Don’t (Con)Tempt Me

“Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.” — Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight

I recently had an, ahem, “conversation” with a well-loved young person in my life about appreciation and gratefulness. Or the lack thereof. (If you have teenagers, you’ve probably had some version of this same conversation.)

I had built a marvelous head of steam. “It’s not only that you don’t recognize my ongoing efforts to love and support you, it’s also that you actually seem to hold these things, and me, in contempt”. (Melodrama, party of one? That’s fine. I own it.)

I expected an eyeroll in response, but instead I got a puzzled look. “I literally have no idea what you’re saying. I don’t even know what that means”.

The comment sort of derailed the subject at hand, but it led to a good conversation about the definition of contempt, and how it’s shown by scorn, lack of regard, and disrespect. I also explained how contempt is easily recognized in cues such as sneers, eye-rolls, or sarcasm, and how it feels pretty crappy to be on the receiving end of those things, especially from someone you love.

The concept makes a good topic for discussion, because we see a lot of contempt in the world today. The internet, for example, is rife with it. Political and societal views are polarized, and each side vilifies the other with an almost gleeful enthusiasm. The result is an escalating conviction that the other side is not only wrong, but inherently stupid, and perhaps even evil.

You’d have to be blind not to see what these levels of contempt are doing to our country, and foolish not to worry about the divisiveness that springs up in its midst. We know that issues at hand are multi-dimensional, and the answers are very rarely black and white…don’t we?

This online negativity does take a toll, and its effects bleed over into the real world. I, for one, put filters on my social media during the last election cycle to avoid seeing the comments some people were making- they were so angry, inflammatory and full of contempt for the other side that I couldn’t bear to read them. In those moments, I barely recognized my friends- they weren’t the people I knew and loved.

Nineteenth century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer defined contempt as “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another”, and it’s even more toxic in face to face relationships, including marriage.

Dr. John Gottman, Ph.D., author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, has studied relationships for four decades to better understand the fractures in marriage that lead to divorce. He’s developed what he calls The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse*; criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

I’ll give you one guess as to the most toxic of the four.

That’s right, contempt. It’s the number one indicator of divorce.

Sit with that for a moment. The number one indicator. It’s statistically more problematic than drug or alcohol addiction, cheating, or money problems in a marriage.

At its foundation, contempt is a person’s belief in their own superiority, and it telegraphs a conviction that you have the moral, emotional, or intellectual high ground. Contempt says “I’m better than you. You have some inherent flaw that’s beyond fixing- you’re either too lazy, stupid, or morally bankrupt to overcome it”.

Contempt shows an utter lack of respect, and relationships won’t survive it.

The good news is that a pattern of contempt can be broken- but the only way to do it is with compassion…and that requires self-examination and introspection.

Here are some ways to break the cycle:

  1. Be aware of your body language; don’t roll your eyes, sigh, or sneer during interactions (or use language that’s the verbal equivalent).
  2. Have realistic expectations and pick your battles. People have different needs and opinions, and you won’t see eye to eye with them on everything. Sometimes you’ll get your way. Other times you’ll compromise, and sometimes you’ll have to yield.
  3. Consider why certain issues bother you so much. Do some self-examination and see if your response is in line with the offense. If it’s not, there’s an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.
  4. Listen more. A true dialogue can often resolve things much more easily than we would have expected.
  5. Don’t ascribe intention to actions and behaviors. When we just assume a certain message is being sent, it leads to BIG miscommunications. If someone is hurtful, ask them to explain before assuming it was done intentionally.
  6. Recognize your role. Disagreement isn’t a one-way street.
  7. Don’t overanalyze. If you replay a situation in your head over and over to decide what someone was “actually” saying, you’re creating an imaginary interaction that can stray far, far away from the true circumstance.

I do think the urge to debate is one of the fundamental aspects of human nature. We all want to he heard…and there will be those who respond with a different view. We don’t always have to agree, but if we can approach discussion with compassion and empathy, we can remove contempt from the equation- and open dialogue can be the impetus for change.


* The Four Horsemen of Apocalypse premise is super interesting. Read more about it here.

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