“R. E. S. P. E. C. T., that’s what my baby needs from me.”
Unlike many songs about love and relationships, this song accurately identifies that respect is necessary for relationships to thrive. Mutual respect is one of the cornerstones of all successful relationships. The loss of mutual respect can destroy a marriage quickly, or more often, lead to a painful, stressful and unhappy life for a couple. While this notion appears commonsensical, there is also a significant body of research (by John Gottman, Ph.D. and his colleagues) that strongly supports this view.
Our approach to working with couples emphasizes the importance of mutual respect. While mutual respect is not sufficient (spouses or partners can treat each other respectfully, but still struggle with major issues) it is necessary for a relationship to thrive. Without mutual respect couples are unlikely to be able to solve problems. Thus, our therapists work with couples to re-establish respect and then address other issues that the couple may be struggling with.
Respect: What do we mean by mutual respect?
Mutual respect is a very simple concept. It means that you treat your spouse or partner in a thoughtful and courteous way. It means that you avoid treating each other in rude and disrespectful ways, e.g., you do not engage in name calling, and do not insult or demean your spouse or partner. It also means that you do not talk sarcastically to, or ignore or avoid your partner. Finally, mutual respect means that you view the opinions, wishes and values of your partner as worthy of serious consideration. While this sounds very simple it takes a consistent effort to treat your spouse or partner respectfully. Respect is not just the absence negative behavior, but the presence of positive behaviors. Specifically, if you are treating your spouse or partner respectfully you are doing things such as: considering his//her opinion; consulting with your partner before making decisions that affect your partner; taking an active interest in your spouse’s or partner’s life (work, daily activities and interests); compromising and negotiating with your partner about important issues that affect both of you and your family. While this list is far from exhaustive it captures the essence of a respectful marriage or relationship.
Establishing and Losing Respect
How is respect established in a marriage or relationship? Respect is established when you consistently: consider and value the feelings and opinions of your partner; talk to and treat your partner in ways that you would want to be treated; and compromise and negotiate with your partner.
How is respect lost in a marriage? Respect can slowly erode due to day to day stresses and strains. If you or your partner is stressed or struggling with your own issues, you may become irritable and negative, and vent your frustrations on your partner. This can set off a vicious cycle in which partners are increasingly negative and disrespectful to each other. Similarly, an inability to resolve or manage conflicts or differences can lead to anger and frustration, which if expressed in negative and blaming ways can start the same cycle of negative interactions and result in the loss of respect. These are only a few of the ways that respect can evaporate in a marriage or relationship.
Supporting and Maintaining Respect
Sustaining respect during the course of a relationship takes effort. We are all human, and if someone begins to treat us negatively, inconsiderately, and disrespectfully, we often tend to respond in kind. This pattern of mutual disrespect feeds on itself. The more one partner is rude and inconsiderate, the more likely it is the other spouse or partner will behave in similar ways. Thus, disrespect can grow until most interactions are characterized by sarcastic, inconsiderate, blaming, critical, and demeaning behavior. However, the lack of respect is not always so obvious. Spouses or partners can show their disrespect in more subtle but equally corrosive ways, e.g., ignoring the spouse or partner, responding with indifference to their partner.
Principles for Re-establishing Respect
Once a couple has fallen into a pattern of treating each other disrespectfully it is often difficult to change. If both spouses or partners are angry and hostile towards each other a standoff may ensue, with neither partner willing to change his/her behavior until the other changes. Similarly, if one person makes a good faith effort to change things, this effort may go unnoticed or may even be rebuffed. To help couples re-establish respect we draw on two basic principles: (1) only work on changing your own behavior; and (2) do not police your partner’s behavior. Specifically, we work with you to recognize that given the level of tension in your relationship it is unlikely that either you or your partner can effectively influence each other. Instead, we encourage both of you to focus on your own behavior: follow the golden rule, and treat your partner as you would like to be treated. In addition, we focus with you on working to only police your own behavior. The temptation to correct your partner’s behavior may be great, but it is unlikely to work, at this stage. Once a greater level of respect has been established couples can then begin to work on how they can communicate more effectively, make requests, solve problems, and accept differences.
Creating a Respectful Relationship
Much of the initial phase of therapy is focused on helping couples re-establish or create a more respectful relationship. Once a more respectful environment or atmosphere is established therapy can begin to focus on helping you and your partner identify difficult issues, and find ways to talk about these issues directly without triggering angry and disrespectful behaviors. Creating a respectful relationship is essential if you are going to be able to effectively address difficult issues and differences. Thus, establishing mutual respect is a critical step in therapy.
Tolerating and Appreciating Differences
The final phase of therapy often involves working with couples to recognize, accept and appreciate differences. It is almost a cliché among therapists that people marry or become involved with people who are different than them and then spend the rest of their marriage or relationship trying to change their partner. Part of establishing and maintaining a respectful relationship is learning to accept differences. Partners need to accept the ways in which their spouse or partner is different, whether this involves values, aspirations, or temperament. Tolerating and accepting (and even appreciating ) how your spouse or partner is different from you is a key part in maintaining a respectful relationship. Helping couples achieve this tolerance can involve working with couples on recognizing each other’s strengths and understanding that differences do not have to threaten a relationship, but can in fact strengthen it.