Displacing Contempt with Respect
Want to give your marriage heart burn? Try treating each other with contempt.
Contempt has been identified as a corrosive relationship pattern among couples headed for bust. An expression of despisal, contempt is the toxic cousin to criticism.
Contempt is a devastating weapon when deployed by manipulative abusers, where the recipient is beaten down by savage scorn and disgust. Yet, it can also be present in more subtle ways in otherwise normal marriages. It includes things like:
- Insults, name calling, offensive language
- Sarcasm, mockery, ridicule
- Criticism of character and personality rather than behaviour
- Lecturing, correcting, patronising
- Using a derisive or condescending tone
- Eye rolls, sneering, grimacing, and other body language
Common to all these behaviours is an attitude of superiority. When we express contempt towards our spouse, we are looking down on them with disgust and judging them as inferior to ourselves*.
Not surprisingly, contempt does deep damage to our relationships. It wounds the heart of our beloved triggering hopelessness, fear, withdrawal, and secrecy.
It’s presence in a couple’s marriage is a forewarning of relationship failure. But the impact of contempt goes much further than the wounded heart of our spouse. It also damages ourselves.
Research has long noted the negative effects of marital breakdown on health and longevity. The harm is not just to our psyche, it’s to our physical bodies as well.
The question remains, why do otherwise decent people get stuck in patterns of contempt?
The immediate source of our contempt for the other usually arises from our own hurt, disillusionment, or our fear of abandonment or disrespect. When feeling vulnerable or wounded, contempt for another can make us feel stronger and less helpless. It is a self-protective behaviour; we try to make the other less of a threat by making them smaller and weaker, and ourselves superior.
But any relief is temporary. Whenever we express contempt towards another, rather than compassion and kindness, we inevitably feel shame and guilt for our lack of humanity.
Those emotions are often repressed as simply too confronting to own. Ironically, the root cause of our contempt for the other comes from our contempt for our self.
Rather than protecting our hearts, contempt often triggers the very things we fear – disconnection, abandonment, and disrespect by the other.
The Contempt Antidote
The cure for chronic contempt is to bring our shame and guilt into our awareness where we can own our limitations and challenge our self-condemnation. For Christians, opening these rejected parts of ourselves to the God, who took our shame and guilt on Himself, is part of our journey in faith.
From the vantage point of the cross, Christ encountered the impact of self-condemnation in those who persecuted him and in those who abandoned him. Yet, he saw through their contempt and cruelty, through their shame and fear.
Christ perceived the heart of each one, and he saw a beloved child of his Father. He was able to see them with the Father’s eyes.
Which brings us to the idea of respect. The Latin roots of the word mean ‘to see/look’ (spect) ‘anew’ (re).*
In other words, to look again, to see more deeply. To see past the superficial words and behaviours into the heart of the other. To see as God sees, a kind of intentional divine vision.
When we consciously foster ‘re-spect’, it transforms our perception of our spouse. Instead of a threat, we see a tender, wounded heart. This person our heavenly Father has given us to love, is his beloved son or daughter.
‘Re-spect’ also transforms how we see ourselves, particularly those parts which we reject and repress. Genuine self-respect is about seeing and loving all our interior parts, including those parts we dislike.
As a divinely inspired vision, ‘re-spect’ is the antidote to contempt, enabling us to love ourselves and others more fully.