You don’t see it or even feel its effects before it threatens to kill your relationships.  Contempt has many faces and is easily masked:

  • Asking your spouse to do a task and then criticizing how it was done
  • Asking his/her opinion, but then seeking someone else’s. If you are getting input from several sources on a difficult topic, say so before hand.
  • Discussing his/her shortcomings especially in front of others without knowing if they’re ready to engage on this topic.
  • Pointing out physical flaws/ weight gain
  • Belittling what he/she does for a living or how they do it
  • Using patronizing tones or words

When I first began to face the reality of my own contempt I was shocked to discover the many inroads it had made into my life.

Not only have we all been impacted by contempt, I’ll go as far as saying we were shaped and formed by it.

Imagine you come home and find your husband at his computer. You greet him and begin to tell him about your day. The only responses you get are grunts, or worse, nothing. And herein lies the danger. We can then assume we know the reason for what seems like a snub from our spouse and under our assumptions are forms of contempt.  Most often these are born out of past painful experiences.

All he does is sit before a computer.  Maybe that doesn’t sound too bad to you, but under those thoughts, are you judging? All he does—really? Is that “all” he does? Contempt thrives in exaggeration. He shouldn’t be sitting in front of the computer all day. We assume we know what is going on – that he has sat in front of the computer all day- and then we judge. Many judgment calls are born out of contempt. But where was the idea formed in the first place? Who made you the judge of how long your spouse should or shouldn’t be in front of a computer? You may direct your contempt inward, He doesn’t really care about me and my day. Again, you are assigning motives to his actions and then making a judgment.

Most of us, however, aren’t consciously thinking about our inward responses to what is occurring around us. So consider this: The next time you think your spouse is ignoring you, or you discover yourself attributing motivation to your spouse’s actions, look where your thoughts run.  Do you tend to take offense? Do you tend to blame out of a sense of being hurt? Have you grown to the place where you’re beyond caring? Maybe all of the above?

There is a reason. Recent scholarship in theology, anthropology and psychology tell us that behavior is born in narrative. The way we behave flows out of past experience, incited by indwelling sin within us. If we are going to commit to a contempt-free, life-giving marriage, we’re going to have to look at past events and allow grace to begin healing us in our deepest places. Not everything is rooted in childhood, but that’s a good place to start.

1. Consider your childhood story surrounding your gender.

Was your gender belittled, devalued? ‘I shouldn’t have expected more from you. You are a boy after all.’

Were you not allowed to engage in certain activities due to your gender? ‘Run along now. The men are going to talk politics.’

Was your gender overvalued? ‘Son, be thankful you’re a boy and not a girl!’

Were you raised in a home where your parents belittled each other or one gender was valued more than the other? ‘Yeah, that’s women for you! Always running you down when you were just trying to do your job.’

How you were shaped as a child influences how you relate to your spouse today.  In his book, Things Hidden, Richard Rohr writes, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”

Having a conflict with your spouse? Can you get curious about it? Is there a root of this same issue somewhere in how you were treated in the past? Have you understood how your past may be continuing to wound and trigger you now, in this present disagreement?

It’s not a matter of hoping you’re doing better than your parents did or hoping you haven’t passed on your brand of contempt to your kids. If you haven’t declared an all-out war on contempt, you are passing it on to those you love most! Dan Allender puts the question like this:  “Will you continue agreeing with evil or will you commit to fighting against it? Will you continue to curse or will you choose to bless?”

2. Don’t assign motive to what your spouse does. 

No matter how well you know your spouse, you don’t know what he/she is thinking. Sure, there are times we are pretty accurate, but generally we don’t know. So when your spouse behaves a certain way, don’t assume you know the reason why. Can you get into a stance of being curious?

Therapist and professor Steve Call says that conflict in marriage is not necessarily positive or negative. The work in conflict is to learn how to allow for (even celebrate) difference in your spouse rather than resolving it by coming to agreement. (For more on Dan Allender’s and Steve Call’s work at The Allender Center, hit this link). The real work is allowing space for differences in your spouse’s way of thinking or doing things.

