may have forgiven you for your lack of communication and may still experience negative emotions related to the past harmful action.  In relationships, there needs to be space for these emotions and patience for the partner who has been harmed, alongside building emotional regulation and communication skills.  It is important to remember that rebuilding trust and staying accountable is a continuous act and not just an instagramable moment! 

    In this exploration around accountability, I would be remiss if I didn’t include the difference between accountability and public shaming. Just to reiterate, accountability is an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions. Whereas shaming and the feeling of shame do not necessarily lead to accountability, and in some cases, may have the opposite desired outcome.  

    Accountability does not need to include public shaming in order to be valid. The decision to share your desire for accountability publicly can be a very difficult decision and therapy may be a space to process asking or being on the receiving end of a public call for accountability. 

    Stay tuned for our next blog on Rejecting Disposal Culture and Centering Restorative Approaches


    Therapy might be a place to help you hold others or yourself accountable for harmful actions.  Check out our services at for more information about individual and couples work.


    © Copyright 2019 All rights reserved.  Contributed by Kenya Crawford, MHC