By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
It seems like it should be natural to treat our partners with love, consideration, and respect. Yet, for many people in long-term relationships, the warmth and kindness that were present in the early days of dating can fade over time.
Most people treat their partners with the utmost respect and kindness in the courting stage. The relationship probably wouldn’t have progressed if they hadn’t. Why do so many people present the best version of themselves early on, and over time, treat their beloved partners with disrespect, disregard, and sometimes even disdain?
In some cases, it’s simply because we haven’t been taught to treat our significant others with deep and daily respect. I call it passing the dysfunctional baton. We basically learn how to be in relationships from the relationships we witnessed as children. By the time we reach young adulthood, we pretty much have a master’s degree in relationships. Whether we like it or not, our parents were our professors. Depending on our parents’ communication skills, this may or may not be good news.
I’m in no way casting blame here. Our parents received their relationship education from their caregivers too. We all get what we get and what we get depends on circumstances that are beyond our control. What is in our control, if our role models were less than ideal, is that we can find new teachers. We can unlearn ineffective patterns and upgrade to healthier ones.
An additional source of relationship role modeling comes from the messages we absorb in the media. Most movies and tv shows depict couples in conflict. After all, drama sells. So even if your parents or early caregivers were loving and friendly to each other and 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 our inborn temperament. I call it our “breed.” Some of us are naturally light-hearted. Some of us tend to be a bit more serious. Others run more anxious. Some, more sad. Some of us are more sensitive. And some people are a bit rougher around the edges. On top of that, our life circumstances can enhance our natural breed or sometimes alter it.
If you find yourself treating your partner with less respect and kindness than you’d like, you can do an upgrade. You can commit to increasing the respect and consideration that you probably once treated your partner with. We all deserve to be in relationships that are safe, loving, intimate, and friendly. We can all learn to work through conflicts with respect, openness, and maturity.
On a side but essential note: If your relationship is unsafe (physically or emotionally), it might be time to get out or get professional help. But, if you feel like you are with the person you love (and hopefully like) and you’d like to make some improvements in the way you treat your partner, here are some tips for you. Hopefully your partner will do their part to be a respectful communicator also, but since we can only work on our side of the street, let’s take a look together.
Nourish Your Relationship
Just like plants need food and water, our relationships do too. It’s easy in our fast-paced, plugged-in culture to take our significant others for granted and let the relationship dry up. It’s important to make regular efforts to initiate dates and plan enjoyable things to do together. It could be an activity you used to enjoy together, or it could be something new and out of the usual routine. I encourage couples to each write a list of things they might like to do together. Then they trade lists and each partner marks off the things on the other person’s list that sound good to them. Then they have a new list of enjoyable activities they both agree on.
Be Present When You’re Present
Connecting is more than simply being in the same house, room, or restaurant, though that’s a good start. True connection is about being truly present, making eye contact, and showing genuine interest in your partner. Practice putting down your phone, tablet, book, or remote control on a regular basis and really take the time to connect with your partner. Sincerely ask about their thoughts, feelings, and experiences and then really listen and respond from your heart.
Balance Friendship and Intimacy
A loving relationship is about being good friends and being intimate. Many relationships begin with a spark of chemistry that can fade over time without the foundation of a true friendship. Others have a solid friendship, but they lack a romantic spark. It’s important to make regular efforts to foster a friendship with kindness and play, as well as fan the flames of intimacy.
Increase Tolerance and Acceptance
Many people gather a pile of resentments about the little things their partner does that bother them. This pile then blocks off our healthy heart connection. Working on tolerance, perspective, and acceptance makes for a wonderful practice. Try to distinguish between behaviors your partner does that you’d like to work on accepting vs. reasonable changes you’d like to request. You might be able to accept the cap being left off the toothpaste, or it might be important enough to respectfully request that your partner try to remember to put it back on. And when your partner makes requests of you, practice honoring those as best you can.
Give What You’d Like to Get
Most people want to be heard, understood, seen, and validated. 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’d like to get. For example, if you want to be heard, try being a really good listener and see what happens. Of course, the need-meeting needs to go both ways, but we can only start on our side of the relationship street.
Assume We’re All Doing Our Best
It can be tempting to look at what our partners are doing and think that we would do it differently, or that they should do it differently. But is that true? If you had the exact same personality characteristics, upbringing, and life circumstances as your partner, you’d likely be doing things exactly as they are. Is it always easy or what you’d like? Probably not. I’m sure we’re not always fulfilling our partners’ wildest dreams either. Assuming that our partners are doing the best they can with the tools they’ve been given can soften the hardness of expectations and resentments and pave the way for more acceptance and appreciation.
Take a Break When Emotions Are High
In general, the higher our stress level is, the harder it is to think clearly and respond maturely. If a topic becomes heated or charged between you and your partner, try 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. Some find it helps to journal, listen to a mindfulness meditation, or talk to an unbiased person who’s skilled at listening and remaining neutral. Do whatever you need to do to avoid saying something hurtful and to get grounded. Then you can return in a clear, mature state and resume the conversation.
If you do say something disrespectful, you can clean it up as soon as possible, the same way you’d clean up an accidental spill. The next best thing to being consistently respectful is sincerely apologizing when we slip up.
Flash Forward to the Future
Change can be hard. Even if some of our behaviors aren’t even fun or fulfilling, they’re familiar and we humans tend to be creatures of habit. If you’ve been treating your partner in ways you aren’t proud of (and wouldn’t want to see portrayed on YouTube), you might find it helpful to flash forward. Imagine yourself in the future having made no significant changes in your relationship. Does this bring up sadness or regret? Some people flash forward and imagine feeling deep regret about not spending more quality time with their partner, listening more, slowing down more, criticizing less, appreciating more, or being more kind.
A friend of mine works with people at the end of their lives. I once asked her if she noticed any themes among the dying. She said, “Many people wish they’d been kinder and more loving to their loved ones and spent more quality time.” She said she most often hears about love, loving the people you love—and letting them know it.