So, the next time you have a disagreement, look at your heart.

Are you trying to convince your spouse that you are right so they will  do what you want them to do?

What do you gain when your spouse does what you want them to do? Control? Maybe it quiets those inner self-condemning voices?

Steve Call suggests that we are uncomfortable with difference because of fear. If this person, to whom I’ve committed my life, sees important issues differently than me, maybe that means they aren’t the soul-friend that  I need. It touches a core fear that, perhaps, we are utterly alone in the world. Often we cope with this fear by deadening ourselves—we tell ourselves we don’t have needs or desires when we don’t get our way. Rather than squelching your desire or insisting life is done your way, can you allow for difference in your spouse? Can you allow your spouse to tell you the motivation for their behavior without insisting that your way of seeing things is the only way to see it? Or maybe they don’t have a good reason for their behavior and you’ve caught them in the wrong—can you model love by being kind to them anyway?

Back to our example of a husband at his computer—there could be any number of reasons he isn’t responding to you. Whether he’s answering a difficult email or he’s deeply engrossed in a video game, don’t immediately assume you know what he should be doing. Get curious first. When I’m focused on a task, generally I’m completely oblivious to what is going on around me. It wasn’t until I also didn’t hear my own kids calling me that John realized I was not intentionally ignoring him. This was especially hard for him to understand as he is sometimes hyper-aware of what’s happening around him and I am not. Too,  his family of origin greet one another as they come and go. They use verbal cues. My family uses verbal cues except when we are highly focused on a project (which is most of the time!).

You can avoid hours of discussion and hurt feelings by not assigning motives to your spouses actions and by focusing your comments on what is happening NOW, not what happened in the past.

3. Name and Invite

I’m not suggesting that you name your spouses’ contempt when you see it, inviting him/her to repent.  Rather, name the contempt with sorrow and hope and then move toward your spouse and be willing to sit with them in the pain and confusion of contempt. Ask if they want to engage with you about what they are experiencing. That is what I mean by invitation. The exception would be if your spouse is verbally or physically abusive.

Our natural temptation is to recognize contempt in someone else, but then accuse. Contempt moves people apart. It drives a wedge between us and the redeemed goodness that Jesus wants us to experience. In order to fight against the evil of contempt, move toward your spouse and join them in their pain. Whether it’s inward or outward focused, where contempt exists, there is a deep woundedness.

I don’t like weakness, especially in myself. My ancestors were pioneers, explorers and risk takers.  That sentence alone is enough to tell you the particular form of contempt I’m tempted with. And I’ve been quite proficient at hiding my weaknesses from others, as well as my husband. In a 2009 Intimate Mystery conference, before a group of caring witnesses, John and I committed to each other that we would nurture a contempt-free marriage. I didn’t realize how much it would impact my everyday life. Less than a week later I found myself sitting on our living room daybed hashing through an episode that was leaving me in a pit of self-contempt.  I could feel its tentacles sneaking into various arenas of my life, telling me I was a failure, a loser, unfit for my job. You get the picture.

John was getting ready to leave for the office. Suddenly, I realized this was a decisive moment for me. I could stay alone in my self-contempt, hiding my weakness from John, or I could find him, name the contempt and invite him to be with me. YUCK! Who wants to be that needy? I certainly didn’t.  I knew if I thought about it much longer I would talk myself out of seeking him out. I went to our bedroom, only to discover he was in the shower. I plunged forward saying, “Quick, get out of the shower. I need you. Now!” This is not a normal occurrence in our marriage and John rushed out thinking I was in danger. I was!  The danger of continuing to live with contempt would eventually destroy me and us. I was joining evil and cursing myself. Since John had made the contempt-free vow with me, he was aware of the importance of the moment.  He listened and stayed with me. It didn’t take long. But there, with water dripping onto the floor in our repentance-laced embrace, we began to experience a new chapter of goodness in our marriage. One step forward. And on that day, it was enough.