04 Sep Hold in Contempt
Some time ago, I wrote about one of what are known as “the four horsemen of the marital apocalypse” as defined by researcher John Gottman. These are four patterns in a marriage or other close relationship that, if left unchecked, are likely to lead to the end of the relationship. Gottman labels the four as criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. The one I wrote about previously was criticism, but I am ready to tackle today what Gottman identifies as the most destructive of the four – contempt. What makes it difficult for me to think, let alone write about contempt is that the very idea of it especially directed toward someone you love is foreign to my nature and upbringing. But it seems that not everyone had my mom to calibrate their moral compass.
Gottman once said, “contempt is sulfuric acid for love.” It is the most poisonous thing one can do to a relationship short of physical violence and in some ways, you might consider contempt a form of emotional violence. There are many things that are contemptuous but think of it this way. Contempt usually comes out when one feels a mix of anger and disgust. From that emotional state, conveying to your partner that you consider them of low value, of not mattering, of not being smart, of being useless, talking down to, dismissing, scorn, name calling, eye rolling, sneering are all ways of offering contempt. What better way to really hurt someone who has opened themselves to you in an intimate relationship than to return that vulnerability with contempt. I even sometimes see that the one who has been receiving the messages of contempt feels justified in counter attacking with the same horrific tactic. Marriages at this point can in be in deep trouble.
In a recent blog I quoted a fine therapist, Terry Real, who said “there is no redeeming value in harshness.” Well, take harshness and juice it up with a big shot of contempt and it goes from no redeeming value to terribly destructive value. I don’t really know how else to say this but to say “STOP!” Every time you hit your loved one with the ugly name or dismissive gesture, you are ripping a thread from the basic fabric of your relationship. You are eating away at the foundational material bit by bit and there is NO JUSTIFICATION for it. My mom would tell you that not only are you hurting a loved one with contempt, but you are also slowly poisoning yourself.
Instead of contempt, why not seek and express gratitude? What would be so bad about a big dose of empathy and the search for ways to build your loved one up? How about responding to hurtful exchanges with more tenderness and patience than you have received? Could you consider being the bigger person and not taking the bait of their criticism? Why not doing an intentional search for the ways and languages of love? What do you think? I know my mom would be mighty proud of you if you did!