R.E.S.P.E.C.T. in Relationships — Why Is It So Hard?

by Kassandra Lamb

In honor of Valentine’s Day coming up this weekend, I figured a post on relationships would be appropriate.

1200px-Valentines_heart pub domain.svgI read an article recently–a blog post by a guy named Matt–and I think he has absolutely nailed the main problem in most modern relationships, even those in which the partners would say they are “happy.” He posted it less than a month ago, and it’s gone viral. Last time I checked it had over 3,000 comments.

But sadly only about half of those commenters actually got what he was really saying.

The title is: She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes By the Sink. And I highly recommend that you pop over there and read it after you finish this post.

The commenters who didn’t get it thought it really was about the dishes. How could his wife divorce him over something so trivial, some asked. Others came down on her side, calling him a slob who expected his wife to be his maid.

All this despite the fact that he points out that it wasn’t about the dishes. It was about the lack of respect he was showing her, when he refused to change a minor habit–that of leaving a glass by the sink instead of putting it in the dishwasher–and when he tuned her out every time she complained about this minor habit.

The one mistake I think Matt made in his analysis of all this was conceptualizing it as a gender difference issue. I don’t think it is, or at least not completely so.

Most of us, male or female, have a tendency to dismiss something as unimportant unless it’s important to us, or unless we can readily understand why it’s important to someone else. It’s perfectly natural to judge the importance of something through our own filters.

But when we commit to love another person, we have to make a conscious effort to understand what’s important to them. And if we can’t understand, that doesn’t change the reality that it IS important to them. We still need to respect that.

This could happen regarding a lot of things that are important to either partner. I’m sure the issue even comes up with gay and lesbian couples. One of them is neater than the other, and the other one doesn’t get why it’s not okay to throw candy wrappers into the backseat of the car.

Are you old enough to remember this Odd Couple? (Jack Klugman and Tony Randall in the Odd Couple on ABC, 1973)

Are you old enough to remember this Odd Couple? (Jack Klugman and Tony Randall in the Odd Couple on ABC, 1973)

For most of his life, my husband was a long-distance runner. When we were first married, I didn’t get why this activity was important to him. I asked him why, and he couldn’t really give me a good answer. “Because it feels so good when I stop,” was what he said. Huh?

He ran at lunchtime a couple of times a week, and that was fine. But on the weekends, he used several hours of our potential time together pounding the asphalt. And I spent those hours resenting his absence.

And then his father died of a massive heart attack. My husband quite smoking and increased his running to every day. And I stopped resenting it, because now it made sense to me why it was important.

Today I know that his father’s heart attack was only a catalyst for the increase in running. It wasn’t why it was important to him. Like all athletes, he enjoyed challenging his body, and he liked the endorphin high after a good run (the “feels good when I stop” feeling). I, on the other hand, do not get the athletic mindset at all; I exercise because I know I have to in order to stay reasonably fit and healthy.

Okay, so the key problem is not all that gender related. It’s the lack of understanding regarding certain things that are important to our partners, and tending to dismiss and/or resent those things. And this, in turn, causes our partners to not feel respected.

So why is it that all too often these resentments and misunderstandings are about the guy doing/not doing something that annoys his wife?

Here’s the part that is gender related, but it’s not some mysterious, natural difference in how we see or feel about things. It comes back to some socialized differences, how each gender has been taught to interact with the world and others.

public domain (Wikimedia Commons)

public domain (Wikimedia Commons)

These are generalizations, so of course there will be exceptions. But in general, women have been socialized to care about their homes and maintaining their nice appearance. Who’s the one who is apologizing for the mess (whether there really is one or not) when we drop in on a couple? Probably the woman, because she feels that how the house looks is a reflection on her.

Men care about their homes, but in different ways. Its size and value reflect on how good a breadwinner he is. And he wants to be comfortable in his home, to be able to relax there after a long day at work (and not have to always be neat and tidy, thank you very much).

Also, men, in general, have been socialized to tune women out when they are “nagging” about something that the man deems to be trivial (and most things related to keeping the house nice fall into that category). Their fathers were clueless about these issues, so how could they teach their sons–either by example or with more blatant, verbal lessons–how to cooperate with a woman’s attempts to keep the house looking respectable?

