By Mary Simon, Psy.D.
Want romance in your relationship? You have to start with a different R, R-e-s-p-e-c-t. While it’s sad to lose the initial romance of a relationship, it’s disastrous to lose the respect! Loss of respect leads to resentment, and resentment destroys love. And the longer you stay mad at your partner, the harder it will be to rekindle anything, let alone romance.
The Doomed Romantic Phase
The bad news is that it’s not possible for relationships to return to the intense high of the initial romantic stage—the stage where we’re blind to our partner’s faults, when we soak up their attention like the hot Mexico sun in January. This high, which initially attracts us to one another and makes us tolerant of our partner’s faults, goes away as surely as the sun sets. Why? Because it is largely based on a hormone (PEA) that our bodies produce only in the excitement of a new relationship. Unfortunately, this hormone has a relatively short half-life: 2 days to 2 years.
The good news is that something better and more lasting than romantic intoxication IS possible! That something is a deep, lasting, loving bond To get there, however, we first have to deal with the resentment that builds up in relationships when one or both partners allow their frustration with each other’s imperfections to justify behaving disrespectfully. Terry Real, one of the top marital therapists in the country, in his book The New Rules of Marriage, says, “Respect is the minimum of love.” He teaches a commitment to “Full-Respect Living,” which is a commitment to never treat anyone, including ourselves, with less than respect and to never allow others’ behavior towards us drop below the level of respect.
Women’s Ways of Being Disrespectful
Disrespecting Myself: For many women, self-respect is the most difficult respect to maintain. This can take at least two distinct forms. One is that we accommodate other people’s needs at the expense of our own. This often takes the form of not speaking up. We do things we don’t want to do because we assume that’s what our partner wants. We make ourselves small or “less than” others in order to maintain an illusion of harmony in the relationship.
Another form this lack of self-respect can take is to talk when no one is listening! When our partner is clearly not receptive to what we are saying, when he’s either stonewalling or arguing every point we make, it is disrespectful to ourselves to continue talking. Trying to solve a problem with someone who is acting disrespectfully is like talking to a drunk! Nothing constructive can happen.
Disrespecting My Partner: When we get resentful enough, however, we may speak up in ways that are disrespectful. The most common is not negotiating a time to talk. Because women are usually more comfortable with “relationship talk” than men, we tend to jump in and start a conversation that is important to us without first asking, “Is this a good time?” Not negotiating a time to talk prior to talking is a set up to feel disrespected if our partner is not in a place to listen well.
Another form of disrespect is complaining in the form of character assassination: “You are always so rude to my friends!” “You never help around the house!” “You’re such a slob!” In addition to being disrespectful, these complaints are also counter-productive because they generate resentment, rather than a desire to cooperate!
Being Right: You may be right that he said he’d go to the ballet with you. You may remember perfectly every word of the argument you had at your mother’s house two years ago. You may be right—but insisting on it means you are telling your partner he’s WRONG! Good way to generate resentment! The answer to “Who’s right?” is “Who cares?” You can either be right or have a loving relationship. Which is more important?
Man-bashing: Other women can be wonderful support BUT, in our attempts to support each other, we often fall into another form of disrespect—man-bashing.* This is NOT helpful! It fuels our resentment—and sense of powerlessness—rather than empowering us to take the actions we CAN take to make our relationships more respectful.
Moving Toward Respect
So, how do you move out of resentment and into Full-Respect Living? First you need to identify the following:
1. When do I feel resentment and what is the disrespect that is triggering it?
2. How have I been disrespecting myself and/or my partner?
3. What do I need to do differently?
4. What do I need to ask for and insist on from my partner?
Once you’ve identified the source of your resentment(s), it’s time to make moves toward respect:
1. If your resentment is about doing things you really don’t want to do, STOP! Let your partner know that you have realized, “This doesn’t work for me,” and what you will be doing differently in the future. If you have made agreements with him to do these things, tell him you need to renegotiate the agreement. That’s OK. You can say, “Sorry. I agreed to this but I find it doesn’t work for me.”
2. Learn the art of “Responsible Distance Taking” commonly known as Time Out. Your thoughts, wants and needs deserve a respectful reception. If you are not experiencing that, you need to respect yourself enough to temporarily end the conversation. You can do this respectfully by saying something like, “This doesn’t seem to be going well right now.” Request that you both take time to cool off, at least an hour. Check back in and then set a time to return to the topic.
3. Turn complaints and frustrations into requests. Instead of saying, “You never cook dinner,” try, “Would you be willing to cook dinner two nights a week?” Instead of saying, “We never go out anymore,” try, “I really like going out with you. I’d like for you to ask me out on a date.”
What if he says no? Assuming that he says no in a respectful manner (I’m sorry, but I’m too tired to cook dinner tonight), then the question becomes: “What can I do to take care of myself instead?” Rather than trying to “get” him to do what you requested by guilt or coercion, brain storm options with him—going out, ordering in, etc. The hallmark of being adult is the ability to say “I have options,” rather than seeing every problem as black or white with a limited number of solutions.
If your partner responds in a way that feels disrespectful to you, see #2!
4. Avoid “perception battles”—who said what, whose memory is correct, what things “really mean”. Own your reality as your perception, your memory, your understanding. Do not disrespect your truth by arguing about it. AND do not devalue the other’s reality by insisting that your truth is “THE TRUTH”! What’s important is, “How do we respect both points of view?” or “How do we solve the problem?”
5. In talking with others, ask for the support you need to make the changes you can make. Do not indulge your resentment by “trashing” your partner or men in general. Yes, your partner may act like a jerk at times. That does NOT entitle you to be disrespectful. Behaving disrespectfully always diminishes YOU!
It is important to be aware that, in our society cultural norms tell women to give up their self-respect in order to maintain the relationship. No matter how liberated we think we are, it can be very difficult to speak up and take a stand for ourselves and for a new kind of relationship. Be patient with yourself and get support!
Of course, there are situations when respecting yourself and doing your best to live in “Full-Respect” is not enough to repair a relationship. If speaking up, making changes in your behavior, and making respectful requests doesn’t work and you still feel disrespected in your relationship, you may need professional help to rebuild the foundation of mutual respect that is necessary for love to survive and thrive.
The Bottom Line
Resentment is poisonous—to you and to your relationships. Get rid of it! Respect—for yourself, for your partner and for your relationship—is the antidote to resentment and the foundation for deep, abiding, cherishing love. Insist on it!
* There actually are some valid reasons why women get frustrated with men. However, these are primarily cultural. The book I Don’t Want to Talk About It by Terry Real, gives an in-depth, compassionate analysis of this issue.
Mary J. Simon, Psy.D. is a psychologist in private practice at the Relationship Resource Center in the Cherry Creek area of Denver. The Center provides counseling, education and support for Full-Respect Living. All of the staff have been trained by Terry Real in Relational Life Therapy. www.relationshipresourcecenter.com.