On the hottest day of a heatwave a couple of years ago, my doorbell rang. A woman in her forties was at my door, clutching her paperwork as she went door to door trying to sign up customers to a new electricity company.
I wasn’t interested but the woman looked ready to pass out from heat stroke so I invited her in and gave her a glass of water, and listened to her prepared spiel. I said I would consider it, then asked what brought her out on such a day.
Money. She needed the job. Her marriage had just ended. So there we were, two older divorced women who had just met, reflecting on why our marriages had ended.
She said that her husband and her had stopped respecting each other. She didn’t know how or why it had happened, but it was the death knell to their marriage.
I mentioned John Gottman book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. And how he could tell from signals like verbal abuse and facial expressions that contempt was a factor in marital problems. He didn’t have to spend hours counselling a couple who were riding high on the contempt wagon. He knew that the chances of such a marriage surviving were slim from brief observation.
What he described in his book reverberated with me. My husband had a strange facial expression, as though half sticking out his tongue while squinting. It was childish and horrible, like a schoolyard taunt.
My own experiences confirmed what Gottman tells us. Contempt is the door that one opens to judgement, criticism and often abuse, certainly verbal abuse. Respect is the opposite. Respect keeps the contempt door shut. While we all probably have had episodes of name calling or anger at our partners, respect for them keeps it brief and allows us to feel remorseful afterwards. Contempt and disdain, on the other hand, build up speed and power as time passes until they are the main way we interact.
Contempt and disdain, on the other hand, build up speed and power as time passes until they are the main way we interact with each other.
As a society we talk about love endlessly, as though it is not only the most important factor in the survival of a relationship but even the only thing that matters. We cling to any whisper of hope that the other person still loves us even while we clearly see the signals of contempt, which gives weight to the saying ‘love is blind’.
My ex started expressing contempt for me early on in our marriage. At first, it was through ignoring and occasional put-downs. As the years progressed, contempt became the foundation for all his dealings with me. It manifested in the most simple of things.
If I said that it looked like the weather was going to be good, he would snap back at me that I didn’t know anything, he’d checked the weather channel and it was going to rain. And it also manifested in the most serious of ways, he told our children that their mother didn’t know anything, what could you expect from someone who was raised on a farm?
When you become the object of your partner’s contempt it’s bad enough. When he or she starts instructing your children to show contempt, something needs to change. That was the day I first pictured living the rest of my life without him – reclaiming my respect, my dignity and my relationship with my children.
The really nasty thing about your partner showing contempt towards you is that it causes you to mirror and fire right back at them.
Curiously, when I asked for a separation, he seemed baffled. I tried to explain how worn down I was by the judgment, the criticism, the emotional abandonment, and the endless contempt. He didn’t get any of it. We’d been married a long time. Why did I want out? Finally, in frustration, I said to him that I didn’t love him anymore.
That wasn’t true. Of course, I didn’t have that first, hormonal and sexual love for him or even the steady friendship love that takes over. But I had the memories of love, however faint, of building a family together, and of enjoying the good times and surviving the bad ones. I call it the loyalty love.
But it was no longer enough. I questioned whether he had ever felt any respect for me, or whether I was at first some kind of trophy, or perhaps I had filled a need and interpreted that as his loving me. Whatever it was, I had fallen into the love trap and it took thousands of insults, and endless criticism from him before I was able to crawl out of that trap.
When I told him I didn’t love him, he seemed to accept immediately that the marriage was over, because curiously he could still say ‘I love you’ even while disrespecting me to the point of abuse. He had this belief that all he had to do was say the words, as though they had some kind of magic attached, and if you kept saying them over and over it made it true.
Aretha Franklin nailed this one. In a few concise lyrics, she told us what people like Gottman and others tell us in books and essays of many thousands of words. "All I'm askin' (ooh)
Is for a little respect when you come home (just a little bit)."
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