And even though we are supposedly liberated now, and equal partners, both sharing the housework… blah, blah, blah… many men still remain oblivious to this issue, because they are modeling those fathers, who modeled their fathers before them.

Most women don’t start out nagging, by the way. First, they ask. Then, they gently point out. Then, they point it out a little more strenuously. (The man will have no conscious memory of these earlier attempts to get him to comply because he tuned them out.)

Eventually women begin to nag, letting their irritation show more and more. And sometimes, like Matt’s wife, they start to slowly stop loving this man who can’t seem to hear that it’s a simple thing to put a glass in the dishwasher, rather than leaving it on the counter. She resents, maybe without even being consciously aware of the resentment, that he seems to care so little about what is important to her that he can’t bother to do this small thing.

So why does this not happen in the other direction? Why doesn’t the man start to resent when the woman doesn’t get what’s important to him? He very well might, and justifiably so. And certainly such resentments have led to the decline and even the dissolution of more than one marriage.

But here are some other gender factors that affect all this.

  • Most of the time, the things that are important to him, that she doesn’t get, are things that don’t directly involve her. They’re activities he likes to do, such as tinkering with his car or watching sports. Maybe she gives him some flak about the time these activities take away from things she deems more important. And he resents that. But he often does them anyway, and most likely not in her presence (either because he leaves the house to do them or she leaves the room). So the negativity around these things is most likely sporadic and short-lived. And he’s programmed to tune her out! (Now, if she doesn’t learn to shut up about these things, eventually they may have problems, but she probably will learn to shut up. See below) .
  • Most of the time, the things that are important to her, that he doesn’t get, involve their home, which is shared territory. He lives in that home too, and his actions affect that home, and her efforts to keep it nice, on a daily basis.
  • Women are socialized to pay closer attention to the quality of their relationships, especially with their spouses. It’s a residual of the old belief that the woman was supposed to make the man happy, to adjust to his mood and worry about whether she was pleasing him. So today, women–again through modeling their mothers and their grandmothers before them–tend to pay attention to the state of the relationship more and analyze it periodically to determine if it is still a happy one. Now, they are noting their own happiness as well as their husband’s, but they’re still more the “keepers” of the relationship. (I’m not pulling this out of my hat, folks; research has been done on the subject.) As a result, the woman is more likely to figure out why something is important to her man and stop giving him a hard time about it.

She may not have the right reason (as was the case regarding my husband’s running) but she has a reason that makes sense to her. So she lets it go, or maybe even supports these activities that she once resented (by buying him new running shorts when the old ones get ratty 😉 ).

The man, on the other hand, just tunes her out when she bugs him about taking his shoes off at the door or putting his dirty dishes in the dishwasher. The situation never changes and the resentment builds up. Each time it is less about the shoes or the glass by the sink and more about the fact that he doesn’t get why this is important to her.

Let me add one more thought. Even though these actions may seem like a “small thing,” It’s hard to change a habit, so cut your mate a break if s/he seems to be trying.

And if you’re the one trying to correct some little thing that annoys your mate, you will no doubt forget to do so in the early stages. Two precious words can defuse your mate’s bitching at you about it. “I’m sorry.” (Adding “I’ll keep trying to remember” wouldn’t hurt.) Say it in a pleasant voice, not an irritated one, and your spouse’s anger will most likely melt away. You might even get a kiss and a hug for your efforts.

Remember, it is NOT about the dang glass! It’s about whether or not s/he feels heard and respected!

(Please do go read Matt’s post now; it gives some details from the male perspective that I found surprising and enlightening! But don’t read the comments; most of them just confuse the issue.)

Are there things, even little things, that are important to you that your significant other just doesn’t get? Do you think there might be some things that are important to him/her that you’re not getting?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington mystery series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

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  • Reply
    Shannon Esposito
    February 9, 2016 at 8:25 am

    And there you have it straight from the psychologist for free, folks. 🙂 Oh boy, I think you’ve potentially opened up a huge can of worms with this, Kass. Can’t wait for the responses. This is a huge issue in our house because my hubby and I are so on the opposite sides of the spectrum. I’m a complete neat freak who starts to feel anxious if things are getting messy, and he could care less if he has to dig through a pile of clothes to find clean socks. Honestly, I wish I could care less, it would be so much less stressful. And it’s funny, with our twin boys…one is like me and is happier in a clean, organized environment and the other one thrives in chaos. Guess which one’s room gives me anxiety attacks? lol Great post!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      February 9, 2016 at 11:18 am

      Thanks, Shannon. When I read Matt’s post, a huge light bulb went off for me. I think this issue, of not getting what is important to the other, is THE can of worms in most people’s marriages.

