I didn’t respect my wife even though I loved her a lot. And even though my wife loved me back, because she respected herself, she eventually divorced me.
I never considered that my freely given unconditional love could ever not be enough. I never considered that my selective demonstrations of respect toward my wife could impact her love for me—both the emotional love one feels, as well as the psychological love one actively chooses to give to someone else.
Now, I showed a requisite amount of respect for my wife for most people—including her most of the time—to observe, think, and feel Matt respects his wife.
And that’s the big secret in all of these complicated relationship conversations. They’re so dangerously nuanced that most of us are capable of interpreting them multiple ways, or—perhaps more commonly—our interpretation is different than another person’s interpretation, and then when discussing the disagreement, one or both people are horrible at navigating the conversation without damaging the relationship they have with whomever they’re having a disagreement.
Often, that’s a romantic partner or spouse.
Often, it’s just one more paper cut on one or both of them that will eventually cause the relationship to bleed to death and die.
My newest coaching client asked me this morning: “What is your view of the relationship between love and respect? Can you love someone with whom you are inconsistent in showing respect? If you lose respect over time, can you recover and still love that person?”
The following is my answer.
Love is NOT All You Need
“Love is all you need,” The Beatles sang over and over again in their smash hit from 1967 that all of us have heard dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times.
And I think I know what John Lennon and Sir Paul McCartney intended when writing the song. I’m not here to quibble with their lyrics.
But I am here to quibble with that idea in its most literal interpretation and in the most anal-retentive way possible, because it’s the difference between whether your relationship survives ups and downs, or slowly withers on the vine and dies.
I love my son. Like, LOVE him. Intensely. And philosophically, I respect him. Like, I think and believe that I respect him.
But I think there’s a chance he often feels disrespected by me. Maybe because of my tone when I say something to him, or because of how I react to some outrageous 10-year-old thing he says, instead of simply RESPECTING him.
I shower my son with praise.
I tell him regularly how much he’s loved and cared for and valued. I tell him how proud of him I am.
And that’s real. I FEEL those things, authentically, when I say them. In Dr. Chapman’s 5 Love Languages terms, words of affirmation are my love language.
I don’t know what that child’s love language is.
Maybe his love language is “Hey Dad, show up on time for the last-ever Cub Scouts event of my life because you respected me enough to put it in your calendar and be sure you wouldn’t miss it instead of forcing Mom to text you after it already started, which is the only reason you even showed up.”
(That really happened. Two days ago. ADDitude Magazine should put me on their cover.)
I FEEL intense love for my son. It’s very real to me. But what good does that love do if my son feels disrespected? What good does it do if my son grows up not trusting me with whatever he’s dealing with because—from his perspective—I don’t show him respect?
Maybe all my bullshitty Dad-talk feels to him like disrespectful, unsolicited advice, or worse—like criticism that I don’t think he’s good enough.
Maybe despite telling my son (and believing it) how smart I think he is, he doesn’t FEEL as if I think he’s smart, since sometimes I think he says bullshitty things, and act like it.
Life continues to humble me, and remind me that no matter how much I learn, I’m still as far away from being a finished product as I was when I was still doling out shitty husbandry like a nudie-card peddler on Las Vegas Blvd.
Romantic Love and Marriage is Even More Fragile Than Our Parent-Child Relationships
Kids don’t really choose their living arrangement. But our adult romantic partners DO choose it. It’s a volunteer activity, and if we want them to voluntarily choose us over every other possible option in the world, we should offer some type of value proposition in exchange for their voluntary commitment to being our partners.
I’m not a child psychologist, but our kids just sort of get born into our homes and families, and grow up without enough information to gauge how good or bad it is relative to other homes and families in the world.
So long as we’re not horribly abusive and sadistic, I think our kids often hero-worship us in a lot of ways, even when we don’t deserve it.
But not so much with our spouses or girlfriends/boyfriends.
The most common story of romantic love dying in a relationship is because RESPECT is absent.
