According to marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman, contempt is the single most significant indicator that a marriage is in trouble. Contempt is an attitude of superiority and disgust. It’s harmful to a relationship because it tends to express itself in actions that communicate arrogance: We’re not equals. I’m smarter than you. I’m more sensitive than you. I know what’s best. I’m OK … you’re not OK. You are beneath me! If that’s your mindset, you disregard and dismiss your spouse because you don’t value his or her feelings and thoughts. You’re unwilling to empathize with his or her experience. This makes the marriage feel unsafe for your husband or wife.
Contempt is also poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s like eating rotten food. Your nose immediately wrinkles, your lip curls and you spit out the food. No one wants to stay in a marriage when he or she feels rejected and unwanted.
When we express contempt — or merely communicate with a spouse while in a contemptuous frame of mind — we can become truly mean and disrespectful. Here are a few of the more common ways of showing contempt for another person:
- Speaking with sarcasm
- Using hostile humor
- Sneering or smirking
If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this kind of communication, you already know how hurtful and destructive it can be. No wonder Dr. Gottman regards contempt as a kind of marital death knell!
Contempt is fueled by long-festering negative thoughts about your spouse. When negative beliefs invade your marriage, eventually you stop seeing the positive. At that point, a thing called “confirmation bias” sets in. Confirmation bias is a type of selective perception. It’s a way of subconsciously choosing what you notice about your spouse. When it kicks into gear, you start zeroing in on anything that tends to support your established convictions and beliefs while ignoring everything else. If your perspective is negative, you focus on the negative. You notice what your spouse does that frustrates, hurts or disappoints you. No matter what, you will find what you are looking for — good or bad.
Antidote for contempt: X-ray vision
One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the one about Gideon. The Israelites had disobeyed God and were worshiping Baal. As punishment, God allowed the Midianites to decimate the food resources in Israel. Gideon was hiding wheat when an angel appeared to him and said, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor” (Judges 6:12). Gideon basically scoffed at being called a “mighty man of valor” because he believed himself to be the weakest person in his tribe.
Gideon later goes on to defeat 135,000 Midianites with only 300 men. That’s cool in itself — but what I really love about the story is that the angel saw through Gideon’s fear, sarcasm, low self-esteem and argumentation. He looked past the whining and moaning and focused on what was true about Gideon. It was as if the angel had X-ray vision. He penetrated the exterior and called out what was true inside.
What if I were to tell you that, like the angel of the Lord, you too can develop an ability to see through obstructions? It’s true. Contempt sees the rough exterior or least-attractive tendencies: moodiness, anger, fear, laziness, a complaining or critical spirit, impatience, withdrawal, etc. On the other hand, X-ray vision sees through the annoying qualities of the spouse in front of you to find the “person of valor” — the positive qualities within.
The true antidote for contempt is to see the positive — what is true about your spouse. The apostle Paul exhorts us in Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” You have to choose to focus on the person within instead of dwelling on your husband’s or wife’s rough exterior. When you choose to see the best in your spouse, it’s a powerful gift to him or her.
I love how Henry Neuman, in his book Modern Youth and Marriage, makes this point:
Disillusion, of course, enters in time. There are no full-grown perfect beings. Sooner or later the frailties are recognized. But there is in most people a better self which the fallible self hides; and the greatest privilege of the married life is to be the one who assists the other more and more to do justice to that better possibility.
What a privilege as husband or wife to look beyond the fallible side of your spouse and see his or her “better possibility.” By treating each other with respect rather than contempt, you create opportunities for personal growth that will enhance your marriage relationship.
The German statesman and writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe put it even more succinctly: “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”
Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author of Fight Your Way to a Better Marriage.