By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
It seems like it should be the most natural thing in the world to treat your partner with kindness, consideration and respect. After all, this is the person you’ve chosen to share your life, heart and in most cases, bed with. Yet for many people in committed relationships, the respect, kindness and admiration that were present at first tend to fade over time.
As a family therapist, I frequently hear about this unfortunate dynamic from both perspectives. Some people tell me they’re aware of how poorly they treat their partners at times. They even express surprise at how often they find themselves speaking to their partners in ways they would never think of doing with their bosses, coworkers or friends. Others tell me about how their partners treat them, and how they wish it were kinder and more like the early days of dating.
Most people treat their partners with the utmost respect and kindness in the dating and courting stages. After all, the relationship would not have likely progressed if that weren’t the case. So, why do so many people start out presenting the best version of themselves and then over time, begin to treat their beloved partners with disrespect or disregard—and sometimes even disdain?
In some cases, it’s simply because many of us have not been taught to treat our significant others with deep and daily respect. It’s what I call passing the dysfunctional baton. We basically learn how to be in relationships from the role models we witnessed as children. By the time we reach young adulthood, we pretty much have a master’s degree in relationships and, whether we like it or not, our parents were our professors. And depending on how our parents were taught by our grandparents, this may or may not be good news. I’m in no way casting blame here. Our parents and grandparents received their relationship education from their caregivers too. So, we all get what we get, and what we get depends on circumstances beyond our control. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find tutors or new teachers, and it doesn’t mean we can’t learn and improve if our original role models were less than ideal.
An additional source of relationship role-modeling comes from the unhealthy messages we absorb in the media. Most movies and TV shows depict couples who are in conflict, from bickering to arguing to outright fighting. A client once asked if I could recommend a movie whose characters exhibited healthy, loving, respectful communication. I couldn’t, and the likely reason is that it probably wouldn’t sell. Drama sells. So even if your parents or early caregivers were loving, kind and friendly to each other, and even if they worked through rough spots with respect, you still may have gotten a good dose of unhealthy communication lessons from the media.
Another factor that can contribute to how we treat our partners is simply our inborn temperament. I call it our “breed.” We all have various moods, but you can usually see early on that some of us are naturally more light-hearted, and some of us are more serious. Others are a bit rougher around the edges. And on top of that, we have our life circumstances, which can enhance our natural breed or sometimes change it. We all have issues, but either we work on them or they work on us.
Author Eckhart Tolle talks about people having a “pain-body,” which he defines as an accumulation of old emotional pain. Some people have a significantly depressed pain-body and live with a lot of sadness. Others have an angry pain-body and walk around mad at the world. Some people’s pain-body shows itself through a lot of anxiety. Pain-bodies like these can definitely factor into how people treat their partners if they don’t work on healing their wounds from the past. And some people, either through life circumstances, or perhaps self-improvement, seem to have a light pain-body and live life with a bit of a skip in their step.
If you’re someone who finds yourself treating your partner with less respect and kindness than you would like, you can do an upgrade. You can dedicate yourself to healing. You can commit to increasing the respect, kindness and consideration that you probably once treated your partner with. We all deserve to be in relationships that are safe, loving, intimate and friendly, and we can all learn to work through challenges with respect, openness and maturity. Of course it takes two, and you can only work on your end of the deal. But even if one person changes, the whole dynamic can improve.
And, like anything we want to improve, it takes work. You wouldn’t expect to get good at a sport, hobby, instrument or language without learning and practicing. The same goes for relationship and communication skills.
A few important side notes: Being nice doesn’t mean being phony. We all have feelings, moods, thoughts and needs. The upgrade I’m speaking of is about being respectful, no matter what you’re feeling. And if you slip and say or do something disrespectful, you clear it up as soon as possible, the same way you would clean up an accidental spill.
Additionally, if your relationship is unsafe — physically or emotionally — it might be time to get out or, at the very least, get professional help. But if you feel like you are with the one you love (and hopefully like) and you are ready to make some improvements in the way you treat your partner, here are some tips for you:
1. Nourish your relationship.
Just like our plants need food and water, our relationships do too. It’s way too easy in our fast-paced, plugged-in culture to take our significant other for granted, so it’s important to make regular efforts to initiate dates with your partner and plan some fun things to do together. It could be an activity you used to enjoy as a couple, or it could be something new and out of the box. I often ask partners to each write a list of things they might like to do as a couple—anything from a trip to going out for a cup of coffee or an evening walk. Then they trade lists, and each partner marks off the things on the other person’s list that sound good to them. Together they have a new list of fun ideas!
2. Be present when you are present.
Connecting is more than simply being in the same house, room or restaurant, though that’s a good start! It’s about being truly present, making eye contact and showing genuine interest in your partner. Try putting down your tablet, phone or remote control on a regular basis and really take the time to connect with your partner, even for a few minutes. Be sincere when you ask about their thoughts, feelings and experiences, and then really listen and respond from your heart.
