Setting: The Six Elements That Determine the Tone of Your Love Story
Element #2: Contemptuous vs. Vulnerable
Jim felt backed into a corner. Seven years into the marriage, it didn’t seem to matter how hard he tried to please Esther, she kept upping the ante. Desperate to get her attention, he tried to tell her that a new car was not in the budget. Esther seemed unaffected – even bored – by Jim’s plea. Looking away from him, she used the palm of her hand to press out a wrinkle in her skirt as she waited for him to finish his budgetary diatribe. A sneer flashed across her face as she drew breath for her response. “Maybe if you spent less time out playing with your little toys and got a real job, we would drive something that wasn’t such an embarrassment!” Furious and emasculated, Jim stormed out of the room. He’d buy the car alright, but he would never let himself be so close to her that her opinion of him hurt him again.
Contempt is a cousin to criticism and once criticism has established itself in a relationship, contempt is not far behind. Of the six factors that determine the tone of a marriage, the presence of contempt is the most toxic. It is also the single best predictor for whether a couple will remain married or get divorced (John Gottman). Contempt is a mix of anger, judgment and condemnation and it can cut straight into the heart of your spouse. Contempt often, but not always, arises from an intent to insult or hurt. Contempt suggests to your spouse that they are beneath consideration, worthless and deserving of disdain, disrespect or scorn. Name-calling, sarcasm, insults, cutting statements and mockery are all expressions of contempt. However, contempt is not limited to verbal expression and because it reflects an attitude or an internal stance, it is most clearly evidenced and expressed through nonverbal displays. Subtle – and not so subtle – facial gestures, body posture and tone communicate an attitude that says, “You – your opinions, your feelings and your perspectives – are not worthy of my time.” An eye roll, a slight raising of the chin, a crossing of the arms or a slight curling of the upper lip expose the presence of contempt more powerfully than any words. A woman who’s mastered the eye roll can more effectively emasculate her husband with one simple gesture than with a thousand words. No less significantly, a husband who raises his chin to look down on his wife’s emotional display can crush her heart with a glance.
Because contempt, like criticism, implies disrespect, condemnation and rejection, it creates an insecure and unsafe tone in a relationship. If criticism erodes a sense of safety, contempt explodes it. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ (an Aramaic term of contempt) is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” In a marriage, each expression of contempt cuts deep into the heart of one’s spouse, causing immediate hurt and shame. Contempt pushes a spouse away, creating increasing distance in a relationship. Eventually, your spouse will become convinced that their ability to please you is utterly insufficient and they will shut their heart down.
Vulnerability is the risky alternative to contempt. Contempt and the anger that accompanies it are not primary emotions. In almost every instance, contempt arises out of a deeper fear, disappointment or hurt present in the relationship. In later blogs, we’ll talk in detail about how contempt ultimately arises out of a deep fear of abandonment. As your self-awareness grows, you will come to see how both criticism and contempt are misguided ploys to provoke loving behaviors from your spouse or draw them closer. For now, though, it will suffice to say that the alternative to expressing contempt is expressing the deeper fears and hurts that preceded it. Your spouse is a fallen person and they will inevitably disappoint you; it is legitimate to be disappointed or hurt by your spouse. It is also legitimate to fear that you will not be adequately cared for or considered in the relationship. Expressing these fears and desires in an open and vulnerable way is healthy and critical to growth in a relationship. Whereas contempt provokes distance, vulnerability pulls for closeness and care from your spouse.
“I called you twice!” Anne shared, the intensity of her anger evident to both myself and her husband. “You said that we don’t get enough time together so I called you to see if you could do dinner before you left for the weekend.” “I’m sorry” Jim offered. “I had my phone on silent and didn’t know.” “You didn’t even call me back when you did see it! What kind of a man does that!” The tone and nonverbal expressions were clear evidence to Anne’s contempt. I interrupted her, hoping my tone and pace would slow her down as well. “Anne can you tell me what was going on for you when you called Jim the second time and he didn’t answer?” “I was just mad. Well, maybe it hurt.” “That makes sense.” I offered. “I was excited because my afternoon meetings got cancelled and I really thought that he’d be excited to do an early dinner with me. And when he didn’t answer it scared me and it hurt. It’s like, why isn’t he answering? I felt foolish for being excited. Why did I even think he’d want to do dinner with me?” And as the tears began to fill Anne’s eyes, her vulnerability drew Jim in; leaning toward her, he reached for her hand.
Posted on Tue, April 15, 2014
by Jeff Pipe filed under