If you still think that the foundational building blocks of intimate relationships are built on hearts, flowers, and sharing a favorite song or movie, you’d be mistaken. Those romantic notions that initially attracted us to our partners have little to do, overall, with keeping us intact as couples. While it may not sound overly sexy or exciting at first glance, it’s a fact that respect is one of the foundational building blocks of intimate relationships.
There seems to be an epidemic these days plaguing many couples—a widespread occurrence of disrespect between partners. It’s common for partners to be so hurt in the relationship that they have a sense of justification for their anger toward their partner as they hold onto various injustices tallied. For others, there’s a sense of entitlement within the partner(s) that conveys a belief they are deserving of a loving and caring relationship regardless of how they treat their partner. Consequently, they demand it through criticism, punishing with a cold shoulder, or belittling. Yet, what many partners need to understand is that respect is something that is earned, not blindly given.
In The Science of Trust, John Gottman warns that the expression of “disrespect, mockery, ridicule, sarcasm, or other means of asserting superiority or denigrating the partner” actually is a form of betrayal. So is badmouthing your partner to friends or family. How often have you spoken poorly about your partner to another person rather than finding a respectful way to address the issue directly? Respect involves experiencing and demonstrating fondness and admiration for your partner. Our natural inclination is to focus on the negative whether it is something about ourselves or something we notice in our partner. Thankfully, you can overcome this negativity bias hardwiring of your brain by training yourself to notice the attributes in your partner that you are grateful for or that you admire. For instance, make a concerted effort to pay attention to the things you appreciate about your partner on a regular basis, and express it out loud.
Have you ever noticed how some people treat their best friend far better than the person with whom they live and share a life? There’s something oddly topsy-turvy about that. Honoring your partner involves treating your partner as you would a best friend—with good will, kindness, and consideration. Respect includes acknowledging that your partner’s opinion is equally as valid as yours. This is demonstrated through the practice of listening to understand rather than listening to respond. Respect also involves demonstrating pride in your partner in the presence of others as opposed to teasing your partner for the entertainment benefit of others. Cruelty seldom evokes good will, much less a successful relationship.
It’s an unfortunate fact that many couples I see have lost respect for one another—they no longer hold their spouse or partner in high esteem. Often, there’s a specific issue that eroded the relationship. It can range from an affair, chronic bickering, or some vague distance that has insidiously developed over time, threatening the relationship. On a positive note, the couples who want to salvage the relationships come to couple’s therapy where they can address those issues. Fortunately, in therapy, we can work on developing communication skills, healing from infidelity or, once again, building a strong connection. However, those couples who don’t address the issue of lack of respect have a poor chance of creating the level of intimacy they desire.
The next time you question whether your relationship is moving in a positive direction, ask yourself honestly what your level of respect is for your partner. If you want to improve your relationship, you have to commit to rebuilding respect. That begins by striving to be the partner you desperately want your partner to be. For a relationship to be successful, it requires two people who mutually value and cherish one another—allowing hearts and flowers to bloom once again.