One would say love can’t exist without respect. There is some logic and truth to it – true love doesn’t come without respect for a loved one. However, there is a sad reality of many people who confuse admiration with love and who can feel a deep affection for someone without truly respecting them.
Dare to say, men are the main culprits here.
Men tend to be more susceptible to this (due to different socialization and gender roles). This isn’t really surprising – it’s the way society tells them how to treat women. It goes with the perception of women as ethereal and beautiful, but ultimately strange creatures a man can never truly understand. A man builds an admiration for her beauty, her charm or maybe even her character, but this affection falls short on the respect because a woman is seen more of a beautiful object than a fully human being. This was a traditional way of viewing women and femininity.
Luckily, things are changing these days, but these feelings are still present surprisingly often. This is how you get men who will claim to love a woman but without understanding her as a person, men who want to protect and support a woman but without accepting her agency and opinions, and, ultimately, men who have deep feelings for a woman while still considering her an inferior.
It all comes from the power imbalance and unchallenged gender roles. Women, on the other hand, often internalize these opinions. This is why you still find many women who believe that a man finding them beautiful is the highest praise there is or that being admired by a man is more important than a basic human respect.
I must say I am not familiar with this feeling. I am not a type of a woman men admire or find beautiful. It sure made my self-esteem shaky as a teenager. But paradoxically (or not?), the lack of sexual attraction and admiration often led men to respect me. I don’t mean they necessarily liked me (in fact, I am not particularly liked; I’m too awkward for it). However, any dislike or animosity came from a dislike for my individual character. In other words, I was treated as fully human, for better or worse. As if lack of attraction or sexual interest made men able to see me as fully human, as if it made them respect me on a basic human level.
And yes, I could tell a difference. Fashion magazines tell you a bit of makeup and trendy clothes make a lot of difference, and they’re right. I know what is like to dress up and “prettify” yourself, and yes, it makes men see you differently. Those moments resulted in a heightened interest by men (I am usually ignored – many men ignore women they don’t find attractive), but the type of comments I’d received and the way my opinions had been received clearly showed the lack of human interest. As if being attractive somehow made me less human. This the disrespect I’m talking about.
The main point is that men (or whoever has a problem of “loving” someone without respect) should understand that a person they love is a fully human being not so much different than “their kind”. The whole idea of men and women being inherently different is particularly harmful here because it essentialises gender differences in a way that prevents people to see those of a different gender as “one of their own”. As a result, it leads to Othering and exoticism of the other gender(s). And as we all know, Othering & exoticism = no true human respect.
Not to say women are not susceptible to this. However, women as a group still don’t have equal power in the society; society is still male-oriented and catered to male needs. Men are presented as fully human all the time: they are leaders, teachers, doctors, flirts, fools, cowards, heroes and anything in between. They are still seen as a “default human”. In this sense, women are constantly aware of all the different ways men are and can be; women can’t simply forget men are fully human and they can’t forget all the variety of their behavior. Sadly, the way women are portrayed is still reduced to a few types, often defined in a relation to men: a mother, a wife, a daughter. There’s still a harmful dichotomy – the one that leads to the whole “admiration without respect”, the horrible “Madonna vs whore” dichotomy.
What is the solution? There isn’t an easy one, and it probably requires redefining gender roles from scratch. I don’t see it happening anytime soon. At the same time, I must say I do notice a bit of a change in a good direction. Still, we have a long way to go before this problem is fixed.
PS- My personal litmus test here was to never trust a guy who wouldn’t respect you if you had a one night stand with him. I suppose it’s a bit unorthodox way to go, but it worked for me.