There is an all too common yet deadly dynamic plaguing couples everywhere. It’s as easy to spot as it is to get sucked into. It comes in all shapes and sizes, can be seen and heard. It creeps into the relationship slowly but once engrained, becomes the norm that spoils love, creates disconnection, and breeds resentment. The relationship killer I speak of is disrespect.
That age old adage, if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all is a wise one to follow if you want peace in your home life. I’m not saying to withhold feedback from your partner, they can’t change what they’re not aware of. But you can bring awareness without the sting of disrespect. We don’t want to walk on eggshells, but we also don’t want to be put down. There’s a balance to be had. Allow me to elaborate.
Here’s something to consider; disrespect serves a function in your relationship. If you can uncover the function, you can replace the disrespect with a healthier alternative. This brings us to the why behind your disrespectful mouth. Well, I don’t know you – yet – but here are some common patterns I see on my couch. The main one is simple, hurt people hurt people. So the function of disrespect is often to hurt your partner. Your needs aren’t getting met, you’re not feeling heard, you’re feeling used, unappreciated, unloved. Maybe your partner is equally disrespectful and therefore justifying your rude rebuttals are easy. Whatever the function, here’s what I want to encourage you to do. SHUT your disrespectful mouth. Filter everything said to your partner through these two questions: Will it help achieve the goal of the conversation? Will it move us closer to the goal of our relationship? If the answer to either is no, then you probably already know you shouldn’t say it. Exerting the self-control not to give your partner a piece of your mind and revel in that momentary “win” of the burn is the hard part. But I have complete faith that you are capable of filtering and so much more. Regardless of the why behind the disrespect, you deserve to air your grievances, just be willing to do it in a way that will actually cultivate positive change and growth in your relationship.
Verbal disrespect can be dished out in a variety of ways. Criticizing your partner – aka telling your partner everything they’re doing wrong in a hurtful manner is one. Contempt takes this concept a step further because not only are you putting your partner down, but you’re doing it from the pedestal on which you’ve placed yourself. Contempt comes with an air of superiority. Not only is your partner wrong and you’re right, but you’re a better person. Now, I doubt this to be true. I often tell my couples, you both positively and negatively impact the relationship. And whether or not you’d like to argue how much “more” wrong your significant other is, it doesn’t lead to the healthy place of being partners, being equals. That is the sweet spot that the two of you can thrive in, when you each feel loved and respected. Name calling is another obvious way to verbally disrespect your partner. As a couples therapy specialist, I can assure you, there’s no place in your relationship for this. People think physical abuse is worst case scenario in relationships. Wrong! Studies show that verbal and emotional abuse actually has longer lasting and more negative effects on the individual. Not that that minimizes the severity of physical abuse. But the point of me mentioning it is to reiterate ALL abuse, physical, verbal, emotional, psychological is wrong and absolutely inappropriate. Period. Abusive relationships are one of the reasons a therapist might suggest break-up. That’s how bad it is – for both of you. Also, I’d like to mention, it’s not always what you say, but how you say it. Tone and inflection can infer disrespect, even if your comment is benign.
Nonverbal disrespect is just as bad as verbal disrespect. Nonverbal disrespect includes eye rolling, shaking your head in opposition as your partner speaks, making faces at your partner, sticking your tongue out (yes I have seen grown ass people on my therapy couch literally do this and it’s NOT okay). Also, undermining your partner, whether with the kids or just in life generally is disrespectful. With children particularly, it’s important to be on the same team, to be a unified front. This will decrease manipulative behavior in the child while also providing a healthy model for parenting, which your child will inevitably incorporate later in life, consciously or unconsciously. Ignoring your partner is another common nonverbal sign of disrespect. Some people call it “selective hearing”, I call it rude. Dr. Gottman describes this as turning away. In relationships we are constantly making bids for attention, affection, engagement, communication, etc. from our partners. In that moment you have three options – turn towards, turn away, or turn against. This could be as simple as your partner saying, “Whoa it’s hot outside today”. In that moment you have three options. Turning towards could be as simple as you responding “yeah” or “sure is”. Turning against is criticizing your partner for the benign comment like “Duh. It’s Summer you dummy”. Turning away is worst case scenario, and that is saying nothing at all. Silence gives the message that your partner is not worthy of a response. Very disrespectful. Be mindful of these three options and choose to turn toward daily. It’s in the small encounters that the emotional bank account of the relationship is filled or depleted.
