Cracked wall painted with with the word respect sloppily stenciled on it.

How To Gain Self-Respect In A Relationship

Relationships. They draw us in, bind us together, dangle possibilities before our star-struck eyes. They also expose us for who we are and can be. Relationships strip us to the nakedness of vulnerability – that iffy space that can both heal and hurt. Do you find yourself or lose yourself? Do you know how to gain self-respect in a relationship while also surrendering to it? Can you sacrifice, compromise, even apologize while standing firmly in self-love?

There are risks we take out of the necessity of living – driving cars, undergoing medical procedures with no guarantees, sending our children to school.

There are also risks we (or some of us) take for the sheer thrill (and craziness) of an adrenaline rush. Jumping out of a perfectly good plane? Definitely for me. Bungee jumping to within inches of a cracked skull? I can’t even….

And then there are risks we take because we are so taken with the promise of possibility. We see right through all that will be asked of us and focus on all that can become of us.

We may know cognitively that there will be sacrifice, struggle, even pain. But we lead with our hearts. God knows we might not take the risk otherwise.

Relationships, if embraced for their inherent gifts, are not unlike a brave mother giving birth. Nothing is more traumatic to her body than the tsunami of pushing life into this world.

And nothing connects her more inextricably to the power of love and the willingness to lay down her life for it.

Reel that analogy back into the relationship that got her to that life-altering point in the first place.

The “sacrifice” now comes with a different kind of challenge: How to give your all without losing yourself. Even how to gain self-respect in a relationship when a little lack of attention can cause you to lose it.

It’s important to distinguish between self-respect and self-esteem, as the two are often erroneously used interchangeably.

Self-respect is the regard and acceptance you have for yourself. It goes to the core of your inherent worth. If you have healthy self-respect, you value yourself and behave in a way that reflects that awareness.

Important to this discussion is the fact that self-respect is an essential foundation to having respect for others.

Self-martyrdom, for example, is usually donned as a cloak of “do-gooding.” It may appear to be all about “giving, giving, giving.” But it really stems from deficient, even non-existent, self-respect and a desperate need to appear good to cover for all that feels so bad.

It sets up a dishonest relationship dynamic, in part because the martyr assumes no personal responsibility.

S/he is the one oppressed by the world – by lack of understanding and lack of compassion. S/he is the one tending to everyone else’s well-being and happiness, so s/he deserves their agreement and acquiescence at all times.

The constant drama of the martyr complex is exhausting. Because it is rooted in a lack of self-worth and self-respect, the energy of mutual respect is stunted. No one in the relationship/family can be authentic because there is a necessary and constant evaluation of how to appease the martyr.

A healthy self-respect, on the other hand, is solid and durable. It can withstand the onslaughts of insult and disagreement because its self-mantra is grounded in self-love. I am worthy. I am valuable. I love myself. No matter what, I will be OK.

Notice that self-respect says nothing about being perfect or never in need of growth. It simply plants itself in the soil of inherent worth. I am worth knowing, even with my faults. I am worth the effort necessary to grow. 

Self-esteem, on the other hand, is a statement of regard for your abilities and accomplishments. It’s about what you do, not about who you are.

Self-esteem is vulnerable to the opinions of others.

  • Why doesn’t anyone want to buy my art? 
  • Wow, I must have done something good to have gotten such a favorable response! 
  • My boss is giving me a raise because of all the big sales I made this year. 
  • Do these jeans make me look fat?

While self-respect would say, “OK, lesson learned, stuff to work on, but I’m no less wonderful,” self-esteem would be more impressionable.

When it comes to relationships – and how to gain self-respect in a relationship – it’s important to remember “the mirror.”

You and your partner reflect one another – the good, the bad, the I-don’t-knows. When the pendulum swings heavily to one side, the other person swings just as heavily to the other to instinctively seek balance.

If you have a healthy self-respect, you will have no reason to fear the introspection that leads to self-accountability. (And there is a huge difference between self-accountability and self-martyrdom!)

It’s from this mindset that you are able to communicate with your spouse without fighting.

That’s not to say there won’t be some heated moments at times.

But the behaviors involved in healthy communication are rooted in respect. Respect for yourself. Respect for your spouse. Respect for your marriage/relationship.

If you find it difficult to work on self-respect, then consider what you would do to show respect for your spouse when you’re communicating. You may think that monitoring your body language, listening with intention and reflecting-back, and expressing validation are about loving your partner.

But beneath that outward expression of love and respect for another is the love and respect you have for yourself.

Self-respect is about acceptance of yourself. And that includes your personal standards and your adherence to them.

When you control your volume, make eye contact, create safety, honor boundaries, speak your thoughts/feelings/needs clearly, and commit to “doing no harm,” you accomplish two things.

Yes, you show your partner your commitment to the well-being, growth, and even healing of your relationship.

And, perhaps more importantly, you send a huge message of validation and confidence to yourself.

  • I did the right thing, and it feels good. 
  • I did the right thing, even when my partner didn’t. And I feel strong and capable. I know I can live according to my principles and standards, no matter what may tempt me away from them.
  • By treating my spouse with respect and compassion, I am teaching him/her how to treat me. I am saying, in essence, “I am able to respect you because I respect myself, and I expect the same treatment from you.”

In terms of how to gain self-respect in a relationship (or simply to maintain it), nothing is more important than setting healthy boundaries.

Boundaries are not walls. They do not block relationship, they facilitate it. They make clear “where I end and you begin.”

Boundaries also have consequences. Not punitive consequences, but consequences that make sense when boundaries are ignored, let alone trampled.

Without clear boundaries, you might as well be saying, “Whatever. I’ll just live with it.”

Inevitably you will end up with a growing, seething resentment. You may not know how to put your finger on it, but deep inside you will feel disrespected.

By not verbalizing your feelings and needs, you will give them domain to sulk and fester inside of you.

And every breach you permit in the name of not rocking the boat — or simply out of fear of standing up for yourself — will be a self-betrayal.

You will feel betrayed and act betrayed, perhaps passive-aggressively.

But it’s important to realize that the first betrayal is the one you impose on yourself by not upholding the boundaries that define your self-respect.

And, until you are willing to honor and protect the spirit that is you — not arrogantly or self-righteously, but confidently and consistently — nothing will improve.

Even the relationship fights you keep having will continue to present themselves as opportunities to “come clean” with yourself.

Only then can you “come clean” with your partner and your relationship.

Only then can you demonstrate authentic respect.

Only then can drama give way to calm.

And only in that calm can there be growth.

Mary Ellen Goggin offers relationship coaching for individuals and collaborates with her partner Dr. Jerry Duberstein to offer private couples retreats. To learn more about working with Mary Ellen, contact her here.

Mary Ellen Goggin

Mary Ellen is a highly skilled and intuitive relationship guide. She brings over 35 years’ experience with individuals and businesses as a lawyer, mediator, personal coach and educator. She received her J.D. at University of New Hampshire Law School and a Master’s Degree at Harvard University. Mary Ellen co-authored Relationship Transformation: How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too with Jerry Duberstein — and they were married by chapter 3. Mary Ellen brings a unique blend of problem-solving, practicality, and warmth to her work. She’s a highly analytic person, with geeky and monkish tendencies. She’s a daredevil skydiver, a voracious seeker of knowledge, and an indulgent grandmother. Her revolution: helping people become the unapologetic rulers of their inner + outer realms. Read more about the retreats