camparigirl wrote a post the other day about making marriage work. Not something I am versed in, which some might say would exclude me from comment. Just like not having had a child apparently renders me less capable of knowing instinctively what one needs. Well, that’s just “Balls” (as my Uncle Gary would say). Not that I’ve ever needed prompting to express my opinions.
One of our readers posted an interesting comment in response the piece. She has been through the mill with the dissolution of her marriage, and found the lightheartedness of the title (Until annoyances do us part.) triggered her sense of loss, anger and fear all over again. She wrote: “Most people I know didn’t divorce over petty annoyances including myself. I overlooked my husband’s fidelities (sic) and followed Hillary (Clinton)’s lead feeling quite evolved, forgiving and even superior myself until his infidelities revealed a deep-rooted hatred and contempt for me and the pattern evolved into violence. Cheating should have been a deal breaker for me. My “forgiveness” was construed as a weakness and sickened him further, his contempt grew.”
Claudia responded – clarifying her position in the post. Emphasising that she does not hold, ever, with violence. Whether emotional, physical, mental or financial.
But our reader had me at “Contempt”. Say it out loud – it’s a heady, menacing word. Now think of the body language it evokes: a raised upper lip and flared nostril, a tilted shoulder, eye rolling. And the tone – sarcastic, disgusted, disrespectful. Contempt is a ‘power over’ position. A negation of someone else’s right to be, think, feel. It’s the opposite of empathy. And in a personal relationship it’s a death knell.
She wrote that she had overlooked his early indiscretions: “feeling quite evolved, forgiving and even superior myself.” How, I wondered, would she define that position?
Lord Chesterfield wrote: “Wrongs are often forgiven, but contempt never is. Our pride remembers it forever. It implies a discovery of weakness, which we are more careful to conceal than a crime.” Being thought of as weak is the ultimate weakener. Being thought of as weak leaves a stain. And that stain will subtly colour how we see ourselves and others forever: locking us in the dance of making ourselves feel more, by making another feel less.
Empathy (that GPS of relationship navigation) is the polar opposite of contempt. Empathy involves caring about others feelings and concerns. Empathy invites sharing. Contempt is only about self. It is about arrogance (“I know best”) disregard, dismissal and denigration. I saw it often in my job, in the relationships the powerful or rich had over people who worked for or loved them. I saw the damage and loss of face and faith that resulted. And I experienced it first hand too – felt the sticky shame that contempt leaves as its smear. Ironically, at the hands of a friend who had once told me (in relation to someone else’s situation): “when contempt enters a relationship, it’s time to leave”.
No-one can truly know a relationship unless they are in it. And even if you are, you probably only know the half. Please be assured, I am not pointing any fingers here. I know from bitter experience that most relationships have roiling, oily, unspoken issues lurking just below the thin veneer of everyday. I also know (again from experience) that there’s no saving a relationship (marriage or otherwise) on your own. If someone cheats, lies, scorns, hides, berates or ever beats you: walk away immediately. Leave the experience, take the lesson.
But, recognise your part. Maya Angelou once said: “When someone shows you who they are the first time, believe them.” Do, especially if that someone is you.
(All images found uncredited in the public domain.)