Do unfaithful spouses deserve respect?
If your immediate response is “Not a chance,” my mission is to change your mind in the few minutes it will take to read this article.
Because, as my mentor Pia Mellody is fond of saying:
Respect is the minimum of love
Yes, that’s right. Even when you’ve been betrayed, lied to, and cheated on, respect is still the minimum of love.
Does that mean you accept or approve of everything your spouse has done (or is still doing)? No.
Does it mean that even if you believe your spouse deserves to be treated respectfully that you will always act in a respectful way toward your spouse? No.
Does it mean that you respect everything about him and everything that he has done? Definitely not, just as you probably aren’t proud of many things you have said or done over the course of your lifetime.
If you want to maintain your dignity, self-respect, and create emotional safety in your relationship, you will choose respect over disrespect. Every single time.
Not perfectly, but to the best of your ability.
What does treating a spouse with disrespect look like? Here are some examples:
- Making shaming or belittling comments.
- Name-calling of any kind.
- Talking down to your spouse by saying things like, “I guess you wouldn’t know about being honest . . . .”
- Treating your spouse like a child or telling your spouse what to do.
- Eye-rolling, sounds of exasperation, or other forms of nonverbal communication that convey disrespect or contempt.
- Being sarcastic.
- Repeatedly interrupting or talking over your spouse.
- Giving your spouse the silent treatment with the intent to punish him or to get revenge.
As you can imagine, none of these behaviors creates emotional safety, fosters intimacy, or moves a couple in the direction of restoring a relationship that has been damaged by infidelity.
Here are 5 reasons to choose respect over disrespect, even with an unfaithful spouse.
To maintain your integrity
This may seem obvious, but can be completely forgotten when you’re angry, triggered, or in a full-on rage.
When you act toward another person in a boundary-less, disrespectful, or contemptuous way, your behavior is 100% your responsibility — no matter what the other person did. Believing otherwise is the same as believing that your spouse’s infidelity was your fault, when it was actually 100% his responsibility.
If you believe that you “had/have a right” to treat your unfaithful spouse disrespectfully because of what he/she did, then you are not taking responsibility around your own issues of integrity, which leads to the #2 reason to choose respect over disrespect.
To avoid “Offending From the Victim Position”
Offending from the victim position is another concept from the work of Pia Mellody which describes exactly what happens to a betrayed partner when she believes she has a right to be disrespectful, or even abusive, to her spouse because of what he did. Offending from the victim position means that I believe I am a victim of what another person did (or what I believe they did) and therefore I have a right to retaliate, take revenge, or abuse that person.
No doubt you were a victim of his lies and relationship-destroying choices, but when you use having been a victim in the past to justify your disrespectful or abusive behavior, you are not only out of integrity, you are creating a lack of emotional safety in your relationship.
But what about what he did?
What he did is about him. You are responsible for your role in creating — or damaging — the emotional safety in your relationship. If you choose to offend from the victim position, the lack of safety you have created is your responsibility, and not a result of his cheating or deception.
To protect you & your relationship
When you choose to stay respectful rather than showing disrespect toward your spouse, you protect yourself from the pain of regret, or the need to apologize later for being disrespectful, which can be a very vulnerable thing to do with an unfaithful spouse. And if you’re thinking, “I would never apologize for being disrespectful,” I hope you’ll think again.
Apologizing for disrespectful or abusive behavior is relational and accountable. If your spouse was disrespectful or verbally abusive to you, would you want him to apologize? My guess is yes.
When you protect your relationship from disrespectful interactions, you are also avoiding unnecessary drama, pain, and the need to repair or make amends for the damage you’ve done.
Choosing intimacy over disconnection
Let’s face it, disrespectful or verbally abusive interactions cause disconnection. When you are consistently respectful, you are doing your part to be relational and create the emotional safety that fosters intimacy. And isn’t that what you’re longing for?
To maintain self-respect
This one (almost) goes without saying, but one of the many benefits of staying respectful is that you maintain your own self-respect. I’ve worked with many partners over the years who have literally been in tears around the pain and regret they feel for the shameful and hurtful things they’ve said to their spouse. All of that can be avoided when you choose respect.
You may wonder whether there are any exceptions to the respect rule, and that’s a great question.
If your spouse has demonstrated repeatedly that he is not capable of being faithful, or he is not doing anything to stop addictive behavior, you have a serious relationship problem that may not be salvageable. You deserve better. And the truth is, it is possible to end a relationship that is not healthy for you and to do so in a respectful way.
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2019)