Relationships, Part 47: The Fourth Foul: Contempt

Of all the four fouls of an unfair fight, contempt is the most damaging. It’s the coup de grace that finishes off a relationship. If you were wondering if you should see a marriage counselor, if contempt shows up: you should; but it may be too late.

You can recognize contempt in its various forms. There’s the milder versions: eye rolling, sneering, sarcasm, an exasperated sigh. There’s the stronger types: name calling, mockery, scorn, and the pulling out of all the dirty laundry. Contempt is implicit in domestic violence, back stabbing, betrayal, and when you alienate her from her children.

Contempt is found whenever you communicate that you are superior to your partner; each time you cut him down, objectify him, overpower him, ridicule him, and undermine his relationship with others. Express contempt when you are trying to have a constructive conversation, and it’s lights out. There’s no point in going on. It’s time to take a break and you’ll need to apologize when and if you return.

The four fouls, Defamation, Defensiveness, Stonewalling, and Contempt, can be thought of on a continuum, ranging from the most cerebral, Defamation, to the most visceral, Contempt. Contempt is associated with the disgust you feel when you are sick to your stomach, poisoned by some toxic substance, and you puke. When you are showing contempt you are basically saying that the love of your life is a toxic substance and you can’t wait to get rid of her. That’s a peculiar expression of love, isn’t it?

We might differ on what we believe love is; for some there is more passion than others. Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that love has to involve admiration, appreciation, attraction, and respect. Contempt corrodes all that. Yet, I never fail to be amazed when couples can show contempt for one another and then insist that they are in love.

However, despite what we think love should be like, as a matter of fact, love and hate are close cousins in the family of emotions, unrelated to apathy and indifference. You can be the most hateful of the very people you love. It’s impossible to be indifferent to your partner, it matters what she does. The people you are closest to are the very people you can most easily hurt, and can most easily hurt you.

If you’re going to love people, you’re just going to have to get used to the fact that sometimes you’ll have contempt for them, and they will for you. Your darling may disgust you, but it is a feeling that can be regulated.

All you have to do is get close to someone and you can see all his flaws. There are blemishes on his skin; his feet look like they belong in a monster movie. He sniffles and snorts and farts and burps and leaves skid marks on his laundry. He’s afraid of spiders, cries at graduations, lies to his mother, and is too cowed by his boss to ask him for a raise. Sometimes his penis fails to get hard. He has complexes, phobias, insecurities, and, once in a while, has bad dreams from which he awakes, screaming. He’s filled with rage when a car cuts him off. Your partner is a mess.

So are you.

Contempt shows up whenever you forget that you are just as disgusting as your partner. When you fail to observe the truce that is necessary for any two people to get together, an agreement to overlook obvious and not so obvious defects. When you fail to keep your promise to love him anyway.

The thing that regulates contempt is humility. Nurture your humility. Those who fail to, get humiliated.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

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