Without respect, it doesn’t matter if your relationship has everything else going for it. Joe Beam, author of The Art of Falling in Love, describes how a lack of respect can doom a marriage, and how you can better show respect to your spouse.
While we hear a great deal about the importance of communication in a marriage, I personally believe that respect is even more crucial. Why is that?
Long-term relationships mean dealing with the person rather than the picture. Up‑close and personal, we see every flaw in clearer detail as time moves on. Couples begin to find increasing grounds for disappointment with each other. Perhaps a wife, after giving birth three times, no longer has the trim waistline that originally attracted her husband. He feels she is letting herself go, and his respect decreases, fair or not. Meanwhile, he sits in the recliner and flips television channels while his wife bathes and dresses the kids. She gives up on nagging but loses respect for the man she married.
The problem comes when one person treats the other with disrespect. Look up respect in a dictionary, and you will find the meaning I use here. Respect for another means “esteeming that person as having worth or excellence.” We express this positive esteem for who and what the person is in the way we speak to and act toward that person. Disrespect, therefore, is the opposite. It is when one person speaks to or acts toward the other in a way that communicates a lack of esteem, leaving the person with a feeling that he or she is worthless.
How have I seen it demonstrated? Let me list a couple of ways I have seen recently: a husband verbally berating his wife because her opinion on a matter differed from his; a wife snidely telling everyone at the dinner table that her husband has no business acumen and if it were not for her stepping in, they would be broke. Disrespect is any action, verbal or otherwise, that causes the other to feel a lack of worth.
Once, during Marriage Helper, our weekend workshop for marriages in crisis, I got to know a husband and wife who were on the verge of divorce. Both were highly attractive and intelligent. They came to our workshop because she had fallen in love with another man and intended to divorce her husband. Though her husband wanted to make things work, it quickly became obvious that their problems began with his disrespectful treatment of her.
She spoke of occasions when she offered an opinion of some kind. His response would be to roll his eyes and say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Let her mention how she felt about something, and he responded with a declaration that she had no right to feel that way. Rather than behaving as her partner in life, he treated her as if she were his inferior. He acted as if her thoughts and feelings had no importance at all.
She put up with years of this treatment until she met a man who gave her respect. “He’s not perfect. It’s not that he’s the man of my dreams,” she said. “The real difference is that when I speak, he listens to everything I say. He might not even agree with my comments—that is not the important thing. He lets me know that he understands why I see it the way I do. Sometimes he’ll explain where he differs, but he always treats me as an equal, not some moron needing correction.”
During the Marriage Helper weekend, I felt that the wife and her husband were making some progress; maybe he was beginning to see that he could rescue their relationship if he treated her with respect. Unfortunately, he never got it.
On Sunday, the husband was at the workshop alone. I had to call his wife on the phone and ask her to come, as a favor to me. She said she would do that, but only for me, not for him, because I treated her with respect. In our final sessions, there was a breakthrough on her part. She changed her mind about the future: “I’m still in love with the other man. But I’m going to stay in my marriage and try to make it work—”
Her husband interrupted. “Oh, come on, you don’t love him!”
She got up and walked out of the room. I told him that he had blown his last chance and that his hope was gone. “You don’t grasp the principle. She simply wanted to be treated as an equal, not a child. And she’s going to the man who gives her what she needs.”
Let me offer you a few simple words that will make an amazing difference in your relationship: “I can see why you would feel that way.” Another version: “I understand why you would think that way.”
It is not a question of wrestling our conversations into agreement on every little issue. We cannot always agree, but we can always offer mutual respect. When we lose that, we lose each other, because we all crave respect for who we are and for what we believe.
If this is a problem for you, and you struggle in extending respect for your partner, may I suggest that you remember this: what your mate thinks or feels is just as valid as what you think or feel. Even when you do not agree, you must treat each other with respect if you wish for your marriage to last a lifetime. People who are treated as inferiors in learning, logic, or emotions usually take it only for so long before all that anger explodes. When it does, your marriage may be over forever.