Respect: The key to romance

How often have you heard somebody say, ‘He’s not a bad person, but I still don’t like him’? Most often, the missing element is respect. To genuinely like or love someone, they must first earn your respect.

Like beach erosion, the loss of respect happens slowly, but the consequences are inevitable. It might be character and integrity, but it can also involve less serious traits. For example, your friend might talk about a mutual friend in negative terms, but when the three of you are together, it’s as if nothing was ever said. You might wonder, ‘Does she talk about me behind my back?’ But even more significantly, can you respect someone who has two faces? This kind of thing can begin the erosion of a friendship.

Years ago a classmate of mine made a remark about another student: ‘He’s bright and he talks a good game. He sounds sincere about what he’s going to do, but he never follows through. He talks about how bad his marriage is, but he doesn’t do anything about it. I respect him less and less. And if I don’t respect him, I can never really like him.’ Blunt, but true.

When it comes to romance, we tend to view respect and love in mutually exclusive terms. ‘They might not like me, but they’ll respect me.’ Well, that might be true in 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 traits give rise to your feelings? Could you still truly love him if you didn’t also admire him?

In my experience, three factors generate 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 reality, rather than avoiding it. I’ve learned that these characteristics are valued by just about everybody (leaving aside criminals or con-artists). Interestingly enough, people admire these qualities in others whether they, themselves, practice them or not.

When I talk to people whose spouses have cheated on them, they voice as much concern over the loss of trust 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. Ongoing procrastination, two-facedness and little white lies can lead to separation or divorce.

We yearn to respect and to be respected. The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s famous phrase, ‘I don’t get no respect!’ generated laughter not only because he was funny, but also because it resonated with that universal need. Indeed, psychological theorist Abraham Maslow places respect near the top of his ‘hierarchy of human needs.’

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. The same applies if your life is reckless and destructive. If you ignore the advice of others ‘on principle’ — even when that advice could help you — this will erode your self-respect. I often say to people, ‘You always have the option to end your association with a 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 popular culture, respect must be earned. We talk about ‘unconditional love,’ but, outside of infancy and early childhood, this is pretty ridiculous. Can somebody who squanders his or her life and talents be respected just the same as someone who honestly works to achieve 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 that person, based upon things you consider lovable. It implies that the object of your feelings meets certain conditions you consider valuable. Unconditional love is a charade (and might even have a hidden agenda) if it’s disconnected from respect.

Look no further than your own emotions, at whom you love, and why. A truly healthy relationship will always be grounded in admiration and respect.