Last summer, I realized that I didn’t really know what respect was. It struck me as disturbing that I was an adult, a military brat, and a teacher, yet I struggled to formulate a definition of respect.
This triggered a morning of thinking and journaling, trying to puzzle out what I thought respect was and what it looked like, especially in my marriage.
We show respect differently for different people and places. We show respect to authority figures like presidents and kings by using titles, dressing formally, and following established etiquette. As children, we showed respect to our parents and our teachers by obeying their instructions and not sassing back. We show respect to guests by making them feel welcome and giving them our best.
Respect is an acknowledgment that this person has a quality or status that’s worthy of my esteem.
We show respect to sacred places, like a church, by moderating our behavior, our language, even the volume of our speech. We show respect to our possessions by taking care of them and not using them wastefully. We respect other people’s belongings by not stealing them or by using them appropriately if we’re handling them. We respect the law by obeying the law. We respect the American flag by not letting it touch the ground.
So what is respect? Respect is an acknowledgment that this person, place, or thing has a quality, ability, or status that is worthy of my consideration, esteem, or honor. We demonstrate respect by moderating our behavior and our speech.
But what does respect look like in a romantic relationship? How can wives respect their husbands?
What Men Say about Respect
In the professional survey conducted by Shaunti Feldhahn, author of For Women Only, for her book, hundreds of men were asked which negative experience they’d prefer if forced to choose: “to feel alone and unloved in the world OR to feel inadequate and disrespected by everyone.” 74% of the men said they’d rather feel unloved than disrespected.
Some men struggled to answer the question because, for them, respect equated to love. To them, a disrespectful wife was a wife who didn't love him.
74% of the men said they’d rather feel unloved than disrespected.
So what’s the big deal about respect? Well, respect communicates trust. A wife’s respect tells her husband, “I trust you. I believe in you. I support you. I think you’re capable and competent to fulfill your role and duties as a man, husband, father, provider, etc.” That’s some pretty powerful affirmation.
Now, most husbands would probably say that, deep down, they know their wife respects them, they just don’t often show it. Let’s look at the flipside. What if our husbands never said that they loved us or kissed us because, hey, they did it once, so we already know it deep down? We wouldn’t like that at all! So just like we women want and need to receive frequent expressions of love, our men want and need to receive frequent expressions of respect.
Respect and love are both choices.
And just like we women want unconditional love, even in our unlovable moments, our husbands want our respect, even if he’s not exactly meeting our expectations in that moment. We want to be loved for who we are, and men want to be respected for who they are. Furthermore, just like love is a choice that we make even when we’re not feeling it, demonstrating respect for our husbands shouldn’t be dependent on how we’re feeling in the moment. (I’m referring to nonabusive relationships here.) So how can we do that?
We want to be loved for who we are, and men want to be respected for who they are.
Feldhahn has four great insights into how wives can demonstrate their respect for their husbands. The following insights are the top points that surfaced in her surveys and personal interviews, the points the men she talked to wanted their wives to know and incorporate into their marriage.
Respect His Judgment
A man needs his wife to respect his judgment — his knowledge, opinions, and decisions. Does this mean you can never disagree or challenge him? No. The men surveyed were clear that they didn’t want silent wives, but they also didn’t want to be second-guessed all the time.
Ways wives can demonstrate respect for their husband’s judgment:
Don’t treat your husband like a child.
Let him make his own decisions, and if you need to challenge a decision, do it tactfully. Make it clear you’re not attacking him.
Don’t manipulate him into making the decision you want him to make.
Ask for his input or rely on his expertise. If you ask for his input, don’t immediately negate it.
Support his decisions.
Trust his judgment.
Respect His Abilities
Men have a need to figure things out on their own. When they’re successful, it makes them feel competent and more manly. Which means when a wife jumps in “to help” or tells him what to do, it often communicates distrust in his abilities and, frankly, manliness. And if wives are communicating that they don’t trust their husbands in the small stuff, then husbands can feel like their wives don’t really trust them with the big stuff. So even if the way he’s folding the towels or loading the dishwasher drives you crazy, it’s better to bite your tongue and let him do it his way. The chore is still getting done!
Ways wives can demonstrate respect for their husband’s abilities:
Let him figure out how to do it.
Let him do it his way.
Don’t constantly instruct. You can offer advice, but don’t hover and don’t play teacher.
Cheer him on and support him in his career and his recreational activities. Show up at his rec league sports games and actually watch him play. Compliment him after the game on his great catch.