      And I should probably do another post at some point on the solution that Tom and I came up with that solved part of the neatness discrepancy problem for us. (Which doesn’t mean I don’t nag him about other things.)

  • Reply
    Megan Rayles
    February 9, 2016 at 11:29 am

    “Matt” dropped the ball on that post. The gender issue has stood out to a ton of readers who actually think before they just swoon and share. That post is seriously overrated.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      February 9, 2016 at 11:53 am

      No, a lot of people got hung up on the gender issue and didn’t really get what he was saying.

      Male-female relating is hard enough, but we make it a lot harder when we make everything about gender issues. Some men do this when they automatically assume that an angry woman is hormonally out of balance. Some women do this when they automatically assume that the guy being a slob means he expects his wife to be his maid.

      I have a good friend who is very neat. His wife was the slob. Their marriage broke up not because of that (he hired a maid) but because they didn’t get what was important to the other one, until it was too late.

      • Reply
        Megan Rayles
        February 9, 2016 at 11:55 am

        I think the article was just poorly written and failed to explain what it was trying to explain. The comments under the article on Facebook were something the author really should have seen.

        I do appreciate your take on the topic, but can’t support that article.

        • Reply
          Kassandra Lamb
          February 9, 2016 at 12:02 pm

          Fair enough! Thanks for weighing in here.

          And I do agree that he went a bit off track about halfway through the article. He was still making the same point, but the issue got more obscured, not less as he went along.

          But well-written or poorly written, he’s tapped into something major here, which I think is a big part of why the article went viral. It certainly gave me some new perspectives on how to act in my own marriage.

  • Reply
    February 9, 2016 at 3:29 pm

    Communications are tough.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      February 9, 2016 at 4:49 pm

      Amen, Kirsten!

  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    February 9, 2016 at 10:03 pm

    Terrific post, Kass! I think a big part of this is also that women, when they make these requests for things that seem to not involve a dramatic change but still get push-back about it, feel that there must be something wrong with them making that request in the first place. This can either come from within, or verbalized from the spouse who doesn’t get it. Sometimes it can come from children, too. I’m the only female in a house of boys, and over the years getting my sons (hubs was awesome about the issue) to put the toilet seat back down was a real struggle. Everything has been resolved now, except when the 22 yo comes back to visit. Here we go….

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      February 9, 2016 at 10:41 pm

      That is true, Kathy. Our society has taught women to question themselves, and to bend over backward to be “fair” and not expect too much of others. So the men not getting why it’s important to us makes us question if it is really important. (Well, any woman who’s fallen into a cold toilet bowl in the middle of the night because her man didn’t put the seat down knows THAT issue is important!)

      Again, the key here is to listen to, accept and respect what is important to the other, not necessarily understand why it’s important. It should be enough that it IS important to them.

      • Reply
        February 10, 2016 at 10:05 am

        As far as I can see, anyone claiming that to “listen, accept, and respect what is important to the other” without any form of counterpart is offering the perfect solution for fueling narcissistic expectations.

        Either the respect is mutual, which goes with the mutual acceptance and recognition of each other strengths and weaknesses or it is not and one ends up using various kind of tactics, schemes, approaches to model/abuse/control/etc the other.

        The situation of the OP (Matt) seems far more subtle, not to say complex, than the Manichean description made by the OP himself.

        • Reply
          Kassandra Lamb
          February 10, 2016 at 11:33 am

          Of course, BOTH parties need to listen to, accept and respect what is important to the other. Then they work together to find a solution. Bottom line, neither nagging nor tuning the other out is healthy for long-term relationships.

