In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

I Respect My Husband, But I Don’t Love Him

I respect my husband, but I don’t love him

“There are two sorts of affection—the love of a woman you respect, and the love for the woman you love.” Arthur Wing Pinero

“The first duty of love is to listen.” Paul Tillich

Respect seems to be different and even contrary to romantic love. Whereas respect implies distance, romantic love involves an intimate closeness and even the sense of identity with the beloved. Nevertheless, many people consider respect to be one of the most important components of love. Although it is evident that we can respect someone but not love them, it is by no means clear whether we can love someone but not respect them.

Do love and respect go together like a horse and carriage? Respect is extremely important for ongoing loving relationships, such as those in marriage, but is it an integral part of the actual experience of love?

In recent conversations that I had with two women in their late eighties, one of them told me about her first husband: “I did not love Benjamin, but I respected him. He was a kind of authority for me and this was what I needed. Benjamin was very good to me, and he was very proud of me. He raised me up and gave me back my self-confidence.” The second woman told me about Rachel, the first wife of her present husband: “Rachel was a kind and honest woman; everybody loved and respected Rachel. And so did George—he loved and respected her, but more as a close, dear friend than as a passionate lover.” These two elderly women clearly distinguish between respecting a good person and passionately loving someone.

It is easy to see how one can respect someone without loving him. But is the reverse true as well: Can one love a person without respecting him? Here the answer is more difficult.

The complex experience of romantic love consists of both friendship and sexual desire. Friendship involves the basic evaluative pattern of praiseworthiness—that is, a positive appraisal of personal characteristics—while sexual desire involves the pattern of attractiveness. Respect is related to praiseworthiness. Friendship can be conducted without sex (unlike the phenomenon of friends with benefits), and sex can be performed without friendship.

Must romantic love involve respect? According to the following lyrics, sung by Britney Spears, respect does not need to be part of love:

"He is a villain of the devil's law, He is a killer just for fun, All I know, should let go, but no…I'm in love with a criminal, And this type of love, Isn't rational, it's physical."

Britney Spears
Britney Spears

The song tells of a woman's love for a criminal, a love that is based entirely upon physical sexual desire. Such a love has no place for respect or for many of the other feelings that love usually entails; it "isn't rational". .

In my view, however, romantic love must involve both positive evaluation (implying some respect) and sexual desire. In cases of infatuation, we often confuse the two.

Like love, respect is an ongoing attitude toward another person. Love and respect cannot be expressed in a few minutes and then disappear. Sex is of different nature—it has beginning, middle and end and all these stages can occur in a very brief span of time.

Respect is an attitude and not an emotion. It is directed toward a partner who is trustworthy, considerate and accepting. Respect has been found to be a stronger predictor of relationship satisfaction than measures of attachment, love, and liking (Frei & Shaver, 2002). Respect, which involves both caring and equality, belongs to the group of attitudes such as reciprocity, autonomy, flourishing and personal growth.

A certain measure of distance exists in respect that allows the partner to live as she wishes and that values her for who she is, regardless of how good she is to me. This respect gives her a personal space, which has its own intrinsic merits. Sexual desire is not about respect, but about breaking distance and boundaries. Romantic love includes both an appropriate distance that allows respect and a close emotional involvement.

John Gottman, known for his work on marital stability and relationship analysis, noted that most couples want two main things from their marriage—love and respect. And indeed contempt, which is the opposite of respect, is one of the major predicators of divorce. Another study listed respect as one of four core relationship values, the other three being commitment, intimacy, and forgiveness. Yet another study found that people often mention respect spontaneously when talking about why their relationships function well or poorly and that respect is one of the five most frequently mentioned and valued features in the romantic partner—the others are being accepting, trustworthy, honest, and loyal. Respect was also found to be closely connected with marital satisfaction. Disrespect is a powerful expression of lovelessness in marriages. Respect implies our right to be treated in a way that enhances our positive self-esteem. In intimate relationships, respect implies and asserts equality. The importance of equality in successful marriages and intimate relationships is expressed in the crucial role of respect in romantic relationships and the potential damage of lack of respect in such relationships (Hendrick & Hendrick, 2006).

Immanuel Kant considered love and respect to be at odds with one another, as love encourages people to come nearer to each other, while respect encourages people to keep themselves at a certain distance from one another. Carol Gilligan distinguishes between impartial respect and emotional partial care. While Kant gives respect moral priority, Gilligan gives loving care such priority.

Respect involves believing that there is something in the object that makes it worthy of a special kind of attention and behavior. Respect is grounded not in personal desire or interest, but in the nature of the object itself. In respecting an object, we perceive it as having a value in its own right and not only in terms of its relationship to us. We can view caring for a person as a kind of respect toward her. We respect not merely that which is common to all people, but everything that distinguishes one individual from another. Caring takes into account the uniqueness of each person (Dillon, 1992).

Respect is more object-generated than subject-generated. It is something that is claimed from us in light of the object’s characteristics. Attraction and liking are more subject-generated than object-generated: although both are based upon the object’s characteristics, they are based even more on the subject's taste. Romantic love is in between; it entails a balance between object-generated characteristics (expressed in the praiseworthiness evaluation) and subject-generated characteristics (expressed in the attractiveness evaluation). There can be no romantic love without respect and attraction, but there can be respect and attraction without romantic love. In respecting someone, we appreciate her objective, intrinsic value; in being attracted to someone, we appreciate her subjective extrinsic value. In loving someone, we appreciate both.

The two major types of romantic compromises are associated with these two aspects: compromising on the overall value of the person means compromising on her objective value; compromising on the person’s value as a partner means compromising on her subjective value (see here).

To sum up, respect is an essential part of romantic love, but it can also be exist when love is not part of the relationship. Although there is an element of distance in respect, respect is part of romantic love. Respect for people enables them to keep and be supported in their sense of identity and this is crucial for their happiness and for the success of the relationship.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, though I am not passionately in love with you, I do respect you, and that might be sufficient to allow us to get through the troubled waters we are now in.”

Is there a reader who has loved someone profoundly without respecting him?

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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