Is there something in your relationship that predisposes you to divorce? According to studies conducted by John Gottman, a professor and head of The Relationship Research Institute, the leading indicator of potential for divorce is found in the way a couple communicates. The presence of criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt are all bad signs, but contempt is the worst. Gottman claims that when he and his researchers discern contempt between couples it is an 85% plus indicator that divorce is imminent. Malcolm Gladwell detailed the method Gottman uses in a book titled Blink. The method is simple; a couple sits together and discusses whatever they like; whatever is on their mind. Researchers measure their body language. Facial expressions. Posture. Body and hand movements. They dissect a video of this exchange and categorize what they see. And they can see contempt. Is that hard to believe? Not for me it isn’t. I don’t need a super slo-mo break down of someone’s body language or facial expressions to detect contempt. It is hard to define contempt, but I know it when I see it, and I know something else; I know when I am showing it. How about you? Can you feel it when you are receiving or giving contempt? I can understand why it is a predictor of divorce. It is belittling. It is discounting. It is placing someone below you and acting as if who they are and what they think are of no consequence. It is relationally corrosive whether you give it or take it. Contempt is relational rust, and it will disable not only our marriages, but our friendships, our families – anything it touches.
According to the research I should be divorced. Not only have I dished out a heap of contempt upon my wife, but I have done plenty of things worthy of her contempt. But there is a secret to disinfecting our marriages. There is a way to stop the rust in its tracks, and to restore and renew the metal underneath. It isn’t painting over it. Some years ago the Secretary of Defense came to visit our ship during a Fleet Exercise off Puerto Rico. The Captain ordered us to paint the bridge wings even though we didn’t have time to properly prepare the surfaces. We painted right over the rust. The Secretary came and walked around our great looking bridge wings. He came and went in an hour. A week later we had all the rust plus paint peeling all over the place. The bridge wings looked worse than than ever. You can’t paint over rust. You have to acknowledge it and take a grinder after it until the metal shines. And this is how you survive contempt. Acknowledge it, and grind it out. This is simple, but it isn’t easy. The way we discovered it was the way most of us survivors discover it; we got married to a person who we never thought we’d hold in contempt and ran right into the fact that both of us were contemptible. This was a shock to our system, so we did what most people do; we glossed over it. We pretended it just wasn’t there. After a few cycles of shocking ourselves and covering it over, we had a real mess on our hands. We had contempt popping out from under our paint and we couldn’t ignore it any more. We had to face the fact we married someone contemptible, and then we had to decide to grind it out. Getting down to bare metal is not comfortable. It hurts.
The truth is that it takes more than just you or your spouse to get it done. We are not contemptible people because our spouse says so – marriage didn’t make us that way, it only revealed what was already there. It revealed the true and deeper relational rust. There is corrosion at a much more profound level; between us and God. What God did to save us from this was truly amazing, and it was what saved my marriage. The gospel is that God who could belittle us and count our opinions and lives as meaningless, demonstrates through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that he does not hold us in contempt. God allows himself to be held in contempt so that we don’t have to be. Do you see the practical application of this? How can my wife hold me in contempt when God doesn’t?? She can’t keep me there! If God says I am beyond contempt, I am beyond contempt and no one can hold me there but me. And when I try to arrest my wife and throw her into my own little holding cell, I realize how ridiculous it is to try keeping her there. This is the grind; the gospel meeting contemptible people day after day, knocking off the real cosmic rust and taking us back to a true view of ourselves. My wife and I live with this grinding as a reality. It keeps us shiny and new looking through the harsh environments we’ve sailed through in our marriage.