  • Reply
    Karen McFarland
    February 10, 2016 at 2:09 pm

    I am so glad you wrote about this Kass. And I totally agree with you. I though Matt did an excellent job writing what is a sensitive and subjective subject. Matt used the glass to symbolize an act of disrespect. Yet, so many took it literally. Here’s a story: My husband and I got married quite young. He, just shy of 20 and I was 18. And no, we didn’t need to get married. Ha, ha, ha. As you know, it was more the custom to marry younger, especially if you didn’t pursue a college education which at the time was not an affordable expense for many families. Any who. Talk about habits or attitudes learned from parents. One day, maybe six months into our marriage, I was out grocery shopping and when I arrived home, I came back to someone’s lunch spread across the entire kitchen counter. The food not put back into the fridge, dishes and glasses everywhere, because he had brought home a friend for lunch, and just left everything there for me to pick up. May I just say, that didn’t sit well with me. So after I put the groceries away AND cleaned the kitchen, I packed and left him. I am not a slave. Lol. I did get an apology and that never happened again. But, it wasn’t the first time I was made to deal with something similar to that and I didn’t want a life-long habit to form. And it’s sad that’s what it took to get my point across. No one likes to be taken advantage of or feel unappreciated. It is a form of disrespect and I knew it. After 40 years, I could go on and on. We still laugh over that one. But the glass was a good metaphor. 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      February 10, 2016 at 5:07 pm

      Wow, that took a lot of guts, Karen! But it definitely got your point across. Good for you that you didn’t let that slide, as we women all too often tend to do. We try not to make a fuss but then the resentment builds and the love erodes. Glad you stood up for yourself early on!

  • Reply
    Karen McFarland
    February 10, 2016 at 5:25 pm

    Ha, ha, ha, either guts or stupidity! I wasn’t trying to be haughty or mean. I just wanted a little respect for my role in our relationship. But seriously, I’ve watched my younger sister put up with so much over the years, all to avoid confrontation. It took her years, and I do mean years to say something. But by that time, it was a little too late. And she was and still is full of resentment because of lack of respect. It’s just a difference in personalities I guess. And, having enough respect for yourself first or else how can you demand it from someone else?

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    February 10, 2016 at 5:45 pm

    Having enough respect for yourself first or else how can you demand it from someone else? Well put!!

  • Reply
    Susie Lindau
    February 14, 2016 at 12:31 pm

    I think I saw his post around the internet. Most people skim long posts. I can see where they jumped to conclusions.
    It can be hard when asking politely becomes a demand. Marriage is all about choosing what’s really important to battle about and making compromises. When I think of some of my roommates, Danny is waaaay superior! Ha!
    Thanks for dropping a link and hopping to others! Lots of new faces today.
    Happy Valentine’s Day!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      February 14, 2016 at 3:57 pm

      I think that’s what happened in a lot of cases, they just skimmed and jumped and then ranted. And I agree, as sloppy as my husband tends to be, he’s superior to most of my roommates who came before, because he gets it that he needs to contain the slobbery as much as possible.

      Happy Valentine’s Day back at ya, and thanks for holding one of your great blog hop parties today!! They are always so much fun!

  • Reply
    Amy Shojai, CABC (@amyshojai)
    February 14, 2016 at 2:16 pm

    Really liked this. It makes a lot of sense and I’ll be using some of this in future novels and fictional relationships, too (everything’s material!). By the way…I need to get over here more often. It was the prompt in Susie Lindau’s blog that sent me over today.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      February 14, 2016 at 4:00 pm

      You betcha, all grist for the mill! And I know what you mean about not getting to people’s blogs often enough. It’s hard when there’s so much good stuff out there and so many things demanding our attention.

  • Reply
    The Hook
    February 14, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    I miss the original Odd Couple…

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      February 14, 2016 at 3:58 pm

      Me too. You can catch them on MeTV if you have that in your area. Some of the old sit-coms were so good!

  • Reply
    Gail D Storey
    February 14, 2016 at 9:17 pm

    Kassandra, what an emotionally intelligent post, chock-full of insight! In the early years of our marriage, I used to raise the volume to feel heard–my husband withdrawing into his cave with good reason while I threw a full-blown fit. But we’ve grown so much that we take true joy in being supportive of the other’s wants and needs.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      February 14, 2016 at 11:00 pm

      Why thank you, Gail!! And that’s great about you and your hubs. If only more couples figured this out sooner instead of too late.

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