Be Respectful in How You Communicate
How we say something is almost more important than what we say. The inflection, tone, and volume of our speech, plus our body language, give contextual clues about our thoughts and feelings, going beyond the superficial level of our literal speech. For example, ladies, think of how we use the word “fine.” It’s almost never literally fine when we use that word.
Additionally, the approach and the amount of tact we bring to a conversation (or the lack thereof) can also communicate not only how we feel about the topic but also how we feel about the other person.
These qualities of communication apply to both men and women. But some men seem to interpret certain kinds of comments as conveying distrust. 33% of the men that Feldhahn surveyed said that their wife’s reminder to complete a task bothered them because it implied she mistrusted him, she thought he was lazy or stupid, or she was disappointed in him.
Ways wives can demonstrate respect for their husband while communicating:
Show appreciation. Say thank you for specific things he has done.
Tell him you’re proud of him for a specific action.
Stop what you’re doing and look at him when he’s talking to you.
Stop what you’re doing to greet him when he comes home from work.
Don’t interrupt him while he’s talking.
No name-calling and no yelling.
Try to think before you speak so you can be tactful and more in control of your tone of voice, especially if it’s a sensitive topic.
Operate from a perspective that assumes the best of your husband.
If he says he will do something, don’t nag. (If it needs to get done, but it’s not getting done, have a polite conversation about your husband’s workload, timeline, and priorities. 50% of the men surveyed said the uncompleted task just wasn’t as much a priority for them as for their wife but they would get to it eventually.)
Be Respectful in Public and When Speaking to Others
Speaking disrespectfully about your husband to others (especially when your husband is also present) is the most damaging because it has the biggest impact. Not only is your husband hurt, but you’re also communicating to other people that they don’t need to respect your husband either. If you as his wife, the person who knows him best, don’t respect him, why should anyone else?
Other men will see your husband as weak, which, if those men are his colleagues or his superiors, could negatively impact his career. If they’re his friends, they might pity him, which men hate. If it’s family members, their perspective on your husband might shift towards being more negative. Part of our role as wives is protecting our husband’s reputation, and publicly respecting and affirming him goes a long way to do that.
Ways wives can publicly demonstrate respect for their husband:
Don’t “tease” him in front of others, especially about his insecurities or failings.
Don’t put him down or speak rudely to him in public.
Don’t talk badly or negatively about him in front of others, including your family.
Don’t “vent” to your friends when he isn’t around because it can impact their view of your husband and it builds a habit of negative thinking about your husband in your brain, perpetuating your frustrations.
Don’t talk badly about him to your children. You will only teach your children to think less of him too.
Find moments where you can honestly and sincerely praise and affirm your husband in front of others. Share his accomplishments and good deeds with your friends and family. (This is super easy to do on social media!)
Why Do Men Care about Respect So Much?
A man’s need for respect is tied to the human biological drive for status. All humans are neurologically wired to strive for status and are rewarded by serotonin when we achieve it. Historically speaking, the higher our status, the more access we had to resources, giving us a higher chance of surviving and passing down our genes. This drive is still present in us, and, while we’re not necessarily fighting other individuals for food or mating opportunities anymore, it’s still generally true that the higher our place in society, the more access we have to money and people. And it’s still biologically true that whenever we achieve a step up in status (even if it’s just a bunch of likes on our Facebook post), our brains get a hit of serotonin.
Males have a scientifically proven stronger drive for status and are more sensitive to where they “place” in social hierarchies and to status setbacks. You could even view manhood as “earned status.” A guy is born male, but he has to become a man, i.e. achieve the status of manhood, usually by performing manly deeds and living up to cultural standards. Perhaps this is why most cultures had a ritual rite of passage into manhood — it gave the boy and his community a clear signal that he had achieved the status of manhood.
A guy is born male, but he has to become a man, i.e. achieve the status of manhood.
With this in mind, I would argue that showing a man respect is an acknowledgment of his status and indicates that he’s accomplishing the deeds of manhood sufficiently. Respecting your husband’s leadership, ability to provide and protect, and accomplishments all feed into his biological drive for status. And when you’re indicating that he has high status in your eyes, you’re also indicating that he’s achieved high ranks of manhood.
Showing respect to our men isn’t really in vogue right now. Culturally, we tend to prioritize giving the reins to women, which isn’t always the best idea when it comes to healthy marriages because it ignores the very real and deeply rooted male need for respect and status. When we can understand and embrace the unique natures of femininity and masculinity, then we will have healthier marriages and families.