Tools for Couples Happiness — 09 July 2006
Why treat your partner as someone less than your friend?

Since being in a loving relationship is a life bonus, why is it that once this goal has been achieved many people tend to treat their mates worse than they would any other person?

Relationships usually begin with excitement and awe. Each individual bestows the other with the most endearing traits and feels fortunate to have met the “perfect” match. To gain this wonderful person’s love and commitment each individual presents his/her best qualities. Some of the more common components of one’s mind-set during courtship are: respect, adulation, interest, attention, appreciation and praise as well as the desire to please and make the other happy. Disagreeable attitude, ill will, disrespect, criticism and poor manners are rarely in evidence early in relationships. Regrettably, for far too many couples the shift to these emotions and conduct occurs after the commitment has been cemented.

What has happened? How could some people treat their best friend, soul mate, and the love of their life in a way they would never dare treat a stranger? How could some individuals allow their original reverence for each other to transform into disdain, callousness and insensitivity?

Most people would not ignore a neighbor’s lament or respond to it with dismissal – they would be polite and compassionate. Most people would not speak disrespectfully in tone, gestures or words to an acquaintance – they would reserve judgment, contain disapproval and stay attentive. Most people would not make shaming comments about another individual in front of his/her friends -they would abstain from inflicting pain upon another, even if they possess the urge to do so. Most people would not abandon their manners in public – they would know what should only be done privately and act appropriately in the company of others. Yet, many people disregard their compassion, respect, attentiveness, kindness and manners with their partner who is their best friend.

Could it be that familiarity indeed breeds contempt or could it be that the process of joining together causes us to lose our perspective?

Familiarity may not cause contempt but it does cause disillusionment.
People shift their perception of their mates as soon as their idealized view of the partner lands in reality. Suddenly, what had been perceived as desirable traits such as bubbly, talkative, strong or quiet are soon re-labeled as chattering, annoying, selfish or withdrawn. Not only did the traits become negative they are now perceived as unchangeable character flaws. Once this occurs, the reaction to the disappointment they feel may lead some people to hidden anger, which manifests itself in disrespect and maltreatment of the partner.

Familiarity also breeds enmeshment. Once two people merge into one unit, the boundaries between them fade. It is as though they are alone or with their “other half”. In that case, being inattentive to manners, blaming, shaming, being disrespectful or inattentive are similar behaviors to the ones an individual may experience with him/herself. Those who have a critical self-view may perceive their internal self-shaming talk as an incentive for change, rather than a humiliating practice. This may cause them to be unaware of their inappropriate conduct with their loved one.

In a committed relationship familiarity may also breed carelessness in conduct based on some erroneous assumptions. One false belief is that a love based commitment means unconditional acceptance. The false premise is that once the partner knows that s/he is loved all types of behaviors (even the unacceptable ones) should not be seen as offensive and should be tolerated. Knowing that the intentions are never harmful should suffice in inhibiting any hurtful feelings.

Whatever familiarity breeds, the insensitive treatment of the mate- is UNACCEPTABLE. Love of a partner never includes or justifies rudeness, criticism, shaming, or bad manners. Intimacy requires deep respect, compassion, consideration and caring. These emotions must guide mates in their conduct toward each other.

• Those who disrespect their partners reflect their own low self-esteem and discredit themselves and their union.
• Whatever you would not consider doing to an acquaintance, is certainly inappropriate to do to your best friend and life-mate.
• A life commitment does not protect the pair’s two sensitive and vulnerable hearts. It should only reinforce the need to safeguard each other with love.
• Preserving your good manners in the company of your mate adds allure to the attraction between you.
• Being reverent of your partner in front of others elevates the regards others have for you and your relationship and keeps your love connection intact.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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