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"Geez, You're Such an Idiot": And 4 Other Types of Disrespect That Are Common in Romantic Relationships

We all know intuitively and from a long line of romantic relationship research that respect in close relationships is important, but what does it exactly entail? Basing much of their conceptualization on Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s (2000) work, Drs. Susan Hendrick and Clyde Hendrick (2006) posit in their Journal of Social and Personal Relationships article that respect includes showing interest, being supportive, communicating well, honoring, and empowering. Respect has also been described as “a feeling of worthiness” (Markus, 2004, p. 3). As Drs. Lynn Jackson, Victoria Esses, and Christopher Burris explain in their 2001 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin article, respect is “an attitude characterized by feelings of esteem for another that manifest in both highly valuing the person’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors and a willingness to be influenced by that person” (pp. 47-48). Drs. Jennifer Frei and Philip Shaver (2002) describe the features of a respect-worthy relationship partner as “admirable and trustworthy by virtue of being honest and sincerely concerned about others’ welfare” (p. 136). As I explain in my book, Make Love Not Scrapbooks: And 9 Other Research-Based Love Tips to Intensify Your Relationship:

“Respectful people value their partners. They treat each other with dignity and never demean one another, especially for personal gain or amusement. They don’t have parent-child communication interactions with one another. They love their partners for who they are and not for who they want them to be. And, they respect their partner’s space, hobbies, and careers” (p. 122).

Disrespect has been given even less attention in the literature, with most researchers only indirectly studying the concept. For instance, when examining conflict behaviors, contempt (which has been argued to be the opposite of respect by Frei & Shaver, 2002 and by Gottman, 1994) has been defined as “using sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor” (Gottman, 1994, p. 29) and has been said to destroy relationships. Other behaviors Gottman (1994) deems as damaging include stonewalling (i.e. ignoring, avoiding, or withdrawing), criticism (i.e. leaving the realm of the specific to attack a person’s character), and defensiveness (i.e. making excuses, denying, whining, or countering with complaints or criticism). All four of these behaviors are so damaging to a relationship that Gottman (1994) has named them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, implying that the presence of these behaviors is a clear sign of impending relationship doom.

In essence, respect is a feeling individuals have towards or receive from other individuals during an interaction or series of interactions that allows one or both of the interactants to feel acknowledged, appreciated, and/or held in high regard. Disrespect is the opposite, causing a person not only to not experience these positive feelings, but to also experience many negative feelings such as worthlessness, inferiority, or foolishness, to name a few. Thus, disrespectful communication would encompass any communicative behavior that manifests this sensation by reducing or eliminating feelings of value, esteem, or dignity within a target individual.

Over the last year, I developed and tested an instrument to measure the amount of disrespectful communication one receives from a romantic partner (Rosier, 2016). In doing so, I discovered that there are 5 main types of disrespect, which I labeled dictatingdisgracingdominatingdisregarding, and dramatizing disrespect.

Dictating disrespect: communication behavior that lays down authority by giving orders, commands, or otherwise communicating in a way that reveals a hierarchy. Think: "There is no way you're going out with your friends tonight! You're staying home."

Disgracing disrespect: communication behavior that degrades, brings shame, or is insulting. Think: "Geez, you're such an idiot. I can't believe you even thought that was a good idea."

Dominating disrespect: communication behaviors which attempt to control the conversation or inhibit another person from achieving his or her communicative goals by interrupting or talking over another person. Think: "I don't want to talk about this now. And, I don't want to listen to you talk about it either. Let's watch this show."

Disregarding disrespect: communication behaviors that slight another person by ignoring, not paying attention, or rejecting him/her. "Gimme a break. There is no reason for you to be upset about that. Whatever."

Dramatizing disrespect: communication behavior where absolutist language is used to describe a person’s behavior in a negative manner. Think: "Why can't we ever do things on our own? You always try to boss me around and tell me what to do. You just don't want me to be happy."

My next several studies are aimed at examining how each type of disrespect negatively (and maybe even positively) impacts romantic relationships. What do you think? Is there a type of disrespect that stings a little more than the others? Is there a type that is a deal-breaker for you? Which type(s) are you willing to put up with from time to time?   

  • Frei, J.R., & Shaver, P. R. (2002). Respect in close relationships: Prototype definition, self-report assessment, and initial correlates. Personal Relationships, 9 121-139. 
  • Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce?: The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. New York: Simon & Schuster. 
  • Hendrick, S.S. & Hendrick, C. (2006). Measuring respect in close relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 23, 881-899.  
  • Jackson, L.M., Esses, V.M., & Burris, C.T. (2001). Contemporary sexism and discrimination: The importance of respect for men and women. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 48-61. 
  • Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (2000). Respect: An exploration. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books. 
  • Markus, H.R. (2004). A social psychological model of behavior. Dialogue, 19(1), 1-4. 
  • Rosier, J. G. (2016). Initial validation of the disrespectful communication scale: measuring the use of disrespectful communication in romantic relationships. Accepted for publication in the Texas Speech Communication Journal. 


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