Respect and admiration: Keys to a healthy romantic relationship

How often have you heard somebody say, ‘He’s not a bad person—but I still don’t like him’? So, what’s missing?

In a word: Respect. To genuinely like—or even love—someone, they must first earn your respect.

Like beach erosion, the loss of respect usually happens slowly, but the consequences are inevitable. It might be due to issues of character and integrity, but it can also involve less serious, but equally significant traits. For example, your friend might talk about a mutual friend in negative or hostile terms. Then, when all three of you are together, it’s as if nothing was ever said. Doesn’t this make you wonder, ‘Will she talk about me that way behind my back?’ But, even more than that: Can you respect someone who has two faces? This is the kind of thing that can begin the erosion of a friendship.

Years ago, in graduate school, a colleague of mine made a remark about another student: ‘He’s bright and he talks a good game. He sounds sincere when he says what he’s going to do, but he never follows through. He talks about how bad his situation is with his marriage and everything, but he doesn’t do anything about it—even with all his mental health training. I respect him less and less. And if I don’t respect him, I can never really like him.’ Blunt, but true.

We tend to view respect and love in mutually exclusive terms. ‘They might not like me—but they will respect me.’ Well, that can sometimes be true, particularly in matters of business, international relations, military action and so forth. But in personal relationships, respect and love should go hand-in-hand. Think about someone you genuinely love, and look beneath the feeling. What kinds of character or personality traits give rise to your feelings? Could you still truly love him if you didn’t also admire him?

In my experience, three factors can generate feelings of respect: (1) following through on what you say you’re going to do, (2) being the same way to a person’s face as you would behind his/her back, and, (3) facing the truth, rather than avoiding it. My experience has shown that these characteristics are valued by pretty much everybody (leaving aside criminals or con-artists). Interestingly enough, people tend to admire these qualities in others whether they, themselves, practice them or not.

Marriages can fall apart because of the loss of respect. When I talk to people whose spouses have cheated on them, they often voice as much concern over the fact that they can no longer trust a liar as they do over the pain of the betrayal. Yet, fewer marriages end due to a one-time crisis than from an accumulation of things. Procrastination, two-facedness and ‘little white lies’ often lead, over time, to separation and/or divorce. When I am asked, ‘Does that sound petty?’ I usually reply: ‘Not at all. The real issue is respect. Once it’s gone, it’s gone’

Human beings yearn to respect, and to be respected. The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s famous catch phrase, ‘I don’t get no respect!’ generated laughter not only because his manner was funny, but also because it resonated with the universal need to be respected. Psychological theorist Abraham Maslow places the need to respect others, and to be respected by others, near the top of his ‘hierarchy of human needs.’ Yet, in order to feel respect, one must first respect oneself. And that comes from a love of life and a refusal to let others determine your values and your course of action. The same applies if your course of action throughout life is reckless and destructive. If you ignore the advice of others ‘on principle’—even when that advice could help you—this will, over time, erode your own self-respect. I often say to people, ‘You have the option to end your association with another person when you no longer respect them. But you don’t have that option with yourself. You have to build a good reputation with yourself.’

Contrary to some popular culture, respect must be earned. We talk about ‘unconditional love,’ but, outside of infancy and early childhood, this is a pretty ridiculous concept. Can somebody who squanders his or her life and talents be loved just the same as someone who honestly works at achieving his or her potential? Is it really just as heroic to settle for less than average, as it is to stand out from the crowd in some positive way? To ‘love’ someone is to genuinely value this person, based upon certain things you consider ‘lovable’ in the first place. It implies that the object of your feelings meets certain conditions you consider valuable. Unconditional love is a charade if it’s disconnected from respect.

Love, like and respect are inevitably intertwined. Look no further than your own emotions, at whom you love, and why. A healthy relationship will always boil down to admiration and respect.