Contempt, Connection, Curiosity and Clarity

“Even the invisible leave footprints.”

(Wayne Gerard Trotman) Using Discontent Well Dr.’s John Gottman and Judy Schwartz Gottman, (co-founders of the Gottman Institute,) can predict whether couples will divorce with 94% accuracy. The number one factor that determines this outcome? Contempt.

I’ve found over the years that many of us human folk on hearing that truth, focus on how to stop expressing or carrying contempt for the other, in every kind of relationship. While this is well-intentioned, I believe it is misdirected.

Contempt is there for a reason. Pushing it aside is no more useful than pushing aside anger, rage, orfear. These unpleasant feelings are unpleasant for the same reason many poisonous substances taste bad: They are giving us important information. We get a whole lot farther when we listen. The information we hear helps us move from contempt to constructive curiosity.

Don’t Crash Your Planes When we perceive contempt from another person, whether directly, implied or assumed, it creates a physical

challenge to our prefrontal cortices. Connectedness and belonging keep our prefrontal cortices connected to the rest of our brain.

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for error correction, problem solving, consequential learning, discernment.It serves as a sort of air traffic controller for our thoughts, emotions, and actions by gathering and synthesizing the data from the neocortex, the heart brain and gut brain. Contempt makes our inner air traffic controller abruptly walk off the job, at times spectacularly crashing our ability to work through the challenge in front of us like sane people.

We no longer “belong” with the person in that moment. Because this wound is primal, it makes us each less available for a conversation that could heal the relationship. Trying to convince ourselves not to feel or express contempt only makes it worse.

Plane Crashes at Home Imagine that someone you share a home with keeps doing something you’ve said a million times you are not okay with, like expecting you to do a household task you have said for years you are not ok with doing. The other person simply doesn’t do it, despite countless conversations about it.

You know there is no point in addressing it again. Nothing will magically change the 10th time around. You see the following options:

  1. You can let the task go and live begrudgingly in unacceptable conditions.
  2. You can do the task yourself and resent it time and time again, each time reminding yourself that the other person is being a horse's ass, all the while trying not to express contempt because apparently that’s a bad thing for relationships. (Now you also have contempt for the people who told you that contempt depletes relationships.)
  3. You can choose to do the task yourself because you aren’t okay with that task not being done, letting go of the expectation that the other person will ever do it. Now you feel more contempt.

Curiosity is the antidote to contempt, but because contempt disconnects you from the other person, the last thing you want to do is to approach them with curiosity. They feel fundamentally unsafe. Why would you risk being hurt by them all over again?

Listening to Self Instead, take some time to listen carefully to your contempt. It’s not about dishes, or toilets, or clean floors. Listen deeper. This is a time where running an XYZis useful, even if you never share it with the other person. It will point to the repeated pattern that leaves you feeling contempt.

Your internal conversation might sound like this: “When you (X,) complain about the bathroom trash not being taken out, but never take it out yourself,

“it (Y) leaves me feeling demeaned, as if I’m here to serve as your maid and not your partner. This leaves me feeling overburdened, lonely, and disconnected from you.

“I would prefer (Z) that when you see the trash piling up, you take it out yourself. If you want to revisit who does what in our home, I would love to have that conversation.”

While conversations about specific challenges, or what I call, “The clothes the argument is wearing,” can be helpful, they do not resolve contempt. The solution is found in the real argument that the conflict-clothes are wearing.

The Real Conflict The real conflict wraps around your point “Y,” and it likely appears in multiple conflicts wearing different clothes at different times. If you want to stop feeling contempt for the other person, have a conversation about what your “Y” revealed to you. You can use the clothes the argument is wearing as illustrations but be careful not to get lost in pointless arguments about specifics. This is about the bigger picture.

From Contempt to Curiosity Looking at your “Y,” spell out the wounds you are receiving. Now, turn them into curiosity questions.

  • Do you think of me as an equal in our relationship? In your mind, what are the ways you show me that?
  • Are there things that I do that leave you feeling like I don’t value you?

If we can use our tools to stay self regulated, we can hear the other person without flipping into “threat mode” all over again. Now there’s hope that the conversation will heal the wound to our sense of belonging, (which literally makes our brains work better.)

Closeness or Clarity At times, those conversations will lead to some ugly truths. It could be that the person really does not value you, or value your relationship. As painful as this can be, it’s better to know than not know. At this point, you are better positioned to make healthy choices in response.

Perhaps the relationship needs to end, or has already ended, but you hadn’t yet accepted it. Maybe the relationship and your expectations of it need to change to better reflect what is there and not there, instead of what you thought you were building together.

Build in Beauty In long term connections, our expectations, and the kind of relationship we have will inevitably change over time. Sometimes those changes are not bad things, even when they leave us grieving the dream we originally dreamed. Grieving what we don’t have can make room inside of us for what we do have.

When we have these inner and outer dialogues inspired by contempt, we can “update our database” on who we are, who the other person is, and what we are doing and not doing with one another in this moment, at this time.

Use your clarity to build something beautiful, with the other person, without the other person, or differently with the other person. Your awareness will serve you well, and even help you avoid future internal air traffic controller walkouts. ......................................................................................

Would you like help with using contempt well? Contact Tiffany today. Let’s get your Air Traffic Controller back on the job.