What Does Respect Look Like?
I’m polite. Kind. Nice. Well-mannered.
And because I say please and thank you, and generally behave “respectfully,” I always believed that I was demonstrating respect to others. Combined with that intense love that I felt toward my wife, any suggestion that I didn’t love and respect my wife was met with total confusion.
Outrageous! How dare she! OF COURSE I love and respect her! She’s the person I married and share all my things with and made a child with!
That is the 100% true and authentic (and tragically common) thought and feeling residing in the hearts and minds of one or both married/romantic partners that will paradoxically lead them to a messy and painful divorce or breakup.
Outrageous. That doesn’t make any sense at all. I would have never married them or do X, Y, and Z for and with them for all of these years if I didn’t love and respect them! They’re just mistaken. But that’s okay. All you need is love.
When you believe in your heart and soul that you love and respect your partner, then you’re in no way motivated to change your behavior or mindset. Which leads to the exact same things happening over and over again. The exact same things that are leading to one or both relationship partners feeling disrespected and unloved.
Our INTENTION to respect others in no way guarantees that other people FEEL respected.
The math is simple enough.
When your partner doesn’t feel as if they’re respected, they will feel mistreated. They will feel uncared for. They will feel dismissed and marginalized.
A person in that situation has two choices—continue to feel beaten down and unloved, which often leads to a total loss of positive self-image, and a person who feels shitty all of the time ceases to be fun and attractive, so the PERSON RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DISRESPECT AND MISTREATMENT actually ends up having “legitimate” reasons to stop feeling attracted to their partner, commonly leading to affairs or a divorce/breakup.
The other choice a person has—and I’m so glad that my ex-wife chose it—is to stand up for oneself. To preserve your own internal self-respect, self-love, personal integrity, etc.
Because God forbid, my son’s mother have turned into some beaten-down, self-loathing, joyless human incapable of demonstrating the kind of love and respect I wish for any child, but especially my son who I love so much and for who I wish so many good things.
“But Matt! What do you mean you didn’t respect your wife? What does that even look like?”
That’s the tricky part. That’s the scary, sneaky part.
It’s difficult to recognize. So, just in case you didn’t see it above, this is what it looks like.
A semi-famous example from this blog and my marriage is the story of me leaving a dish by the sink, and how my habit of doing that led to my divorce.
I saw a dish by the sink. No big deal. I saw something virtually meaningless. Insignificant, at most.
My wife saw a blatant act of disrespect. A huge deal. And FELT it, emotionally, down where it hurts the most. She saw weekly, if not daily, reminders that her husband didn’t respect her enough to do something SUPER-easy for her. She felt so uncared for, and so unheard, and so invalidated, that her choice was either:
- Spend the rest of her life with someone who constantly makes her feel shitty through common, frequent acts of disrespect.
- Choose a different option involving infinitely less pain, more hope, better health, and ensuring that she’d continue to be a person she could look at in the mirror and feel proud of.
It didn’t matter that I didn’t think her concerns were valid. It didn’t matter that I disagreed with her.
Even in some magical universe where I was objectively RIGHT in those assumptions, it STILL wouldn’t matter what was true to ME.
My wife felt pain, down in her gut, because she couldn’t trust me to be her adult partner for the rest of her life.
And major change is scary. And facing a lifetime of pain is scary. Especially when a little boy is at the center of it.
Love is great. Love is paramount to humanity’s survival. Love is a necessary and critical component of making marriage or any romantic relationship work.
But, which is MORE important? Which is MORE critical?
Love or respect?
Respect is something virtually every human deserves on a basic level.
But love? That’s a choice. That’s something we reserve for a select few for our own reasons.
Love is a choice people will no longer choose to make in the absence of respect.
If you’re in a marriage or dating relationship that used to be full of love, but now feels heavy and empty? And you’re wondering where that love and joy went?
This is why.
I didn’t respect my wife, and now I’m divorced.
I hope you’ll make a different choice.