Lesson 4 of 7  - optimize your relationships

Respect: The Heart of
Every Successful Marriage

By Annie Gottlieb

From the Reader’s Digest,
April 1988


    The Web address of this reprint is http://sfhelp.org/relate/mates/respect.htm

    Updated 02-24-2015

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      This is a thoughtful article on the importance of a mutually-respectful attitude between committed mates. The hilights below are mine. This two-part YouTube video offers perspective on growing self respect:

      See my comments after the article. - Peter Gerlach, MSW

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       Respect: The Heart of Every Successful Marriage

    It is the quality that transcends romance and admiration,
    that becomes the bedrock of a lasting partnership.

      Respect is not included in the marriage vows. No illustrated books show how to achieve it. And yet it is central to a lasting, satisfying marriage.

      Yes, respect. It seems a quaint, almost formal, word today. But it's a feeling that successfully married couples mention with impressive consistency.

      For her book Married People: Staying Together in the Age of Divorce (Bantam), author Francine Klagsbrun interviewed 87 couples who had been married 15 years or more. She hoped to identify the factors that had enabled these marriages to survive and thrive in a time when almost half are expected to end in divorce. Respect turned out to be a key ingredient. "The vast majority of people I interviewed said, 'I respect him' or 'l respect her," says Klagsbrun.

      What is this thing called respect? It is not the same as admiration. "When you fall in love, you admire the other," says Dr. Alexandra Symonds, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. "You look up to someone - much the way a child idealizes a parent."

      Such romantic admiration thrives and even depends on the illusion that he or she is “perfect for you." That's why it doesn't last. "You come to see that the person you married isn't exactly what you expected," says Francine Klagsbrun. "There are differences of personality, of approaches to life, different ways of doing things."

      You can try to change your mate back into your fantasy. But for the marriage to last and grow it's better to agree to disagree, to learn to let each other be. Only by taking this path can you begin to develop real respect toward each other. For respect is between peers. It is for something tested and proven, solid, really there.

      "I have one patient whose husband loves sports, especially tennis,'' says Dr. Symonds. "She would prefer to go to the theater, or to stay home and read. She could simply say, “We have different tastes.” Instead, she says, ‘How can he waste his time and money that way?’ She puts him down."

      The put-down is the chief symptom - and weapon - of lack of respect, or contempt. "Contempt is the worst kind of emotion," says Symonds. "You feel the other person has no worth.''

      We've all seen marriages in which one or both partners attack the other quite savagely in the guise of "It's for your own good." Any "good" is undone by the hostile tone. A wife nags her husband to be more ambitious and makes him feel like a failure because he prefers craftsmanship or community projects to the competitive business world. Or a husband accuses his wife of wasting time whenever she gets together with a friend: "Why isn't she doing something productive?"

      In good marriages partners nurture each other's self-esteem. They may express humorous incomprehension of one another's preferences, but they never make the other person feel like an idiot. "Marty's idea of a vacation is to go down to the basement on a sunny day and spend time woodworking," says Dr. Alexandra Symonds of her husband, psychiatrist and surgeon Martin Symonds.

      But there's fondness in the gibes and firm support for the other's right to be himself. Respect is expressed in words like, "I don't want to go to the concert, but you have a great time." And occasionally, "Sure, I'll come with you. Just don't be mad if I fall asleep."

      Respect, then, is appreciation of the separateness of the other person, of the ways in which he or she is unique. These things take time to discover and accept. That's why respect is a quality of maturity in a marriage, not of the first heat of romance. But this doesn't mean that married couples who respect each other are simply saying, "You go your way, and I'll go mine." On the contrary, respect is "what pulls you closer together," says Klagsbrun. "Often it helps you to learn from each other, to accept the other's outlook and make it part of yourself."

      My husband and I are from different worlds and generations. He is a European survivor of World War II, eight years my senior. And sometimes we do clash. But we've learned to respect each other even for some of the differences that once annoyed us most. As a result, we have grown more alike. I've absorbed some of his tendency to take strong stands on issues; he's absorbed some of my tolerance of others' points of view. I've gained a genuine appreciation for jazz; he can now hear the life in rock 'n roll.

      That's the paradox of a good marriage: only by respecting each other as you are do you open the door to change. The root meaning of the word respect is "to look at." Respect is a clear yet loving eye. It sees what is really there, but it also sees what is potentially there and helps bring it to fruition. Respect is the art of love by which married couples honor what is unique and best in each other.

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      This is sound, superficial advice. Most readers (like you?) would say "Of course respect is essential (in any relationship)." The article is simplkistic  because it doesn't acknowledge or tackle some primal questions like...

  • What causes disrespect between mates (or anyone)?

  • If you lose respect for your mate, what can you do?

  • Can respect for your mate be intentionally improved?

  • What role does self-respect play in marital satisfaction?

  • How does communication affect marital respect?

      In my years of doing therapy with hundreds of troubled couples, several themes stand out: Typically, such couples...

  • don't know how to identify, discuss, and resolve relationship problems as teammates;

  • are unaware of carrying inherited psychological wounds from early-childhood trauma. One common wound is excessive shame - i.e. lack of self respect; and...

  • because of their wounds and unawareness, troubled couples have made up to three unwise commitment choices.

        See this article on options for improving respect with yourself and with any adult or child. See Lesson 1 and its guidebook for perspective and practical options on reducing inherited psychological wounds and unawareness.

Peter Gerlach, MSW

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