How To Loathe Your Way to Relationship Failure

Are you married? Dating?

As you well know, chances are pretty slim your current Love-relationship will last. Fortunately, though, there's a one-step litmus test to determine whether your most important relationship is bound for the crapper.

I first heard about this test in Canada, in a weird little church called Nexus that at the time was being run as a sort of discussion panel between two dudes, Peg and Dave. Peg was a university professor and Dave was a therapist, and one Sunday they started talking about Contempt as an indicator of health. Apparently, the word "Contempt" is a better translation of what the Bible's often talking about when describing how you shouldn't treat other people.

But perhaps, in addition to their Bibles, Peg and Dave had also been reading Malcolm Gladwell's book BLINK.

In BLINK, Gladwell looks at some of the ways experts thin-slice their experience in order to make better snap judgements. He tells of a man named John Gottman who, after years spent closely studying the the human face, discovered that by watching a couple interacting for only a few short minutes, he could determine with ninety-five percent accuracy -- just by their micro-expressions -- whether their relationship would last.

And the key underlying dynamic he watched for? Contempt.

If one (or both, but I suppose that's less common) of the partners views the other with Contempt, that relationship is doomed.

What is Contempt? I think the gestalt of the thing is that one person views the other as being qualitatively inferior to him or herself. It's usually very, very subtle in its manifestation. But we humans are positively spectacular at rooting out subtleties.We just know when someone thinks they're better than us.

When conflict arises (as it inevitably does in relationships), the contemptuous person quickly enters something Gottman calls "negative emotion override," in which even the relatively neutral actions and words of their partner get re-interpreted as being negatively-motivated. At that point, the recipient of the contempt is pretty much hooped up the creek without a paddle, because everything he or she does -- regardless of how well-intentioned -- will be perceived as being in bad faith.

So, how do you tell if your partner holds you in Contempt?

Well, you could pop on over to Gottman's website, buy his DVDs, spend a little time learning how to read faces, and find out if your partner's really in it for the long haul.

I tend to think, though, that Contempt is a choice -- not an inevitable reality. While there are definitely inadvisable relationships, I do not think there's such thing as a coupling that makes contempt inevitable. Granted, you probably shouldn't enter into a relationship where contempt exists right at the start. But once the ball is rolling, you have a choice as to which direction you'll take it.

To take Gottman's own words regarding his book, What Makes Love Last, "I think the one single thing I would like people to take away... is that you can really build romance, passion, and lasting love... You have to actively cherish your partner's positive qualities, and think in your mind how fortunate you are to have this person in your life - and let her know that she's really that special. If both people do that with one another, then the relationship can last forever."

It's bigger than just that, though. I think this principle can be extrapolated out into every relationship in your life, because I think you are always being faced with a choice between contempt, and love.

What is Love? 

(I mean, other than "Baby, don't hurt me")

Well, I think it's arguable that Love is, at its essence, about being in right relationship. It's about not, as Pratchett's Granny Weatherwax said, "treating people as things," but rather, acknowledging that people (including you) are amazing, wonderful, transcendent beings that have a specific place in the larger mosaic of creation. I think Love is also about being in right relationship with the world as a whole -- realizing my small place in it and acknowledging that while that small place is, in fact, spectacular... this does not give me the right to have Contempt for the place of anything else.

There's treasure EVERYWHERE.

There's LOVE everywhere. 

So perhaps, instead of going all detective on your partner's facial muscles, you should take a moment to see a little bit of that Love, and slather a bit of it all over your partner. And then... if, after all that, they're still holding you in contempt... well, get out a chainsaw and drop a tree on their car.

Or maybe, don't.

Because that tree is a living thing, worthy of your respect.


  1. I enjoyed reading your blog today. Good stuff!

  2. Very well said, Josh. I thought we were all DOOMED at first, but you brought me back around to believing in Love. Awesome.


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