This was a big weekend for my husband and me. We celebrated our birthdays back to back, took a day off, then celebrated our 28th anniversary. We’ve been together for more than half our lives now, which is pretty amazing considering we married quite young — in our early, early twenties, because we were sure we were ready. It wasn’t always easy, but we’ve stood the test of time, and I think the main reason is because we’ve always had respect for each other. Even through the tough times, through the dark days when we thought we’d made a huge mistake, we never hated each other because we never stopped respecting each other.
When we first got married, we started to lay the ground work of respect by talking about how we wanted our relationship to be, and maybe more importantly, talking about how we didn’t want it to be. We watched friends who married young, become disillusioned with each other, then bitter, disrespectful, and eventually hateful. As our friends’ marriages were falling apart, we had a front row seat to the arguments and the destruction. They called each other vile names, snapped at each other even when they weren’t arguing, made snide comments to others about their partners, and seemed to do everything they could to make the other person miserable.
We watched, and we learned. And we decided that we did not ever want to treat each other with so much hate and cynicism even if we fell out of love. How can you fall in love with someone you don’t admire to start with, and then how can you be so hateful to someone you once admired so much? So we set two major ground rules 24 years ago that proved to be invaluable, especially when we were learning how to argue in the early years of our marriage:
1. No name calling, ever. When emotions get heated, people start to lash out, and the focus becomes a competition to see who can hurt the other person the most. The easiest way to do this is to start calling the other person awful things like bitch, asshole, and worse. Trying saying bitch or asshole without squinting your eyes into a glare and pursing your lips into a thin line. Those words come out in a hard tone, and usually louder than whatever was said before it. It changes the way you hold your face, your posture, and how you look at the other person. Once you’ve done that, the battle is on and nothing constructive can come from it.
2. No swearing while arguing. This is a tough one, but just like the name calling, swear words cause a change in posture, the look on your face, your tone, and how you phrase things. It’s easy to say “You are such an asshole. I can’t believe you are too stupid to realize how pissed off I get when you leave your shit all over the counter.” And while you are saying it, your voice escalates, your eyes narrow, and you get even angrier, but you still didn’t say anything constructive or clear. Besides, now your partner is pissed off because you just called him an asshole, so he didn’t even hear what was said after that. If you can’t swear, you have to think a little more about what you say and how to say it, your tone will be steadier, and you have to say what is really on your mind instead of just getting your frustrations out by swearing. “I get so frustrated when you leave your dirty dishes all over the counter after I’ve cleaned the kitchen.” Now your partner knows you’re angry, and he may not like what you have to say, but it was a lot easier for him to hear why you are angry, and a lot harder to respond by lashing out.
We don’t argue often or get snippy with each other because we know how to talk to each other about things without it escalating. That’s not to say that we don’t have bad days, days when we are crabby, or days when we just need some space from each other. We’ve had times when other pressures have caused us to take things out on each other, but it doesn’t take long for us to rein it in and remember how we truly feel about each other.
Respect, for us, shows itself in many different ways now. It grows and evolves and allows us to endure. It makes it easier to accept the changes that are inevitable in a person over the course of decades together. It’s much easier to compromise and find middle ground that is acceptable to both of us when we know the motivations of the other is not meant to be malicious or hurtful. Because we respect each other, we trust each other, and with that trust comes support of each other — support of each other’s goals and dreams, thoughts and opinions, even when they differ.