Father Tony

Love Without Respect?

Filed By Father Tony | February 18, 2010 10:30 AM | comments

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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!


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First, we need to zero in on exactly what the word "love" means. I presume, Father Tony, that you mean "love" to be the romantic love experience, and not something more general such as "humane good will" or "brotherly (or sisterly) love". This difference is crucial because, while both have certain requirements regarding respect, romantic love requires that more respect be present than neighborly love does.

Psychologist Nathaniel Brandon wrote a book along with his wife Devers called The Psychology of Romantic Love, published in 1980, and in it they assert that romantic love requires three essential elements: (1) physical attraction, (2) admiration, and (3) a sense of "kindred soul" which is harder to define, but essentially the two people need to have a similar attitude toward life and the way that we move through it.

I don't want to set up the Brandons as gurus, but I do agree with them about these three elements. And as you pointed out, Father Tony, the two attitudes of admiration and respect are very close to each other, and I would say that, generally speaking, respect is a pre-requisite for admiration.

So my answer would be, no, you cannot love someone if you do not respect them at some basic level, at least. And in regard to any specific issue, I'd suggest we be careful about the difference between disagreeing with someone, and disrespecting them, because any form of disrepect is corrosive to the relationship.

For one thing, you can be loyal to someone in the face of disagreement, but you cannot be loyal to someone if you disrespect their position or attitude. Disrespecting that attitude means that you feel that the other person doesn't have a right to that attitude, and that means you can't be "on their side" without betraying yourself.

Dear A.J.
Exactly. The "loyalty" thing is where some people have trouble.

I don't understand why differences between a couple - and any public airings of those differences - are automatically seen as some sort of "disrespect."

My mother and father were married for over 50 years at the time of her death last year. I can't recall a gathering, either hosted by our family or simply attended by our family, in which there weren't public airings of the differences between the married couples in attendance by the couples themselves.

I remember once asking about it to my Mom. Her answer, to paraphrase, was: "Sometimes your friends don't know if it's okay to talk about something until you do, and when you do, then it all just becomes a joke."

It wasn't until later I realized what she meant was the airing of "differences" when there were other people around, and allowing their viewpoints on the matter, was, essentially, a form of therapy; it served as a release, before the differences began to fester and turned themselves into a wound.

Bill and I have been together 15 years; we've not become clones of each other, we don't have a completely shared viewpoint, across the board. We are two individuals, and allowing our individuality to continue to exist - rather than forcing a shared commonality between us - is, I'm sure, a basic tenet of the strength of the love we share. We have one basic, inviolate, rule: Neither one of us, singly, does anything that puts us at risk as a couple.

I'd rather hear Bill say to someone else: "Damn, I just can't get Eric to stop using more than just salt and pepper when he cooks - he knows I like things simple," than to have him sit, quietly, night after night eating dinner and then, say, one night several years from now, start bringing home Chic-Fil-A for one, night after night.

Dear Eric,
I don't think these guys equate differences with disrespect. I think they use humor to diffuse the normal and acceptable differences that sometimes grate.

I think that perhaps you are lumping all forms of romantic love together under a single label.

Love, by definition is irrational and as such there can be healthy love that allows everyone involved to grow independently and yet grow together at the same time.

And there is, well, not-so-healthy love. There is that love that most people only need to try once or twice before growing past it. The extreme love that some people find an addiction, the one that takes them to soaring highs and crashing lows.
The kind that you miss with nostalgia years later but would not want to have live through again.

And only about 500 flavors in-between.

Love is hormones, pheromones, brain structure and genetics. Love is also role models, social ambition, past experience and availability. And Love is superstition, emotional needs and balances and the search for happiness.

All of this muddies the picture of whether two people respect each other as their definitions of respect can be as varied as their reasons for love. The key is in the mix and match. The ultimate criteria of whether they respect each other is whether both can grow. But sometimes that means growing apart -and respect for each other and their relationship abides by that and lovers part ways. The love will always be there but it was blocked by respect.

If you are lucky, perhaps once or twice in a lifetime, Love starts with a smile from a hottie and by chance and lots of work grows over the years into the perfect melding of souls where respect for the other is respect for yourself.

Dear Sarasnavel,
I think your last statement hits the bull's eye.


Scott Peck ("The Road Less Traveled" author) said that : "Love is not a feeling. Love is an action...an activity.Genuine love implies commitment and the exercise of wisdom. Love is the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth.."

People say that all the world is divided into " givers and takers." Relationships seem to succeed when two givers are coupled; to be frustrating when a giver and a taker are involved; and can go either way when there are two takers.

Dear Drake,
I don't know anyone who would argue with that! And don't we all have opinions about who the giver is in each of our friends' relationships!

I don't think a healthy love is possible without respect. If you laugh when you think of the other person, it's over.

But some people do get stuck on someone they don't respect, and usually it says more about them than it does about the other person.

Yes, Alex, and if they manage to grow up and realize what they've done, they end the relationship and sometimes blame the other party who really was just being his own natural schmuck! Humans are weird.

I agree. You can't love if you don't respect them.

Thinking your way is superior places indirect judgements on your SO, not so kind judgements. It's petty and arrogant to assume what works for you should be sufficient and good for someone else.

I agree with the airing of things in a joking manner. Passive-aggressive swipes to try to publicly pressure your partner by trying to shame them is shitty, work out your stuff privately unless you have already agreed that it is OK to publicly discuss points of contention in your relationships.

For example, I wouldn't call my SO lazy, or that his driving sucked. I would say I didn't like his driving, or that I don't share my SO's ideals of initiative (or lack thereof). The former tries to make an assertion that is essentially an attack on your partner without opening feedback, while the other simply states your FEELINGS, which are not disputable and acknowledge the subjectivity.

You'll have to forgive me, but airing and publicly trash-talking my SO seems very petty to me. Don't go around bitching to others about what annoys you with your SO; talk to your SO and fix it.

Dear Lucrece,
I think these guys were using the kind of TV sitcom or maybe Woody Allen style of humor that we were all brought up on. It's a style thing. I am not saying that it is always good or bad. I guess it is how it's done and if it comes from a place of love.

All relationships are going to have occasional bumps, and there never is going to be a Mr. 100 Percent Right. Forget the fantasies that Hollywood feeds us. Life is a compromise. But you have to distinguish between tolerating more or less minor foibles in a partner and tolerating behavior that is destructive to yourself. Some may get a certain psychological kick out of playing martyr to a partner's alcoholism, drug addiction, tendency toward violence, etc. Most of us wouldn't stand for it. Check how your partner treats kids and animals. If there is something basically wrong there, don't think you can somehow reform him or adapt to it. As Dan Savage might put it, lose the MF.

My Partner, John, and I have been together over fourteen years. We are each other's best friend who share each other interests. At this point, we tend to finish each other's sentences.

I can not imagine being with someone I do not respect or does not respect me.

I need to correct this: "Branden" is spelled with an "e" not an "o". My apologies.