I was recently interviewed by the editor of an online woman’s journal. The message she wanted me to give to her readers is: 1) that you should talk to your husband/partner if he is being disrespectful, and 2) if talking doesn’t work, you should leave him. Needless to say, as a pro-marriage, Christian coach, I did not give her the answers she wanted and she did not publish my answers. Because the fact is, when your husband is being disrespectful, complaining to him will only lead to arguments. There are better ways to deal with disrespect that don’t require you to leave your husband at all. I present this interview for you, the uncommon reader.
[Start of interview]
Q: If you notice your partner talking down to you, how do you decide when it’s worth talking to him/her about it to try to resolve it, versus when it’s OK to let it slide (if ever)?
Coach Jack: There’s a variety of ways that people use language. One person’s put down is another person’s affectionate play. More than the words, it’s important to pay attention to the intent behind the words. If your partner is trying to hurt you or control you, you never let it slide. Also, if it’s something you find personally offensive, you don’t let it slide. But, when you are just not sure, it’s better to give the benefit of the doubt. If you don’t, then you might be the one who ends up doing the damage.
Q: If you do decide to bring it up, how do you suggest broaching the topic with your partner? Is there a particular time/situation when it’s ideal to bring up the issue? (For example, is it better to start a conversation right after your partner makes a disrespectful comment, or should you wait until later?) Is there a certain way you suggest wording it as you bring up your feelings?
Coach Jack: The common notion people have is that talking with your partner about things that bother you will lead to a better relationship. But, most of the time, it leads to defensiveness and a more distant relationship. I wouldn’t talk about it unless your partner is really mature. For the vast majority of women, it will be better to use a boundary, such as walking away or ending the conversation rather than talking about it. It gets the message across, avoids argument, and builds respect at the same time. The best time to use boundaries is right away–from the very first instance. It might mean walking out of a restaurant and calling a cab. Although that would be a hassle, it could save many years of damage that could be done by letting it slide.
Q: Should you bring up concrete examples of times where you felt your partner was being disrespectful to you? Why or why not?
Coach Jack: Again, it depends on the maturity of your partner. Some men just don’t know when they are being disrespectful and are open to examples. But, again, the majority will just feel attacked and then either shut down or counterattack. The women I work with are usually able to stop disrespectful behavior in a matter of a few weeks, even though they have spent years complaining and talking to their husbands about it.
Q: What can you do to minimize the risk of your partner getting defensive when you bring up your feelings?
Coach Jack: If you decide to talk about his behavior, there are three steps to achieving a good outcome. The first is to talk with your partner when things are going well. That is, when you are both in a good mood and getting along. The second is to use a non-blaming style that helps your partner to save face. And the third is to give him an image of what you would like him do instead. For example, while sitting on the sofa and enjoying each other, you say “Jim, would you listen to me for a minute? I know sometimes the things I do make you feel irritated and you have every right to be. But, instead of comparing me to your ex, would you please just tell me what you would like me to do?” Follow up with a hug, then get right back to whatever you were doing without turning it into a long discussion.
Q: If your partner’s behavior doesn’t improve after you bring up your concerns, what should you do next?
If you have talked about it two times (more than that is nagging) without any improvement, it is definitely the time to start using boundaries. Using boundaries will make your partner angry at first, but not using them would cause long term deterioration in your relationship. Many women are patient to the point where they no longer feel any love for their partner. That’s far too much patience!
Q: At what point does it become a smart decision to end the relationship altogether?
Coach Jack: This is another “it depends” kind of question. For uncommitted relationships, disrespect is a red flag that really signals you should keep looking, or step up your use of boundaries and re-evaluate after some time goes by. Committing to a disrespectful man is a big mistake, because commitment makes men feel more secure and comfortable with their behavior. After all, it worked to get commitment.
For women in committed relationships, and especially for married women, disrespect is not a signal to end the relationship. It is a signal that she needs to learn how to earn respect in a secure way, while still being a loving partner. The main reason that I specialize in reconciliation is that I see too many people throwing their relationships away when they can be saved with just a few key skills.
Q: Is there anything else important to keep in mind when dealing with a partner who’s been treating you disrespectfully (particularly in the verbal comments they make to you)?
Two things to keep in mind are that respect is earned through secure and loving behavior, and that if you want to get respectful behavior from others, you need to also treat them respectfully. Being needy, controlling or nagging will always result in disrespect. Sometimes women need to work on their own behavior before they can expect to get better behavior from their partners.
Q: I’m unclear on a couple of points. For one thing, I’m a little unclear on why your partner’s maturity level influences whether you should bring up an instance in which you feel personally offended or that there was ill intention; could raising your concerns and voicing your feelings give them a chance to respond in a mature way (rather than just assuming they won’t), provided you do it correctly?
Coach Jack: Mature partners are able to talk about problems, but they don’t tend to be the disrespectful ones. Disrespectful men don’t respond well to talking about problems. They just get defensive and angry. Far more damage is done by talking about problems with such partners than by not. Most people only need to think back on their experiences talking about problems to see this is true. Relationship coaches, such as myself, teach people to work directly on solutions rather than focusing on problems. Working on problems and talking about them is much more of a counseling approach. It works well when both people are really motivated to improve their relationship, but it doesn’t work well otherwise. That’s one reason I switched from counseling to coaching.
Q: When you say women may start needing to using boundaries, what do you mean by that exactly?
Coach Jack: Using boundaries simply means doing something productive about the way you respond to your partner rather than putting all of your effort in getting your partner to change. Attempting to directly change your partner will most often result in power struggles, whereas using boundaries helps you to be the one in control. In extreme cases, this may mean separating, but in most cases it just means ending the conversation or walking away as soon as the disrespect starts. Women would avoid 99% of all disrespect issues in their relationships if they did this from the very first time they are treated disrespectfully. Often, when I work with women who have disrespectful partners, I ask them, “What do you imagine a secure woman would do in your place?” Almost always, they tell me that a secure woman would not put up with such behavior, even though they themselves have been putting up with such behavior for a long time. What I then help them to see is that there are ways to not put up with a behavior while still maintaining a loving relationship. Most women don’t know how to balance the two. That’s why I wrote What to Do When He Won’t Change: Saving Your Marriage When He Is Angry, Selfish, Unhappy, or Avoids You.
[end of interview]
As you can guess, these ideas don’t fit today’s culture.
There is an agenda being pushed by popular media that if talking about problems with your spouse doesn’t work, then you should divorce. Many times, couples need to get closer before they are able to talk together in a loving way. Talking is rarely the first step in a relationship that has severe problems. Through coaching, people are learning to rebuild, talk a little, build some more, and talk again. Whenever there are severe problems, building comes before talking. Sometimes that means boundaries, sometimes it means overcoming your own neediness, and sometimes it means learning how to attract your spouse. Breaking up is not a skill and it won’t make you happier to do that. You owe it to yourself, your spouse, and your children too, to learn to put the love back in your relationship.