Breakups can be hard to explain. It can feel like we owe not just the disappointed partner an explanation, but the entire world. It can feel like we’re only allowed to break up with someone if we have a “reason.” Like, what did he do? If he didn’t “do” anything, what happened? It’s like firing an employee and worrying about a lawsuit. Romance isn’t like that, though. Either you have strong feelings for someone, or you don’t. Either the relationship is mutually satisfying, or it isn’t. It can’t be mutual if you aren’t feeling it on your end. Respect, affection, and love are the bare minimum. Respect is probably the most important of these, and without it, no real love relationship is possible.
If you realize you don’t respect the one you’re with, it’s over.
Looking back at my early dating life, now that I’m a married person, I realize that Young Me put up with a lot of absurd behavior. What built the marriage I have now is that my dating standards gradually improved over time. I quit tolerating a lot of bad behavior, making me more selective and helping me to recognize when I met someone I could appreciate and admire.
The truth is that young people will generally all act alike until external pressures cause them to be more accountable and responsible. A lot of common dating problems come from someone just being immature, sloppy, and selfish. These aren’t personality traits, they’re bad habits. Given higher expectations, many people will pull themselves together and stop acting that way. Given a permissive, forgiving enabler, they may carry their juvenile antics decades into the future.
As an example, I had a boyfriend when we were both teenagers. One day he called me on the phone and accused me of stealing money from him! I was outraged. I yelled at him and hung up. Later that day he found the missing twenty in his pants pocket and called me to apologize, but I hung up on him again. He made his mom drive him across town where he showed up at my door, crying.
Imagine a pair of forty-year-old adults in this scenario. It’s almost impossible.
When I started looking backward for examples of times when a boy lost my respect, they popped up, one after another. Some were mine, some belonged to friends, some were just hopeful suitors. One way or another: grow up, boy!
The one who got tired of waiting in line at a convenience store and shoplifted a soda
The one who stole my laundry quarters
The one who never, ever washed a dish, cooked a meal, or did a chore
The one who admitted that he didn’t use soap in the shower
The one who let his mom pick out his furniture - and he was thirty
The one who shoved his laundry and clutter into his hall closet when guests came over - also over thirty
The one who drank malt liquor at 8 AM
The one who asked me over to watch him play Halo
The one who wanted me to drive over and clean his apartment on weekends
The one who admitted to $40,000 in credit card debt, with no plans to pay it off
The one who was married “in France, so it doesn’t count”
The one who sat and watched me pitch the tent, set up camp, and make dinner while cracking jokes about his own incompetence
The one who had his own apartment, but no bed, and just slept on the couch with no sheets
The several who had their own place but no soap or hand towels in the bathroom
The ones who hadn’t been to the dentist in eight years (translation: Mommy quit taking me)
The one who ate breakfast cereal, toast, or grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner every night
The one who replied to my online dating profile with two emails, one addressed to me and an identical one addressed to someone else
The one who hadn’t filed his taxes in three years
The ones with no shower curtain who just let water pool on the floor
The one who proudly shared about yelling at a major client at work, unprovoked
The one who took me on a surprise outing to the country to attempt to buy an illegal firearm
The one who gave my phone number to his friend after I broke up with him
The one who neglected his cat
The one who stole painkillers from his parents’ medicine cabinet
The one who got drunk and threw up in the bushes
The one who used the same pickup line on my friend as he had used on me a few minutes earlier
The threshold for romance - the barest minimum standard - is for someone to act like a mature adult, not a teenager or a child. This is why it stands out so much when someone old enough to vote has poor personal hygiene, doesn’t clean up after himself, and can’t or won’t cook a proper meal. You can’t be a lover to a man when it feels like you also have to be his parent.
Another non-negotiable is personal values. I can’t respect someone who steals, especially small amounts, because with standards that low, where do they stop? I can’t respect lying or any kind of dishonesty, whether directed at me or anyone else, because again, how can you communicate without trust? I can’t tolerate breaking the law, because that puts me at risk, as well as my friends, family, neighbors, pets, and anyone else in the line of fire. It’s also dumb.
I don’t like being around people who are in an altered state. That’s my preference. It’s not worth anyone’s time for an ascetic like me to hang around people who like to get drunk and party.
I have no use for players and never did. Knowing that some boy is looking over my shoulder, hoping for a better opportunity, never worked for me.
Being worthy of respect isn’t complicated. Simply give your word only when you intend to keep it. Be responsible for your own material needs, clean up after yourself, and live intentionally. Have some kind of consistent ethical standards. Be willing to stand up for what’s right and speak out against what’s wrong. Tell the truth about your life. Simple, right?
Clarity around what we can and can’t respect tends to change things. Those who aren’t interested in meeting a higher standard will simply drift away. Those who remain are the ones who make solid friends. Among them may be some options for reliable mates, and among them, maybe one who will rise to meet your expectations.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.