Respect in marriage is one of the most important determinators of marital health and resilience. The notion of respect cuts across both scientific and spiritual conceptions of marital intimacy. Marital satisfaction and a sense of “we-ness” are contingent upon the respect that spouses show toward one another.
Dr. John Gottman has researched respect for almost forty years. The Gottman Method of Couples Therapy describes a couples’ “friendship system, with particular emphasis on turning towards, fondness, and admiration. Gottman therapists have always viewed respect as the bedrock of a healthy marriage.
Because respect is so critically important, I will discuss the essential research on how respect operates in marriage, the critical factors required to maintain and revive respect in couples therapy, and the hard science concerning the benefits of enjoying respect, as well as the pitfalls of its absence.
Clinical research has identified two epicenters for respect in marriage; there is Appraisal Respect and Recognition Respect.
Recognition Respect concerns the notion that we humans recognize the inalienable right of human beings to have free-will and agency in their lives. This is a legalistic as well as the moral concept of free will and the right to independent decision making. Freedom of thought, word, and action are the essential components of Recognition Respect.
This is a kind of respect that is fundamentally lacking in emotionally abusive relationships, where the freedom and independence of one partner are typically subordinated to the whims of the other.
Appraisal Respect completes the vector of where the notion of respect is going in any given relationship. Appraisal respect is contingent on the ability to exert and receive influence. It describes the “give and take” of marriage. Appraisal respect is an indication of the quality of attachment in the marital bond. The more securely attached the couple is to one another, the higher the degree of Appraisal Respect.
Behavior is the fulcrum of Appraisal Respect. Behaviors which pivot the relationship toward deeper degrees of Appraisal Respect operate along a moral dimension; trustworthiness, willingness to listen and accept influence, loving consideration and thoughtfulness, and patience and acceptance are all qualities which enhance Appraisal Respect.
It’s useful to think of Recognition Respect as essential, and Appraisal Respect as contingent upon the manifestation of the aforementioned marital virtues. The quality of attachment is driven by the positive or negative impact of marital behaviors. This is how we get to the notion in Gottman Couples Therapy of a Positive or Negative Sentiment Override.
Respect can move in bi-directionally. The more respect is bestowed, the more respect is received. Dis-respect can operate similarly. Respect dynamics can set up vicious or virtuous circles.
There are four key factors in generating and preserving respect in marriage. They are mutuality, reciprocity, and accommodation, and acceptance.
Mutuality can be defined as the “running rules” of the relationship. Mutuality acts as a thermostat on the balance of power. It’s how the spouses share a joint agreement of what is allowable within the relationship. Mutuality takes for granted the notion of Recognition Respect, and the free-agency of a mutually entered into understanding.
Reciprocity is the actionable “virtuous circle” of “give and take.” Reciprocity seeks balance and fairness. Reciprocity, like Mutuality, increases respect by attending to the balance of power and influence.
Accommodation is the mitigating factor which attends to the fact that the couple is a voluntary union of individuals with sometimes differing wants and needs. Accommodation is the willingness to respectfully protect personal boundaries.
Research tells us that when couples are scrupulously attentive to, and accommodating of personal boundaries, respect is the outcome.
Acceptance is best understood by the trenchant observation that 69% of all marital issues are fundamentally unsolvable. They relate to differences in family-of-origin, culture, ethnicity, religion, values, and beliefs.
Couples achieve respect by the skillful exploration of these differences, accepting their inherent differences, and pursuing deep mutual respect, (if not integration) for what is vitally important to each of them.
As intake coordinator at Couples Therapy Inc., I often hear spouses tell me that they have a serious “communication problem.” Good communication is the respect superhighway.
Research tells us that poor communication is a dominant factor in a lack of marital satisfaction and eventual marital collapse. The better you communicate, the quicker you restore and maintain marital respect.
I’ve written a great deal on good marital communication in this blog. Generative conversations, validation, softened start-up, complaining instead of criticizing, and non-defensive responding are a few of the essential elements of good communication.
Remember Gottman’s core communication caveat; the way a conversation begins is the way it ends, 94% of the time.
When couples lack Mutuality, Reciprocity, Accommodation, and Acceptance, there is an apparent power imbalance, which creates an abiding respect deficit.
But when couples can establish and maintain respect, they enjoy high degrees of trust, security, and a sense of unity. They are less anxious, more able to express their own wants and needs, and they are more able to resolve differences in a mutually acceptable fashion.
When couples are gridlocked, they can get stuck in Negative Sentiment Override. Gottman tells us that we need a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions to reverse direction. Negativity can become an engrossing and persistent state. Gottman calls this negativity the “roach motel for lovers.”
It’s important to note that one spouse can make a difference. They will need to be a patient leader who can tolerate rejection. The key idea is to work on reducing your own contribution to the erosion of respect and stop criticizing your partner.
Sure your partner is disrespectful and aggravating…but you’re probably no saint either. Someone has to break the emotional gridlock and rebuild positivity. Why can’t it be you?
Happy marriages are respectful marriages. A famous longitudinal research study from Harvard University tracked the health of students starting in 1938 followed them for almost 80 years. The essential finding is that a happy marriage improves your health, longevity, and satisfaction in life.
New studies confirm this. A study by Robert Waldinger at Mass. General Hospital reached the same conclusion. The most important variable to a long and healthy life is how satisfied you are in your marriage and other vital relationships. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships.
The spouses who were the most satisfied in their marriages at age 50 were also the healthiest study subjects at age 80. Respect in marriage is the bedrock of marital satisfaction and happiness.
“Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.” Robert Waldinger.
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Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.