I have found in my work with hundreds of couples that a common thread in their relationship is a desire for mutual respect. In fact, a relationship without mutual respect will be dysfunctional in some way.
Consider Douglas and Rebecca, a couple who are engaged to be married, but who are postponing their marriage now because of problems stemming from disrespect.
Douglas and Rebecca, both in their early 20’s and attending the local university, clearly love each other. Both display their affection and also voice caring about each other deeply. Yet, there is a thread of disrespect running through their relationship that, if not addressed, will surely be their undoing.
I asked them for some of the indicators of disrespect.
“When he gets upset with me he will tell me that what I think or believe is ‘stupid,’” Rebecca said. “He makes me feel bad if I have an opinion that differs from his,” she continued. “I now fear sharing all my thoughts and feelings.”
Douglas acknowledged that was a pattern of behavior for him.
“I thought I was just voicing my opinion,” he said defensively. “I didn’t know I was causing any harm. I thought debating the truth was healthy.”
“But, can you see,” I said, “that to label her point of view ‘stupid’ is to judge her, and in all likelihood, cause her to pull away from you? Can you see that if you debate, and point out how she is ‘wrong,’ she feels disrespected?”
“Yes,” he said. “I can see that now.”
“He also pushes me to hold hands or display affection, and if I don’t do it he pouts,” she continued. “I don’t want to be pushed to show physical affection.”
“Can you see the disrespect in pushing someone to agree with you or pushing them beyond their comfort zone?” I asked.
“Yes,” Douglas said. “I can see that. I hadn’t really noticed before, but now that you say it, I can see it.”
“And how about you?” I said, looking at Rebecca. “Would you be willing to hear how he feels disrespected?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’d like to know that things I’m doing that hurt him. We really haven’t talked about these kinds of boundaries.”
Douglas thought for a moment.
“These may seem like small things to her,” he said looking at me, “but they add up.”
“Like what?” I asked. “Please tell her.”
Looking at Rebecca he shared, “I feel disrespected when you tell me and others what I think and feel. That may seem like a small thing, but I don’t even know what I think many times. If you could remember to ask me what I think and feel, that would be great.”
Rebecca nodded. “I do those things and need to stop. What else?”
“I don’t like it when you share personal information about me to your friends and family, especially when I’ve asked you to be careful about that. You can certainly talk about you, but I’d like some privacy about my life.”
Rebecca winced, but then reluctantly nodded and agreed that she had done that.
We continued on with a few more examples of small things that create disrespect and can drive a wedge in a relationship, and ways to build respect into their relationship.
“You can see, folks, how these examples are relatively small things, but if they were to continue in your relationship and into your marriage, could become much larger.”
Both had soft and receptive hearts as we explored these issues pertaining to establishing healthy boundaries in their marriage. Both would need to be vocal and firm as they shared with their mate what each did that caused them to feel disrespected.
Here are some helpful suggestions to you in your relationship, whether dating or married.
First, mutual respect is a foundation for any relationship.
While infusing our relationships with respect may be challenging, and at times hard to define, it is critical for any healthy relationship. Generally respect is present when we embrace the concepts of acceptance, forgiveness, allowing another to make mistakes without judging their motives, listening and appreciating their unique personality. We treat others honorably, listening to them and valuing their points of view. We are sensitive to the boundaries they have established.
Second, mutual respect can be damaged and must be repaired.
In the natural ebb and flow of life we will, often without malicious motives, harm the respect of another. We do this by pushing our point of view onto another, by violating their boundaries, spoken and unspoken, and by not accepting their personhood.
Third, rebuilding mutual respect will take time and effort.
Once we have violated another, we’ve broken their trust. It is natural to withdraw into a shell of protectiveness, often developing feelings of bitterness, and this breaks healthy connection. It is critical that we talk about what we need to feel respected, how others violate those boundaries, and how you can work together to rebuild respect.
Finally, mutual respect must be maintained together.
Both partners must commit to infusing their relationship with mutual respect. This is done by clarifying boundaries, needs and wishes. Others cannot read our minds and often don’t know they are harming us. Attend to what causes empathy and connection and work toward it. Show your mate that you care enough to attend to their concerns.
We see Jesus model respect as he interacted with various people in history: care and concern for his disciples; gentleness with the Samaritan woman at the well, (John 4:1-11); his kind and sensitive treatment of children. The Apostle Paul teaches us to mutually submit to one another out of respect for Christ. (Ephesians 5: 21) Clearly, we are to be people of mutual respect for all people.