CONTEMPT AND RESPECT
John Gottman can tell if you’re going to get a divorce. For decades Gottman has been observing couples and can predict with over 90% accuracy which couples will remain married and who will get divorced in the future. Gottman’s research suggests that one criteria sticks out more than any other.
There are many reasons couples don’t get along and ultimately decide to part ways. You might guess that the deciding factor in the declaration of divorce is rooted in disagreement over money, issues of faithfulness, the ability to get along, or frequency of fighting. But it turns out that those aren’t the primary causes of divorce. There is one simple quality above all others that is indicative of a marriage fractured beyond repair – contempt. When Gottman observes contempt in just a short interview with couples, he knows with almost certainty that the marriage is doomed.
While disagreements happen, money issues are stressful, and trust can break down when we act with less than noble intentions, all of these situations can be remedied. Trust can be regained, disagreements can be negotiated, and money, while an ever-present dilemma, is not as important as we make it out to be. But contempt is a deal breaker.
After all, what can be done (other than leaving) when someone treats you with disdain, in a vile manner, or with utter scorn? To use a self-defense analogy, once someone puts their hands on you, it’s time to defend yourself any means necessary or it’s time to go. Similarly, once you’re on contempt street, it’s time to move on to a different avenue.
But contempt isn’t just a marriage issue, it has become a societal issue and an all too frequent occurrence. With political polarity, dysfunctional government, income inequality, health care disparity, and corporate greed at all-time highs, contempt is a full blown cultural epidemic. Compounding the problem, the media (and the mediums with which we use) exacerbate this phenomenon. We insulate our newsfeeds and social media with like-minded followers, we interact only with those who hold similar views and we ‘play the game’ at work because corporate America is predicated on collective thought, not critical thought.
The reality is that we as a society are divorced from one another – right from left, rich from poor, religious from secular, and corporate employee from entrepreneur. We are in uncharted and strange times where civility and healthy debate seem like unattainable and impossible concepts. If we are ever to ‘re-marry’ as one nation and one planet unified in thought and deed, then we have some serious work to do. Addressing any systemic issue starts with getting at the root of the problem.
Contempt is easy to spot but difficult to resolve. Evidence of contempt is everywhere we look - the current political tone, the sensationalism of the media, viral videos of angry airline passengers, road rage, and police shootings. Indeed contempt is easy to diagnose, but much harder to cure. In finding the solution, we must first name the cause.
Any time you’re looking for a root cause of something, looking at its opposite usually paints a telling picture. Contempt comes from a misguided feeling of superiority and the irony in a feeling of superiority is that such a state arises from a state of inferiority. Historically, extreme nationalistic movements occur from a feeling of being marginalized or defeated. From this context, such a reaction seems logical – what better way to respond from being judged, conquered, or overwhelmed than to instill a healthy dose of pride?
But pride comes before the fall and while pride is perhaps a logical reaction, it’s a faulty one. Pride leads to contempt and contempt leads to divorce. While the self-justified feeling that accompanies contemptuous action feels good in the moment, the end result is always a poor if not a fractured one.
If contempt is the root of many of our societal issues, the remedy once again lies in looking at its opposite. The opposite of contempt is respect. Contempt is the proverbial chip on your shoulder on steroids - hating each other, hating ourselves and most of all, hating viewpoints that differ from ours. The quick litmus test of contempt is the ability and willingness to sit with uncertainty or opposing forces. If you can’t bear to hear, read, confront or spend time around those who look, act and think differently than you do, that’s a “you” problem.
Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin famously sang about respect, but the tone of their narrative was about getting respect. Demanding respect especially for those for have been wrongfully persecuted and stigmatized is understandable. But our modern contempt epidemic calls for giving it. The great teachers in history from Jesus to Gandhi to MLK show us that love and respect is only gained through giving and empathy.
The great challenge of our times is to realize we are not special but one. We are not a great nation but a great planet. We are not defined by what makes us different and unique, but by what makes us similar and brings us together. We don’t respect the planet, we don’t respect our bodies, and we certainly don’t respect one another. It’s about time we started to.