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Can forgiveness breed contempt?

Posted in Life & Love, and Relationships

603636_10203156726974389_8121417668759135165_ncamparigirl 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.

marathon021Empathy (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.)

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  1. Well if you want to know how she felt you should ask her! The trigger started with another blogger who posted that the shootings in Santa Barbara were NOT due to misogyny but to mental illness. I retorted that misogyny is related to mental illness because “hate” for a gender cannot be healthy mentally and spawns many problems. As is to be expected, he “corrected” me saying not all misogynists hate women, some simply believe they are subordinate to men, that’s all. Used to this sort of thing, I ignored him and googled the definition of the various definitions found, most definitions did in fact used “hate for women” but also use the word “contempt for women.” You are spot on, contempt is at the opposite end of empathy. You cannot “fix” or make a marriage work with someone who lacks empathy and this goes for both men and women, so I have learned. As for my feelings of superiority, I felt smug. I felt like I was “making it work” by doing whatever it took to save my marriage where as others did not work hard enough and I do not think I am alone in my smugness which I warn you all against. Hence trigger #2, not an easy confession but I did. My marriage was going to be a success and if I had to accept an “imperfect” solution so be it, I did love the man and believed that this love would be enough hot fix it. Love does not fix contempt. Sorry to create a ruckus but I got you writing and that cannot be a bad thing. I need to tag authors for the Blog Writing Process Tour, please let me know if you are interested in writing about your writing process and how you differ from other writers in a sea of blogs.

    June 19, 2014
  2. I find contempt such a tricky emotion, worse than jealousy. Comparing it to something slimy, oily is such a good analogy!

    June 19, 2014
  3. Very interesting post – and I loved the question in your title. Finding the right question is often more interesting and thought provoking than an answer….I did find it revealing that she felt “superior” to her husband who was ‘screwing up’ and I am sure he found himself reflected in her contemptuous eyes…Your quote from Lord Chesteron says it all: “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.” My guess is he hated her for showing himself to himself!

    June 19, 2014

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