Reader T. J. writes:

People will treat you how you deserve to be treated.  Respect is earned.  But how? Does a person have to change the way they behave and who they are if they want to gain the respect of others?  Or should the person just not require the respect of those of who don’t appreciate their way of being and behaviors?  How about in a relationship?  Should a woman change her behaviors in order to gain a man’s compliance?   Should she be more subtle when she is a more direct person?  Should she be super nice and sweet in order to get super nice and sweet in return?  Or should she just be herself and wait for him to step up and be the sweet guy she remembers?  And if being herself fails, then quit?

Dear T.J.:

This is a really loaded question. It’s more like fifteen questions. Let me try to parse it out and see what I have to say on it.


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I think there are two types of respect: automatic and earned. For the most part, we humans all have at least a modicum of generalized respect for other humans — respect for privacy, respect for personal space, you know, those common courtesies most people extend to other folks just because we’ve all got to get along here. That’s automatic respect. Every person has this natural respect for other people, unless you are a psychopath.

And then there’s the respect you actually have to earn. Respect for your expertise, for instance. To earn this at a workplace, you have to prove that you actually have it. Beyond that, the people you work with have to recognize that you have it. Depending on the person and the politics, you may have to insist on the respect and demand it, rather than just expecting it from someone. In this sense, yes, you may have to change your tack for getting the respect you deserve, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to change your entire personality.

Yes, I also think if people refuse to give you respect, you should do your best not to want it or require it. This can be difficult in a workplace. However, we do have HR departments in place to take care of things when the lack of respect gets out of hand. Don’t put up with it. Demand the respect you deserve. It’s common decency. If someone can’t follow the rules of common decency, they need to be shown how, which isn’t your job.

In a relationship, on the other hand, I think respect should come automatically. Respect is part of affection. You may have to communicate about the minor details of respect, but for the most part, relationship respect is mutual and natural. You respect your partner’s needs and desires, they respect yours. It goes beyond respect, in fact; you not only respect these wants and needs, but you uphold them and try to fulfill them. That’s what makes it a loving relationship.

The truth of the matter is, if you’re not getting the mere respect you need from someone in a relationship, the relationship is over. Respect is the very least a partner can give you. You can’t change your behavior to get that respect back; he has to change his. There’s no HR department in your relationship to force him to act properly. It’s got to be his impetus, and you can’t raise that in anyone but yourself.

Yes, be yourself. Always be yourself, especially in your romantic relationships. But do not wait for him to step up. Tell him what you need, and if he can’t meet it, leave. I can’t emphasize this enough. Do not spend your time trying to bring someone who is unequal to you up to your level. He has to already be there. You are just going to be frustrated and angry.

Compliance is not necessarily respect, by the way. Those are different things. Compliance sounds to me like control, and if you’re in a place where you feel like you need to control the other person, you’ve got some serious issues going on. Furthermore, “sweet and nice” are usually automatic in relationships, too, unless you’re not into that. Has it gotten to the point in your relationship where you’re just angry all the time, and sweet and nice are completely out of the question? That’s a huge glaring neon sign that it’s over in my opinion.

Be brave. You do deserve respect, especially in your romantic relationships. But it should be automatic, not earned. Do not set about to prove to him that you deserve his respect. Demand it, and if he doesn’t give it, respect yourself enough to leave.


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