Respect is the cornerstone of any healthy relationship. But what exactly is respect?
Respect means that you recognize that your partner is a whole person, and not just a way to get something that you want. It means that you know your partner has different experiences and opinions from you, and that’s ok.
It’s easy to say that you have respect for someone, but acting with respect can be a bit trickier. That’s why this Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, I want to talk about how you can show respect in your relationship. After all, just because you don’t physically harm your partner or call them names, does NOT mean that you are treating your partner with respect.
Here are six ways that you can show your partner respect. What would you add?
1. Demonstrate trust.
Trust is essential in any relationship, even non-romantic ones. But it means a lot more than believing that your partner won’t cheat on you, and feeling trust isn’t nearly as powerful as showing that you trust your partner with your actions.
You can demonstrate trust by not texting or calling your partner constantly. Instead, text or call them once. Leave a message saying that you’re thinking of them, and that you hope to hear from them soon. This shows that you trust them to reach out to you when they can, and that you know your partner appreciates your efforts.
This should go without saying, but don’t go through your partner’s phone or personal things without permission. If you have a weird feeling that they’re trying to hide something from you, talk to them about it. There’s no need to stir up drama if there’s nothing going on!
2. Be mindful of how you communicate.
Communication is one of the most important parts of a relationship, and one of the hardest. That’s because being open and honest with your partner means being open and honest with yourself.
Don’t expect your partner to be a mind reader. If you’re upset, it’s important to talk openly about what’s bothering you. Don’t be accusatory. Use “I” statements, like “I feel really ignored and unimportant when you cancel our plans at the last minute,” or “I feel annoyed when you keep asking me to hang out when you know I need to study. I really appreciate it when others respect my time.” Your emotions are always valid—don’t feel bad for feeling what you feel.
Everyone disagrees sometimes, and that’s totally ok. When you do, don’t disappear or shut down communication. At a minimum, tell your partner that you’re upset and need some time to cool down and process your thoughts before you talk. This way they don’t feel like you’re disappearing on them, or ignoring their feelings. Validate your partner’s feelings by saying things like, “I understand why you feel that way,” or “I hear what you’re saying.”
Communication goes beyond words, though. You can tell your partner that you care by wearing the cologne they like, sharing a playlist with them, or bringing them flowers.
3. Be reliable and accountable.
A huge part of a relationship is trust, but how can you trust someone if they’re constantly canceling plans or, even worse, lying?
When you make plans, follow through. Don’t say yes to a dinner you’re not sure you’ll be able to go to. Instead, be accountable. Keep a calendar and check it when you and your partner are making plans. Don’t say you’ll call and then don’t. Instead, set a reminder on your phone. Being dependable respects your partner’s time and emotional energy. After all, it can be stressful to have your plans change constantly.
Of course there will be times when you have no choice but to cancel—there’s a family emergency, you’re sick, you forgot about a big test that you have to study for. You shouldn’t feel guilty (or be made to feel guilty!) about these circumstances. But it can help a lot if you show you’re aware of the effect that those actions (whether they’re within your control or not) have on your partner. Apologize, offer to reschedule, and make sure you check in with them when you’re free.
4. Encourage time apart.
When you’re in a new relationship, you may be so excited that you want to spend all your time with your partner. That’s totally normal. But it can be easy to ignore the other important relationships in your life, like with your family and friends. No single person—no matter how awesome they are—can take care of all your social and emotional needs. And everyone needs a break from their significant other every once in a while. Spending time alone or with other people means that both of you can continue to grow as individuals. You can both bring new ideas and activities to your relationship, keeping it exciting and engaging. It also gives you both a chance to talk about your relationship with your friends and family. Who doesn’t want to brag a bit about their new love?
5. Appreciate your differences.
Don’t criticize your partner for their ideas or interests. You can disagree with someone and still respect their opinion. Part of what makes relationships awesome is the differences! Your partner can help you see the world from a new perspective, even if you don’t ultimately change your mind. You can show your partner you appreciate them by going to their baseball game or art show, even if you would never set foot in a baseball stadium or art gallery otherwise.
Accept your partner’s boundaries, even when they’re different from yours. If your partner doesn’t want to kiss in public, or have sex, or lie to their parents, don’t pressure them. This is coercive, and potentially abusive.
6. Get to know yourself.
In a relationship, you’re not just getting to know another person. You’re getting to know yourself better. Being in a relationship can help you figure out what you want and need from the people you’re close with. What are you willing to compromise on? Which qualities complement your own? What are your core values that you can’t compromise on? Maybe you don’t care that your partner isn’t into R&B music the way you are, but you can’t stand that they’re mean to your cat. Get to know yourself as an individual and as a partner. Knowing yourself helps you communicate better, and your partner will definitely appreciate that.
Knowing your personal boundaries makes it a lot easier to know when those boundaries have been crossed, and when you should end a relationship.
Showing respect may sound complicated, but it’s really not.
It all comes down to listening to your partner, and being kind to them. If your partner wants to know where you are all the time, frequently accuses you of lying or cheating, puts you down, calls you names, or is in any way physically aggressive, you may be in an abusive relationship. Abusive relationships are based on power and control, rather than respect. They take a serious toll on millions of people’s lives each year, and one in three teenagers in the United States has experienced dating abuse. Consider seeing a therapist. They can help you work through what’s going on, and figure out the next steps that are best for you.
Tiffanie Brown, LCSW is a clinical social worker at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. She has been working with marginalized and underserved adolescents for 6 years. Ms. Brown has received intensive training in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and specializes in work with individuals who are emotionally dysregulated and engage in self-harm and high risk behaviors. Ms. Brown provides ongoing individual, group, and family therapy to the adolescent population, using a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and psychodynamic approach.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 12,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.
A version of this post was originally published in February, 2017.