As I stated in the beginning of this post, disrespect comes with a wide range of very detrimental consequences in your relationship. It kills the passion, romance, and love you once enjoyed together. It depletes that emotional bank account we just spoke of, leaving your relationship vulnerable to decay and even creating a culture that is conducive to someone else stepping into your relationship to meet the needs of your partner that you’re unwilling to fulfill. They say that infidelity is not the problem, it’s the symptom of a problematic relationship in which one or both parties are not getting their needs met. Disrespect also breeds resentment. As resentment builds over time, disconnection widens and suddenly you’re just passing ships in the night. Maybe you’re still living together, but you’re more like roommates than lovers. I do not believe that’s what you want for your relationship. But, if that’s where you find yourself today, know that it is completely possible to change. Step number one might just be beginning to treat your partner with the respect that you both deserve. In the end, if left unchecked, disrespect and all the consequences that follow may lead to the ultimate consequence of break up or divorce. No one wants to live in misery in perpetuity.
The Children will NOT be alright
Okay, so this may be a little excessive, the children may be “alright” so to speak, but they are definitely going to have their share of issues if they grow up in a house oozing with disrespect. Many couples look forward to the expiration of their marriage, which they stamp with the kid’s eighteenth birthday. Staying together for the sake of the children, to shelter them from the consequences of a “broken” home is a terrible idea. What happens by staying together in misery, with a culture of disrespect in your marriage is the children not only grow up in a very dysfunctional home, but they unknowingly accept that dynamic as the norm. This leads them to be more likely to perpetuate the unhealthy cycle of disrespect in their relationships, wrecking unnecessary havoc on their lives. It also makes them more likely to be resentful towards you as the parents for modeling such dysfunctional behavior and forcing them to live through the misery of your unhappy union. So, even if for the sake of the children, be respectful to your partner. Even if you decide to split. There is such a thing as conscious uncoupling in which you end the relationship in a way that demonstrates mutual respect and appreciation for the time shared and the willingness to allow the children to love you both equally.
Choose respect. Even when your partner doesn’t. Now this doesn’t mean let your partner walk all over you for the rest of your life while you’re being sweet as pie. It means be willing to start the new norm. You’d be surprised how hard it will become for your partner to continue disrespect in the face of kindness. And when you screw up, as we all do, be willing to seek forgiveness. Admit your wrongdoing. You’d be surprised how far that goes. I often tell my couples, it’s not about the fight. It’s about how you seek and grant forgiveness, learn from the experience, and move forward demonstrating changed behavior. Because here’s what. If the pattern continues over and over, then you’re really not sorry, are you? Ouch. I know. But see your screw ups as a learning opportunity and commit to trying harder next time.
Recovering from a dysfunctional communication pattern that has fully engulfed your relationship isn’t always that easy. I want you to honestly assess your communication and conflict management skills. If they’re not working, for whatever reason, give yourself and your relationship the respect of a plausible solution. Couples therapy can provide just that. It doesn’t have to mean you’re on the brink of a breakup, but it can show you and your partner that you’re committed to change and willing to do what it takes to make the relationship work. And here’s another tidbit, couples therapy doesn’t need to last forever. Go weekly for one month, gain some new tools and strategies, give yourselves the opportunity to really hash out some of those issues that continue to pop up over and over in a safe, structured environment in which a professional can facilitate. You’d be surprised how much easier the conversation is to have when there’s an objective third party there to navigate for you. It’s nice too because like I tell my couples, you get to save the tough stuff for therapy. And in between sessions you don’t have to worry about “fighting”. Instead, you get to truly connect and communicate about the good stuff in life and love, because trust me, it’s there. Should you need a guide along your way, I’d be honored to help. Change is but a phone call away. And it’s a heck of a lot easier than you’d imagine.