A few days ago, I read an article about second marriages. Jeremy and I have discussed it extensively, and although we have more to learn about one another, we aim to build a life together. Since I’m divorced, I often wonder what it will be like to be remarried. One of the major talking points in the article was this question:
Why did your last relationship (or marriage) end?
When I started thinking about it, I reflected on how far I have come since my divorce. There are several posts on my blog about abusive relationships and the aftermath of the separation and subsequent divorce. It was a very dramatic and upsetting ordeal, but I no longer recognize the woman I was a few years ago. I still have the memories, but they feel like the details of a story I heard a long time ago – someone else’s narrative.
If you had asked me a few years ago why my marriage ended, I would have given you the skinny on the terrible human being my husband was. I would have lamented all the mistakes he made, the terrible ways in which he treated me, and I doubt I would have focused much on the role I played in my divorce. What happened was so traumatic and distressing… certainly my transgressions didn’t even compare, right?
Now, some years later, I can assess the situation dispassionately and with fairness. I can easily see the fundamental problem with our entire relationship – all four years of it.
Our relationship lacked RESPECT.
Respect is one of those abstract concepts I can’t really define. If you asked me to define it, I would create a bunch of scenarios and describe respectful behavior, or perhaps I would try to look it up in the dictionary, as I did just now:
Even here, it’s like Google is grasping at straws. Yes, I understand you can respect someone FOR something. But what does it mean to pay someone respect? How do you show someone you respect them in a relationship? This is what I aim to figure out, probably over the course of my lifetime.
Hindsight being what it is, I can tell you exactly how I did not respect my partner over the course of four years, and how he did not respect me. On my end, I did not see him as my intellectual equal. I patronized him and I was condescending. I didn’t do these things on purpose – I don’t think I did, anyway – it was the result of being in a relationship with someone who lacked the things I needed to be happy.
If I could go back and do it all over again, I would gracefully exit the relationship after a few short months, rather than four years later in a courtroom, asking a judge to grant a divorce. At the time, I was terrified of being alone, of failure, and determined I could make our relationship healthy through sheer force of will. This might be possible for two people who already have a strong foundation and deep respect for one another, but for two complete strangers, I wouldn’t recommend it.
Things didn’t get much better as we argued about EVERYTHING. Every time a conflict arose, it was a bloody battle (hyperbolic here, no actual body fluids were shed in the course of argument). We were constantly fighting for “power” in the relationship. It mattered who was right and who was wrong, and neither wanted to concede. I don’t think either of us had figured out that it’s okay to back away from an argument with a white flag. It doesn’t make you weak, it makes you smart.
I felt a lack of respect in how he treated me as well. I’ve tried to figure this out, tried to understand where it was coming from. I can’t speak for him, of course, I can only guess. Maybe I wasn’t what he wanted either, and he was trying to mold me into his idea of a perfect mate. Maybe he was reacting to my disrespectful behavior. I suppose I’ll never know. What I do know is that there were many times when I felt myself dissatisfied and rather than walk away, I expected him to drink the Kyrston Kool-Aid and behave in ways I found acceptable. That’s not a solution – it’s arrogance. I’m sure at the time I deluded myself into thinking that I really was the “right” one. My suggestions were not outlandish – don’t drink and drive, please don’t call me names, stop trying to punch things when you’re upset – but it was not my place to outline his behavior and make corrections. The proof? I hated it when he did the same thing to me – answer your phone when I call you, don’t wear that skanky outfit, stop spending so much money. Can I really argue with his points? I could, but then we are missing the point.
In my current relationship, there is so much respect between us it’s almost ridiculous. I have a deep admiration for this human being, and am impressed by everything he is. Even more awesome – I can feel that he also admires me, and is impressed by me. Sure, we say nice things to each other, but we also show each other the respect we feel through our actions. We are polite toward one another, well-mannered, patient, kind, understanding, gentle, and we always give one another the benefit of the doubt. We don’t race to conclusions, don’t speak for one another, and I think we both have a self-awareness about the way we affect one another. We are incredibly present in the relationship. Respect drives our behavior, not passion or a sense of desperation.
I’ve only recently begun integrating these behaviors into relationships with other people, as well. I think, as a culture, we tend to be disrespectful of one another. “Live and let live” comes to mind – but what’s the fun in that? It’s far more entertaining to judge others, offer unsolicited advice, and behave selfishly. When someone is upset, we aren’t quick to accept responsibility for our own behavior.
By being self-aware about the respect I give others, I’ve seen a change in those relationship. There is a richness, a fullness. Our bond extends beyond common pastimes or where we work. There is trust there, and a growing sense that vulnerability is okay.
And yet, I still find myself constantly correcting my behavior, or receiving feedback from people around me. My best friend sometimes comments that I talk down to her and it makes her feel small. Rather than dismiss her comments (read: disrespectful) I try to understand where my behavior MIGHT be coming from (am I threatened by her, do I honestly find her to be a small person, am I frustrated with her choices, etc). More often than not, I think she wants to know that I HEAR her, that her feelings matter to me, and that I want to make an effort to show her more respect in our friendship. I certainly don’t intend to make her feel disrespected.
Being cognizant about showing respect is exhausting, at least for me, and it’s presented its own host of issues. I find respect is easiest to give and receive when two parties are being open and communicative about their needs. This is scary and does not come easily to some people. If you don’t tell me what you need, I can’t give it to you. I’m hitting a wall. At that point, I move forward best I can, erring on the side of caution.
Another issue I have noticed is that I don’t have the freedom to behave how I want to behave all the time anymore, because having an awareness about how my behavior affects others changes the game. It’s exciting to say whatever I want all the time, and it’s freeing to give literally zero fucks about what others think of me. But there is a delicate balance here. When is the time to bare it all, and when is the time to purposefully use a little more tact? It’s a case by case basis, not by person, but by moment.
Why do all this work? Well, quite plainly, I believe that all human beings exist to serve other human beings. We rely on each other – socially, emotionally, financially, the list goes on – and our relationships with one another require constant maintenance and care. It’s not easy and not fun sometimes to think of others just as much as I think of myself, but there is reward in enhancing those relationships and helping others to feel as respected as I like to feel.