3. Foster a balance between friendship and intimacy.
A loving relationship is about being good friends and being intimate. Many relationships begin with a spark of chemistry but fade over time without the foundation of a true friendship, while others may have a solid friendship but lack that romantic spark. See if you can foster a friendship with some kindness and play, and then make regular efforts to fan the flames of intimacy. You might have to abandon your usual mode of sweat pants and sitcoms, but it will hopefully be worth it!
4. Increase tolerance and acceptance.
It’s so easy to gather up resentments about the little things your partner does that bother you, so make working on tolerance, perspective and acceptance a daily practice. Being less judgmental also increases our own level of peace. Try to distinguish between behaviors you’d like to work on accepting and reasonable changes you’d like to request. For example, you might be able to accept the cap being left off the toothpaste, or it might be important enough to respectfully request that your honey try to remember to put it back on. And when your partner makes requests of you, see if you can consider honoring those as well.
5. Give what you’d like to get.
Most people want to be heard, understood, seen and validated. And unfortunately many people want their partner to go first. Since we have zero control over how our partner acts and hopefully some control over how we act, if we want things to change in our relationship, the best chance of success is to give what we would like to get. So if you want to be heard, try becoming a better listener and see what happens. If you want your partner to meet some of your needs, try meeting some of theirs. Of course this doesn’t guarantee anything. Some people won’t be able to meet our needs regardless of what we do, but it’s worth a try, especially if what you’ve been doing hasn’t been working.
6. Act with kindness and compassion.
Here’s some good news: Not only can being kinder and more compassionate improve your relationship, it can also improve your health! Strong emotions such as anger, resentment and hostility increase our stress hormones, causing an elevation in our heart rate and blood pressure, a tightening of our muscles and blood vessels and a shortening of breath.
On the flip side, being kind can set off a series of healthy reactions. According to Dr. David R. Hamilton, acts of kindness create an emotional warmth, which releases a hormone known as oxytocin. Oxytocin causes the release of nitric oxide, a chemical that dilates the blood vessels and so reduces blood pressure. Oxytocin is known as a “cardioprotective” hormone; it protects the heart by lowering blood pressure.
So besides the fact that kindness and compassion simply feel better, they are better for us too!
7. Assume that we are all doing the best we can.
It can be very tempting to look at what our partners are doing and think that we would be doing it differently, or that they should be doing it differently. But is that true? If you had the exact same personality characteristics, birth order, parenting and life circumstances as your partner, you would likely be doing things exactly as they are. Is it always what you’d like? Probably not. Is it always easy? Probably not. But then I’m sure we’re not always fulfilling our partners’ wildest dreams either.
Author Brené Brown shares how her husband, Steve, summed up compassion beautifully. When Brené asked Steve if people are doing the best they can, he answered, “I don’t know. I really don’t. All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.” Brené goes on to say, “It doesn’t mean people were doing the best there was to do, but rather the best we can with the tools that are available to us.”
So, see if you can try on this approach. See what it would feel like to assume that your partner is doing the best they can with the tools they have been given.
8. When emotions are high, take a breather.
In general, the higher our stress level, the harder it is to think clearly, calmly and maturely. So sometimes, in order to keep the respect level high, we need to take a breather. If you feel like things are getting heated or a charged topic is on the table, practice asking for a breather—literally taking a time-out and literally taking some deep breaths. Some people find it helps to take a walk and get some fresh air when things heat up. Some find it helps to journal or listen to a mindfulness podcast or meditate or talk to an unbiased person who is skilled at listening and staying neutral. Do whatever you need to do to minimize potential damage and help yourself get grounded. Then you can return to clear, mature thinking and resume the conversation.
9. Imagine the future if nothing changes in the present.
Change is hard for many of us. Perpetuating our habitual patterns is often the path of least resistance. Even if some of our habits are not even fun or fulfilling, they’re what we know and are used to, and we humans tend to be creatures of habit. If you have habitually been treating your partner in ways you aren’t proud of (and wouldn’t want to see on YouTube), you might find it helpful to think toward the future. I sometimes ask clients to imagine themselves in the distant future, having made no significant changes in their relationship. For some people, this is a pleasant image. But for many, it’s a sad one. They imagine feeling a deep sense of regret about not spending more quality time with their partner, listening more, slowing down more, criticizing less, appreciating more, being more kind.
A dear friend of mine works with people at the end of their lives. She has sat with many people on their deathbeds, and I once asked her if she noticed any themes among the dying. Were there common regrets? Common wishes? She said, “For sure, nobody ever said they wished they had worked more. And many people said they wished they had been kinder and loved their loved ones better.” She said if she could sum up what she most often heard, it was about love, simply loving the people you love—and letting them know it.