Using the word “disrespect” in close relationships

The words “respect” and “disrespect” have a rather strict connotation for me. To respect someone, in my mind, goes beyond the dictionary’s “holding someone in high esteem or honor”. It also implies a set of behaviors born out of obligation. Think of a child’s first interactions with the word. “Respect your parents. Respect your elders. Stop whistling loudly and playing with your nose; it’s disrespectful”. To act rudely is to act disrespectfully. And to stray into behaviors most comfortable to you is often so as well. “Well, I respect so and so, so I won’t talk about politics around him, or ask her about her dinged up car.” Yet those are the kind of things we can do when we’re around someone we trust, someone we are close with. We may do so gently and slowly at first, but when we get close to someone, we engage in behaviors we wouldn’t otherwise.

And while the phrase “Respect is earned” is so often tossed around, this isn’t usually the case when trying to forge a close relationship. Who starts out a relationship treating a possible mate like garbage, until the day it is decided that the chosen “SO material” is worthy of better treatment? That only happens in cases where there is an initial belief that a given person isn’t worthy of respect. And, let’s be real- that’s usually a person most of us don’t want to date, or even spend time with. Respect is commanded, when, say, a woman won’t put up with unwanted comments about her appearance, or a man won’t tolerate incessant teasing. In those instances, neither is asking for the chance to earn better treatment. The message is, “Give me respect, or I walk.”

But using that word once intimacy is established trips me up. If, say, my husband decided to have a laugh at my expense in front of others, and I were to talk with him about it afterwards, I wouldn’t tell him he “disrespected” me, even if it is the case. I’d tell him I didn’t like it, that it bothered me, but to use “disrespect” on him changes the state of the offense. It implies a distance, a lack of trust and acceptance that our relationship isn’t based on. Frankly, for me to say, “I respect (someone)” is to say I don’t have a close relationship with them.

Yet I know of and have observed several instances where girlfriends/boyfriends and husbands/wives use it to talk about the transgressions of their significant other. “It’s so disrespectful when he goes out every week without telling me.” “She is so disrespectful of my space and my interests.” From where I’m standing, it doesn’t imply equal footing. To use the same term on a loved one as you would with someone who is, on some level, “better” than you (your boss, elders, someone powerful, etc), someone who forces your best behavior out of you- it’s confusing. It’s not the idea of respect that bothers me. It’s the use of the term, a term so often used to imply the relationship between a superior and a subordinate. Respect is consideration without love.


I’d love feedback on this one! Leave your thoughts in the comments!