What is Disrespect, Really?

I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I read or hear something about a lesbian couple, and one of them “feels disrespected.” And spectators of a couple’s troubles are amazingly fast to suggest that some behavior or another is “disrespectful.”

Now, what are the parameters of disrespect? What does that mean, exactly? Of course, the presence of any of the “Four Horsemen” (criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling or contempt,) could be considered “disrespectful.” Some people even go as far as saying that any contact a partner has with an ex, for instance, is “disrespectful.” There is a long list of possible behaviors that you, or people you know, might consider “disrespectful”: your partner not taking out the garbage when she said she would, your partner not making you soup when you’re sick, or she forgets an important date. You get the picture, the list is infinitely long.

Let’s be clear: feeling disrespected is a story.

There are only 3 difficult emotions our brain can have: anger, sadness and fear. Some things are a combination of these two (frustration is often anger and fear, grief is often fear and sadness,) but that’s what we have to work with. Anything else, (and you may have heard these, or said these,) such as “feeling abandoned,” “feeling controlled,” “feeling not cared for,” “feeling unloved,” and, yes, “feeling disrespected,” are stories. So what is a story?

A story is meaning our brains make of our feelings. We do this automatically. It’s a part of a set of coping and survival mechanisms, some are inherent in being human, some are things we learned growing up. So, for example, your find out your partner has been texting her ex. You feel fear (fear of losing the attachment you have with her – a totally natural, normal fear.) And then your brain makes the meaning, the story “she’s disrespecting you.”  The reason people use the word “story” is because this meaning we make is very often not true; it’s something you don’t have to believe – in fact, it’s something you should not believe. Why?  It is extremely rare for a partner in a relationship to be consciously disrespectful. If that actually happens, the relationship is likely already too far gone to save.

So what’s going on? What’s going on are one of two things: a partner is triggered, or a partner has a different way of seeing or doing something than you do. When we are triggered, we can’t speak or act rationally or skillfully – our brains literally hijack our wise minds for survival reasons. (That’s why we’re still around on this planet – our brains are extraordinarily good at keeping us alive, but it gets in the way of modern relationships.)  And sometimes, our partner just has a different way of being, or doing things, and it’s different than what we’d do in their position. That doesn’t mean she’s consciously (or even unconsciously) being disrespectful.

When you make a story of your partner’s actions or words, you are  likely to get triggered yourself, and speak or act from that story, which then triggers your partner again, and she will  speak or acts from her own story, and then you’re in a mess you’re probably familiar with.

So what do you do?

First, get in touch with the feeling – the fear. Feel it in your body. Befriend it. It really is there to serve you.

Then, we like to use this technique from Byron Katie – it’s her 4 questions, adapted to this situation:

  1. Is this true that she was disrespectful when she ________________________ (Yes or No question)
  2. Do I absolutely know this is true? (Pretty much the only answer to this is “no.”)
  3. What emotions come up for me when I think that she was disrespectful?
  4. What is it like for me if I don’t have this thought that she’s being disrespectful?

What else can you do? Learn how to be more emotionally aware, and communicate skillfully. We can teach you.

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