Respect in intimate relationships

Key points

  • We should respect each other in all personal relationships.
  • We need to work even harder to respect our partners in intimate relationships.
  • Our respect can be threatened by familiarity, desire, possessiveness and dependence.
  • Disrespect in an intimate relationship can look like carelessness, assumptions or controlling behaviour (or even violence).
  • We can build respect by applying the Field Model, respecting our partner’s body, using respectful communication and encouraging our partner to maintain their own inner and outer worlds.

 

What respect looks like in intimate relationships

 

It’s one thing to talk about respectful relationships generally, but what does respect look like in an intimate relationship?

You’d think that because both people must like, love, desire each other then there must be even more respect than in any other relationship, but sometimes it can be the opposite.

Sometimes it’s exactly that intimacy, love and desire that creates conditions under which people treat each other more disrespectfully or abusively than in other relationships.

So what’s going on? How do intimate relationships put us at risk? And what can we do—apart from simply following the Field Model—to make our intimate relationships respectful?

 

Why do intimate relationships put respect at risk?

 

Sure, everyone’s relationships are different, and yes they all change over time, but intimate relationships have a few defining features which can increase the risk of disrespectful behaviour.

  • Familiarity: We usually spend a lot of time with our partners, but this can lead us to take them for granted, stop paying attention to their interests and needs, and not notice when they change.
  • Desire: Intimate relationships are often fuelled by sexual desire, which can at times be so overwhelmingly strong that it can really distort our thinking.
  • Possessiveness: Partners can become sexually possessive of each other, and will get concerned or upset if they feel like their partner is not fully committed to the relationship.
  • Dependence: The lives of couples can become deeply entangled over time. This can mean that you each feel like decisions the other one makes affect you, and therefore you are entitled to a say in what the other person is doing.

 

How does disrespect look in an intimate relationship?

A couple in a car parked in a driveway. A man behind the driver's wheel yells at a woman who is in the passenger seat.

 

An abusive intimate relationship can contain many forms of disrespectful behaviour, ranging from verbal and emotional abuse to sexual abuse and physical violence.

But these acts don’t occur in isolation or develop from a vacuum. They are born from more subtle and common forms of disrespect that can be more difficult to identify. Here are some examples that could apply in many relationships:

  • Carelessness: Familiarity can mean you stop treating each other with basic courtesies and attention. It’s not active rudeness, so much as just failing to appreciate, notice, value and respect the other person in the way they want. If someone feels taken for granted— “I’m always the one making the dinner and washing the dishes!”— then they can become resentful and angry.
  • Assumptions: Familiarity can also mean we start to make assumptions about what the other person needs, wants or values, and we don’t bother to check in—“Why didn’t you tell me you were going out?” “I assumed you didn’t care.” As with carelessness, assumptions can lead a partner to feel disrespected.
  • Controlling behaviours: The dependence and possessiveness that you might experience can evolve into controlling behaviour, which is much more harmful. This is where one partner starts to tell the other partner where they are allowed to go, who they are allowed to see, what they can do.
  • Entitlement: Sexual desire, possessiveness, familiarity, and the very idea of being in a relationship, can create a sense of entitlement. This means that one person just assumes they can have what they want in a relationship, with no regard for their partner’s thoughts or feelings. They might feel entitled to attention, affection, information—and by doing so violate their partner’s rights.

 

How do we maintain respect in an intimate relationship?

 

We all want our relationships to be lasting, rewarding and respectful – but we shouldn’t expect that this is guaranteed or that we don’t need to work at it.

If we actively practice some positive behaviours, we can help keep our intimate relationships respectful from beginning to end. So what are some actions we can take?

  • Applying the Field Model: It’s obvious, but worth repeating. If you approach your relationship in Field Model terms—Stop Ask Listen, Yes No I Don’t Know, Moving the Line—you will behave more respectfully. You’ll be reminded that your partner is another person, that you don’t know everything about them, and that you need to negotiate shared decisions.
  • Respecting their body: Your partner is in charge of their body. They get to decide what they’re comfortable doing and their boundaries must be respected. Kissing, touching, any sexual activity—it’s all a shared decision. If your partner isn’t giving you an enthusiastic yes, then it’s a no. And that means you must respect their choice, back away and give them space.
  • Respectful communication: Remember that respect means at the very least considering another person, and in the case of an intimate relationship you should definitely be trying to empathise.
  • Do:
    • Talk about what each of you are thinking and feeling.
    • Listen. Always listen.
    • Give each other space and time to describe what’s going on.
    • Show each other that you understand and that you care.
    • Take responsibility if you’ve done something wrong.
    • Maintain your own boundaries.
  • Don’t:
    • Dismiss anyone’s feelings.
    • Attack anyone.
    • Treat anyone with contempt.
    • Get defensive and refuse to listen or talk.
    • Tell your partner what they should do.
    • Tell your partner your feelings or needs are more important.
  • Validating and encouraging your partner: The antidote to taking each other for granted is making an effort to appreciate, validate and encourage each other. Pay attention to all the things that you love about your partner and let them know that you see these things and value them - “You are so funny, you’re my favourite person.” But also validate the things that your partner cares about - even if they don’t relate to you personally – “You’re doing great in this course. I’m proud of you. You’re going to be a great mechanic.
  • Encouraging your partner to cultivate and maintain their own inner and outer world: In a serious relationship it’s easy to get so blended that you start to lose sight of your individual identities. You need to encourage each other to maintain healthy individual worlds. This includes having parts of your inner world—thoughts, feelings, interests—that you can keep private, that you don’t have to share if you don’t want to, that can be just for you. And in the outer world, it means having friendships and interests that you are free to pursue independently, with or without your partner’s involvement.