The Foundations of Respect
[Hi! I’m back- thanks for being patient with my time away!]
Before I left for my break, I spoke with a couple of consult clients about the topic of basic respect in relationships. What behaviors constitute respect? What behaviors constitute disrespect? What does healthy fighting look like? I think it’s worth taking a look at this topic for a handful of reasons:
- I think it’s always good to remind ourselves of what basic, foundational respect is- and what it looks like in relationship- because things slip over time as we fall into habits of behavior in our relationships.
- When you’re in the Sex Surge you ignore all kinds of red flags about a partner’s behavior, especially if the sex is hitting the right spot.
- Some of us didn’t grow up with models of healthy relationships or basic respect, so it’s good to see it laid out somewhere.
And if you want to sing a bar or two of Aretha’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” before we get into it, please do!
So, here’s how I define basic respect between partners: do they treat you with as much respect as a colleague they respect? (Because we all have colleagues we could not give a fuck about…we don’t want to compare to that!) When we think of professional and collegial relationships, we think about some of these things:
- clear communication (or, as clear as possible)
- not raising our voice
- not bringing topics or issues that are irrelevant to the current discussion
- no swearing
- ability to take responsibility for our own actions
- expectation of telling the truth
When we are talking about basic respect in relationships, this is where we must start. We need to be kind, professional, and aware of ourselves when we interact with other folks, even in romantic or more personal relationships.
Of course, romantic relationships are different. They (hopefully) go deeper than professional relationships in terms of emotional sharing and support. In romantic relationships, we may find we are repeating patterns handed to us from our family of origin. We should also feel safe enough with our romantic partner to let our depression, anxiety, or other organic issues be present and part of the interaction (if we can’t feel safe enough to do this, then we should definitely not be in the relationship at all). But, at base, we need to have respect and safety as part of our foundation for relating to each other.
One of the important skills of respect in relationships is the ability to talk about the way we talk to each other. This is called “meta cognition” or “meta conversation.” What this means is that we are not simply communicating about, say, who does the laundry, but that we are *also* talking about how we talk to each other when we talk about the laundry.
- Does one partner swear at the other when they get upset? And is that okay with everyone?
- Does either partner yell during discussions? And is that okay with everyone?
- Does one partner apologize more, or sooner, than the other? And why is that?
For some couples, swearing at each other is fine- it doesn’t hurt emotionally or bring up old wounds. For other couples, using swear words when communicating is painful, hurtful, and not allowed. It took my husband and I a couple of discussions for me to understand that when he raised his voice during difficult conversations he wasn’t yelling at me. Rather, he was raising his voice because of his frustration with the situation; it was part of expressing his emotional state, not necessarily an expression of anger at me. (And, seriously, he’s not a ‘yeller’- he raises his voice a bit or growls; he’s not screaming or anything like that.) But we had to talk about whether that was okay for us as a couple and what it signified- respect or disrespect.
We also only use swear words to express frustration with the situation, never with each other. We can say, “Fuuuuuuuck this!” about what we’re dealing with, but never about each other or the relationship.
Now, that’s just us. And, again, some couples will be fine with saying, “You’re being an a$$hole right now!” and not feel it as a personal attack. But, if you’ve come from a family that spoke to each other that way, or if you were called names by your family or friends, hearing it from a partner can be devastating. And if it is, you and your partner should be talking about how you talk to each other.
I think it’s useful and healthy to have regular conversations about how we relate with our partner. How we talk to them. How we touch them. How we deal with issues in the relationship. It’s when we talk at this level- just above the actual problems themselves- that we might discover we have old wounds to heal, or a need for improving our communication skills, or we need a gentler approach so we feel safe. And if our partner can hear these requests and follow through with them, we are creating deeper intimacy, trust, and respect. If our partner can’t hear these requests and follow through with them, we might need to think about whether this is the right relationship for us.
We all deserve basic respect in our relationships. How we define ‘respect’ is probably different in different relationships, but we need to be aware of how we are defining ‘respect’ and whether that is a definition everyone shares and feels good about. We can make our relationships clearer and stronger if we talk about the ‘how’ of things- especially how we talk to each other and how we show respect in our relationships. Respect is necessary for well-functioning relationships and if we have to chat, now and again, about what that means and how it looks, that’s a reasonable and healthy thing.