You’ve seen the signs before:
- A rolling of the eyes.
- A snarled lip.
- A sarcastic tone to the voice.
You’ve seen them targeted at you. And perhaps you’ve targeted the same at another. Those are the signs of what is called “contempt.”
And contempt is the number one predictor of divorce. So says John Gottman. Named among the top 10 Most Influential Therapists of the past quarter-century by the Psychotherapy Networker, Dr. Gottman is known for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction.
And the number one predictor of divorce is contempt. Contempt does not just appear one day out of nowhere in a relationship. It begins with negative thoughts about the partner that simmer on the back-burner for some time. As the negative thoughts make their way into the habitual thinking about the other partner they create a sense of superiority in the one full of negative thoughts.
- They start thinking they are smarter.
- They start thinking they are always “right.”
- They start thinking of the other as despised.
And not only do they “think” it. They start verbalizing it. Contempt can surface through words and actions of disrespect, sarcasm and ridicule. It leaves the other feeling worthless and unloved.
Contempt is nothing new. The word comes from a Latin word meaning “scorn.” Loving relationships cannot thrive on scorn. In fact, they won’t.
Jesus spoke to the issue of contempt in Matthew 5.21-22:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
Notice he begins by talking about anger. Dallas Willard says that anger indulged always has an element of self-righteousness and vanity. That then leads to contempt, or a feeling of superiority over the other person.
In the Matthew passage the original word for “fool” is “raca.” It was an Aramaic word used in Jesus’ time to denote contempt. Willard says it may have originated from the sound a person makes when they collect spittle from the throat in order to spit.
How many relationships survive when one party spits on the other? Not many. That’s why the progression in what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount is important. Notice his topics:
Each moves a relationship one step closer to breaking up. Arrest your anger and you won’t form contempt. Curtail contempt and you won’t start looking around. Lasso your lust and you won’t consider divorce.
Gottman is right. Contempt must be eliminated from the relationship. How? Take a cue from 1 Corinthians 13, the “love chapter.” Each word is a verb. Start acting in loving ways and watch the feelings follow. Appreciate your partner. Affirm your partner. Show affection to your partner.
And then rehabilitate your body language. Stop rolling your eyes. Stifle the sarcasm. Smile instead of smirk.
Your face will thank you. And so will your marriage.
Question: Do you see yourself anywhere along the progression of Matthew 5? If so, what will you do about it?