Respect. We all want it, and we don’t want any exceptions – but we all know how easy we can turn it off and get our ugly on when things aren’t going our way!

Respect is on the decline, generally, in our culture, but one of the most important places we can show respect is in our marriages – both as husbands and wives. It’s not something that is talked about very often; so today we will look at the specific dangers of contempt (lack of respect) and how you can move your marriage towards greater respect.

A book that was helpful to us early on in our marriage was Love & Respect by the Eggerichs’. This book taught us how to safely say, “I’m feeling disrespected right now.” It gave us a healthy way to express our feelings and helped us realize when we were being inconsiderate of our spouse.

Sadly, respect isn’t a consistent presence in every marriage, and contempt abounds. There are actually a lot of words that we thought of that could mean the opposite of respect, but they basically all fall under the umbrella of contempt, so that’s the word we’ll be using today.

The Problem of Contempt

Contempt is a problem because it is destructive in marital conflict and is also an early predictor of divorce. It is more than criticism. It adds this mean element where the intent is to insult and psychologically abuse your spouse. Contempt can look like insults, name-calling, hostile humour, mockery, and sneering.[i]

You may ask the question, as Gottman did if all negative emotions are equally corrosive in marriage? We all have moments as a spouse that we’re not proud of, and we don’t like ourselves when we act that way but are these moments of anger (excluding all abusive behaviour) as bad as contempt?

Gottman and his fellow researchers found that contempt, belligerence, and defensiveness were prime suspects in causing marital instability. Anger wasn’t nearly as damaging to the marriage as these three things. In other words, as it relates to our topic today, contempt in the middle of marital conflict is a very strong pointer leading towards divorce.[ii]

There is a positive side to this research though; there are ways to show the respect that can neutralize those moments when our spouse does something unattractive. In the study, the couples that handled conflict well behaved in a way that was gentle and soothing and worked towards de-escalating (calming down negativity). The real challenge here is being strong enough to decide that you’re not going along with your spouse’s negativity and not getting on board with their contempt.

10 Ways To Show Respect

Download this quick self-evaluation to review where YOU are at in terms of showing respect. As a bonus, we give you 10 ways that you can practice showing respect in your day to day interactions. 

What Does Respect Look Like?

It can be challenging to define respect. It is not an emotion. It’s not just a behaviour. It’s hard to define, but we certainly know when we are getting it or when we are not. Really, respect is an attitude accompanied by emotions, thoughts and behaviour.[iii] It has a sense of equality (people who see themselves as equals show respect to each other), and as part of that, there is also mutuality (give and take: both are into it). Caring and supportiveness are also involved.

This alludes to one of the reasons why respect is so important in a marriage – and in all of our important relationships; it has to be going both ways in order to feel right. If you’re more powerful than someone else and they show you respect, that’s really just servitude. They feel like a servant. Marriage is more than that though – we don’t just want respect; we want to be able to respect our spouse. It has to be mutual.

The best way to do a quick check on the level of respect in your marriage is by the following six questions that are used in a tool called MIDSS (Measurement Instrument Database for Social Sciences, developed by Hendreick and Hendrick)[iv] and also used in the bonus worksheet we’ve put together for you.

How many of these six statements can you agree with?

  1. I respect my partner
  2. I am interested in my partner as a person
  3. I am a source of healing for my partner
  4. I honour my partner
  5. I approve of the person my partner is
  6. I communicate well with my partner

These are incredibly important statements to be able to agree with. They really touch on core issues in the strength and satisfaction of the marriage bond.

How to Build Respect Into Your Marriage

If you’ve realized at this point, that you can definitely work on this whole respect thing, let’s look at how you can build this into your marriage. As Caleb said, “bake it in” so it’s mixed right in there, can’t be removed, and is central to how your marriage is doing.

Power Struggles

Power struggles are really interesting.[v] At the middle of marriage conflict when we really want our own way we often just see two options: 1) Dominate, or 2) Be dominated. When we’re thinking in this “either-or” way, it leads to conflict that is destructive to the relationship. The problem with this type of thinking is that it is impossible to achieve an outcome that is characterized by mutual respect – someone has to lose, and that isn’t going to feel like being respected.

This research from 2011 looking at marriage conflict, points to the need for differentiation. This is a good article entitled “If I Need You, Does That Make Me Needy” that deals further with differentiation in marriage.

Basically, differentiation is about knowing yourself as an individual and being able to separate who you are from your identity as a couple. This lets you as a spouse, see your spouse as human and relate to him or her with respect and generosity despite the differences you’re experiencing. We can let our spouse be his/her self without feeling threatened by it which is beautiful, because we married our spouse because of who they are, not so they can be like us!

Differentiation also means that I don’t have to take responsibility for my spouse’s misbehaviour because I am not him (and vice-versa). I can choose to continue to show respect in the face of what I’m not liking.

Differentiation gives us the option of avoiding power struggles. Instead of dominating or being dominated, differentiation gives us the option of working together as a team. This is a mental shift that says instead of us being opponents on this issue, we are actually partners on a team fighting the problem. The issue is the problem. The disagreement is the problem. Not you, or your spouse. This allows you to show respect towards your spouse while working out your differences and not getting lost in the power struggles.

Third Options

Here is another way to think about conflict and respect.

When disrespect is present, we often see that our relationship is in a spat and we’re just at each other. It hearkens back to the dominate or be-dominated theme and we’re trying to establish who is worse. It is not helpful.

This type of arguing comes down to two options:

  1. You are a doormat, or
  2. You have to win and therefore become domineering.

Both of these have a lot of disrespect involved, so we want you to look at a third option:

  1. You speak respectfully and are heard, while also hearing your spouse at the same time.

Wow, that sure looks different from the first two options! It really comes back to attitude and healthy communication mixed with the idea that I am in control of my own behaviour. I can choose how to respond. (Sound like differentiation?) I want to respond in a manner that communicates respect for my spouse – even if I’m not happy with what I’m seeing from him or her right now.

Rather than be reactive, self regulate (manage your own emotions, thoughts, speech, and attitudes) and work really hard to be open to your spouse’s perspective and claim to truth.

That is how, in the middle of marital conflict, we can show respect.

There are many more ways to show respect, but it is hardest to stay respectful when we’re in the middle of conflict so we wanted to touch on that aspect today.

[i] Eric C. Walker et al., “Contempt and Defensiveness in Couple Relationships Related to Childhood Sexual Abuse Histories for Self and Partner,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 37, no. 1 (January 2011): 37–50.

[ii] John M. Gottman et al., “Predicting Marital Happiness and Stability from Newlywed Interactions,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 60, no. 1 (February 1998): 5–22.

[iii] Hendreick, S. S., & Hendrick, C. (2006). Measuring respect in close relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 23, 881-899


[v] Mona DeKoven Fishbane, “Facilitating Relational Empowerment in Couple Therapy,” Family Process 50, no. 3 (September 2011): 337–52.