When couples are fighting and alienating each other, the disconnect in the relationship often has to do with love and respect. I have seen this many times in my work with couples. I also recognize it as I reflect on my own life. But more of that later…
There are often subtle differences between a man and a woman in what they take away from an interaction. The keyword is “subtle” so be careful. It is too easy to slip into the trap of thinking that “all men are…” or “all women are…”
With that caveat, subtle differences between the emotional makeup of men and women can get us into a lot of trouble. Both men and women need love. Both men and women need respect. But in balance, the need for respect is stronger in men and the need for love is stronger in women.
How does this play out between a man and woman who love each other? In the early stages of the relationship, she knows by his behavior he respects her, but her thinking is focused on, “He really loves me.” It is obvious to him that she loves him, but he is thinking, “She really likes me,” that is to say, “She respects who I am as a person.”
Then life happens — work, babies, money problems, etc. One day they both come home from work tired. He leaves her to make dinner while he relaxes with a drink. She feels a little unloved and is mildly critical of his failure to help or at least offer to. He gets defensive. Then he stonewalls and refuses to discuss anything. He does what she tells him to do, but in silence.
The exchange has left her feeling unloved by someone she loves deeply. He always helps when he’s asked, but why doesn’t he initiate anything? She experiences his silent stonewalling as withdrawal of love.
The exchange has left him feeling unliked and disrespected, although he never doubts her love for him. He shut up to prevent the argument from escalating. He had felt respected all day for his competent performance at work, but now at home he experiences her criticism as disrespect and dislike for him as a man.
I have heard women say, “I knew it was over when he said ‘I don’t love you’.” I might dismiss this as being a bit melodramatic, except that one time 40-some years ago, my wife said to me, “I don’t respect you.” The emotional impact on me was profound. As I look back, I can see how that simple statement marked the beginning of the end for that marriage.
The “love versus respect” issue needs some respect…and love.