In a recent festive gathering of gay men, some complained about their partners' foibles. He doesn't recycle. He doesn't read. He's lazy. He eats junk. He watches TV. He is a really bad driver (He texts, he tailgates and he doesn't use the signal.) He didn't vote in the last election. One by one, the criticized defended themselves. Recycled stuff goes to the same place as all other trash. Robust health despite junk food and no exercise. Perfect driving record. All politicians are crooks.
You can imagine the high-spirited laughter.
Walking home, I began to think about respect and how it is inextricably joined to love. Can you love someone you do not admire?
To reach an answer to that question, we need to use two different back doors. One is called "Opposites attract". The other is called "For Better or Worse."
Stella and Stanley of Streetcar Named Desire are good examples of how the yin and yang of heterosexuality are traditionally expressed poetically. Their differences fit together like jig sawn pieces. All couples, gay or straight, may interlock similarly or may fuse as identical salt and pepper shakers. Ultimately neither combination guarantees or signifies respect. I can be just like or the opposite of my partner in many ways, but if I do not admire his higher essential traits, I doubt I could love him. Am I fearful where he is courageous? Assertive where he is timid? Social where he is retiring? All of those stretches are acceptable. But if he is unapologetically cruel or snobbish or bitter or uncaring or insensitive or vengeful or rude, I think love would wither or become exhausted trying to overlook these traits.
That premise made me try to define which "different" qualities are acceptable and which are not. The unacceptable qualities all seemed to revolve around the way someone treats other human beings or himself. If he were a racist, that unacceptable quality would be a stumbling block to love. If he were merely a Republican, I might have a tough time empathizing with his proposals for a better America but I think I could conceivably still love him.
The second back door to respect is the "Better or Worse" one. This door allows you to love someone who has ninety-nine wonderful qualities and one atrocious quality that hinders respect. Maybe he is a short-tempered bully. He does not direct his wrath at you, but he is not good with strangers. You don't know what is at the root of the bad behavior and you hope that with time it will change. Meanwhile, you love him. Maybe he is in a dishonest business that defrauds a customer base. With you he is generous and careful but his nameless faceless customers get other treatment. Maybe he is a masseur who sells a "happy ending", while with you he is exclusively affectionate. Maybe he works for a big oil company. Maybe he is in a sector of government that you despise. Could you find your way to respect for him?
The questions of substance abuse are easier to understand within the context of respect. You can love someone whose is the victim of addiction while setting boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, hoping that the "worse" of your union will someday become the "better". One hundred extra pounds on the man you love can be a clarifier in the realm of love and respect. (This is a separate and larger issue for another time.)
I think we undervalue the huge amount of growth and development that could be ours when we sense that our partners do not respect us in some area. Personally, I know I am a better person because of some of the bad qualities I might never have shed if my husband had not made clear his displeasure with them. I had a tendency toward cynicism that has been successfully blunted by his urging me to be more trusting. He had an opposite tendency to Pollyannaism that has been tempered by my complaints. We now test out our impressions on each other as a way of tempering our own negative inclinations. Over the years, we could have done what many do: cast off the imperfect partner and spend subsequent years prattling on about his negative qualities and how they justified cutting him loose. I think we chose the better road, and I fully expect that the next twenty-six years will help smooth out some other rough edges on both of us. Meanwhile, since we both hate the way the other one drives, we'll be spending more time on skates, bikes and in the subway!