As a rule, you can teach someone to treat you the way you want, and this is especially true with a romantic partner. We’ll explore some of the specific ways you can do this, but the most important point to understand is that the best time to start a healthy relationship dynamic is in the very beginning, before things get messed up and each partner has accumulated a list of resentments!
Men and women are never passive participants in a relationship. If a man doesn’t meet your needs later in the relationship, it either means that you are with the wrong partner or you didn’t properly set the boundaries and explain your needs directly from the beginning. Now, I know dating and relationships can be complex and stressful, but being clear from the beginning about what you need and how you want to be treated is something you must do if you hope to have a good relationship that lasts.
In the beginning of the relationship, you need to teach your date the specific ways in which you want to be respected. It doesn’t matter how legitimate your needs are, either; your needs are automatically legitimate because they’re yours. As an example, some of my female clients are more traditional in that they are looking for what I call an old-school gentleman — one who opens the car door and pulls the chair out for them as they’re seated at a restaurant. If, say, this is one of the ways that you want a man to show you respect, you may need to ask for it directly if he doesn’t think to do it on his own. In the situation where he disappoints you and doesn’t do it automatically, open the car door yourself, but then ask him, “Would you mind next time opening the car door for me when we go out? Silly or not, I really appreciate that.” If he doesn’t want to do that kind of thing for you, this guy is not going to meet your relationship needs – and good that you know from the beginning!
I also work with some women who feel strongly about the kind of language men use. For example, one female client I see gets enraged when people throw around the word “bitch,” even if it is said in a joking manner. For my client, I have explained that she needs to tell a man from the start that respect is extremely important to her and that she cannot tolerate anyone using words that are nasty or derogatory toward women.
Being on time is another big issue for some of my clients, and these individuals want their new date to be respectful of their time by not being late for prearranged plans. This issue may sound like a small one, but the truth is that timeliness is a major source of conflict in long-term relationships. If you are someone who is always on time, you need to make it a high priority to teach your date from the beginning to be on time with you. Say, “I hope this doesn’t come across the wrong way, but I’ve always been someone who is on time, and it’s important for me to be with someone who is similar in that respect.” To seal the deal, ask for a verbal contract. “Is that something that you could try to do with me when we get together?” Setting these boundaries early is the best way to teach someone how to treat you in the beginning of the relationship. If you don’t do it early, it can be awfully hard to get him or her to change later.
Finally, perhaps the most important way in which romantic partners need to teach each other respect has to do with listening. I find that women in relationships feel more frustrated than men about not being listened to, though there are always exceptions to the rule. It’s important to listen to your partner when your partner is upset, wants help with a situation, or simply needs to vent and know that you care. The truth, unfortunately, is that most men and women spend the week working, and feel totally exhausted by the end of the day. Add to all that social obligations and trying to make it to the gym…and you have one very exhausted society! Accordingly, it’s not fair for both of you to come home from work and to expect each other to listen for a good half-hour when either of you is upset. But five or ten minutes? You better believe it. From the very beginning of your relationship, say, “I’m sorry, could you give me a few minutes because I’m upset and I feel like I need a little TLC?”
In most cases when you ask for something that’s reasonable (e.g., asking for five minutes as opposed to a half-hour), the other person will deliver. But if they can’t meet the need – and show that pattern on a regular basis – you need to look out the window because that’s where you’ll find your next date.
Dr. Seth is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, Psychology Today blogger, and TV guest expert. He practices in Los Angeles and treats a wide range of issues and disorders and specializes in relationships, parenting, and addiction. He has had extensive training in conducting couples therapy and is the author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.