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What Does Mutual Respect Look Like in Marriage?

Deep respect lies in the subtle details.

When your “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Or “HQ Trivia” moment happens and the cash-money question is: what is the cornerstone of a marriage? Chances are, the final answer you’d lock in would be love. Cue: awwws from the audience and buzzers from the judges. You’re not entirely wrong, but you’re not exactly right either. The right answer would be “respect.” Without respect, love erodes.

In most marriages and long-term relationships, respect is more crucial than love. When one partner loses respect for the other, the relationship crumbles. But when pressed, most couples would probably affirm that, yes, they have the “respect” box checked when it comes to how they view their partner. But how do they show that respect? What does it actually look like in a marriage? Are they doing it the right way?

“In a relationship, mutual respect looks like speaking to one another in a respectful and considerate fashion, keeping your partner in mind when you’re making decisions, and responding to your partners needs and wants,” says Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and founder and owner of Take Root Therapy in Los Angeles. “That doesn’t mean necessarily sacrificing yourself in order to make or keep your partner happy, but it means communicating with love, even when it’s difficult.”

Simple, right? But it’s easy to think you’re being respectful when you’re not. Respect can be lost when one partner chooses to define the word on his or her own terms.

“A lot of times, couples try to establish respect by working within their own definition and trying to make things fair by being equal,” says Aricia E. Shaffer, MSE, a therapist and coach specializing in parenting. “They believe, for example, that it’s respectful for both partners to be able to go out one night each week. The problem is that it’s not about keeping everything equal, it’s about being equitable. One partner may want to go out with friends once a week while another partner may prefer a weekend with friends. Or maybe they’re an introvert and would just like a massage.”

That breakdown of communication, a lack of understanding of the other’s needs, is the beginning of the eroding of respect.

“Respect requires a conversation,” says Shaffer. “We don’t know what feels respectful or disrespectful to our partners unless we ask. There are some obvious things, of course, but deep respect lies in the subtle details and it’s different for everyone.”

For example, Shaffer says leaving the garage door open all night may drive one person insane and not bother another. “But it’s not about the garage door — it’s about listening to our partner and remembering what’s important to them — and then taking that into account when we make decisions.”

According to Lurie, mutual respect can take root when both partners come to the realization that each is in the relationship by choice. “Being in a relationship isn’t easy and every relationship will have its difficult — or sometimes seemingly impossible — periods,” she says. “Even in those moments, remind yourself that you are choosing to stay, and if that’s the case, choose to speak to your partner with the same respect you would grant a friend or even a stranger. If you wouldn’t give yourself permission to yell or swear at a stranger, then the hope is that you would also maintain that same standard for your partner.”

Tina B. Tessina, a licensed psychotherapist in Southern California and the author of such books as How to be Happy Partners: Working it out Together and Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences, says that mutual respect is contingent on four conditions, mutual love, mutual trust, mutual benefit, and mutual support.

“When the above four conditions exist, the mutuality necessary for true love exists,” she says. “Recognizing this is especially important if you have past relationship experience in which your needs have not been met, you felt unloved, or you were abandoned. Evaluating your mutuality is also a good way to discover whether you are ready to commit to a relationship, or need more time to build. If you’re paying attention to whether you and your partner both feel love, trust, benefit, and support, your intuition will probably be a pretty good indicator of whether mutuality truly exists.”

When it comes to building respect equity in their relationship, couples need to focus on being responsible for how their actions affect the other. “Some of it is common sense and usually centers around being personally responsible,” says Shaffer. “Don’t put the empty milk carton back in the fridge, clean up after yourself, let your spouse know if you’re running late. In other words, basic human consideration. But it also means taking responsibility for your own triggers or needs and having a talk with your partner as needed.” Without constant communication, true respect will never be achieved.