My first brush with contempt happened in sixth grade. A new boy enrolled in the tiny Lutheran private school I attended. I knew how hard it is to break into a new school, so I tried to be nice to him, to make him feel welcome. For whatever reason, he responded to my friendliness by calling me an unspeakable name. I still remember the moment for a number of reasons. Firstly, no one ever called me a name like that before this. Secondly, the sexually explicit term he called me felt like an assault. I felt the hurt all over my body.
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’
But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Matthew 5:21-22
In my first marriage, I became much more acquainted with contempt. What I didn’t connect with marriage to someone emotionally and verbally abusive was my constant struggle with illness. If a flu was floating about town, I caught it. I constantly twisted my ankle, spraining it black and blue. So when I read John Gottman’s book, What Predicts Divorce, I recognized in myself the connection between my constant barrage of illness and the contempt I lived with daily. Once free of that marriage, I rarely got sick.
Research shows that even an eye roll from your spouse can affect your immune system for twenty four hours. I include some links at the bottom so you can verify the connection between contempt and the immune system.
Jesus links contempt with murder in Matthew, just as he links adultery with a lustful heart.
And in the case of contempt, science bears Him out. So the question arises about the exact nature of contempt and what to do about it.
The qualities of contempt
- Arrogance: The main ingredient of contempt is judgment. When we express contempt, we communicate that our spouse is stupid and worthless. I think when we call our children bad girl or bad boy, we communicate much the same thing. My ex-husband’s favorite phrase was “What the hell is wrong with you?” Instant stress would hit me because I wondered,” What really was wrong with me?”
- Power: Contempt is a power move. If you undercut the other person, you are taking control in the relationship. After you shame or intimidate someone into silence, you have, in essence, taken away their influence in the relationship. If such control is necessary for you, perhaps you might do an inventory of what you fear might happen if you did not have control. Do it soon because controlling behavior destroys love.
- Resentment: Contempt is not just the prerogative of the strong. Contempt breeds contempt, causing resentment to simmer. Hurt one another enough and resentment will live in your heart twenty four hours a day. In my second marriage to my wonderful husband, I found that I had an unconscious resentment against men in general due to the experiences in my previous marriage. I had to let go of wrath in order to walk in love.
How to fix the contempt in your relationships
- Remember humility: Husbands and wives have it hard. We have to jump over a host of pink and blue differences. But every time you think to yourself in judgment, “That is not how I would do it,” remember that your spouse is a different person, with a whole different set of experiences and knowledge. Seek to understand their point of view. You may still disagree, but at least there is a level of understanding.
- Submit to one another: Colossians tells men to love their wives as their own body and women to submit to their husbands. I’m not going to get into a discussion of submission beyond the fact that in my marriage it looks like genuine respect for the other person coupled with a desire to give the other happiness. The callousness inherent in contempt leads to domination. Remember Jesus came as the suffering servant. Domination does not belong in the Kingdom.
- Forgiveness: Letting go of past hurts is a little scary. You might feel like you are giving them permission to hurt you again. But in a marriage between two people who genuinely want the best for each other, forgiveness is freedom. Forgiveness allows you to enjoy each other again, to reconnect. Resentment is painful, physically and emotionally. Even if the other person does not reciprocate, don’t give resentment a foothold in your life.
I was hesitant to write this, given that in so many marriages, one person often seems far more dedicated to the functioning of the relationship than the other.
But the deception of contempt is the belief that there is something wrong with the other person. In truth, each of you is fully armed with a full contingent of faults.
Respect must be earned. I don’t say that lightly. I mean it literally. If you don’t have respect for your spouse, you may have good reason.
But that does not let you off the hook for honoring them. If contempt is the rule rather than the exception in your marriage, then it is time to sound the alarm. Go to counseling, throw a fit, seek a pastor’s counsel. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that contempt won’t wreak lasting havoc on your marriage. In fact, contempt is killing you both.
John Gottman suggests we cultivate a culture of appreciation in our marriage. For my husband and me, this looks like making our marriage a “criticism free” zone. If we have an issue we need to discuss, we find a way around blame or judgment. It isn’t always easy, but one of my daughters noted the other day the gentleness with which we speak to one another. She often found other couples stressful to be around, and she pinpointed our lack of contempt as the key factor in why she felt so safe around us.
So do it for your spouse, your kids, and yourself. Let go the disses and the sarcasm. Let go the eye rolls and the contemptuous expressions on your face. Let go the narrowed eyes, curled lip, and raised eyebrow. Remember that you reap what you sow. Love and honor don’t always come easily, but your life and that of your spouse depend upon them. Literally.