“You have very little morally persuasive power with people who can feel your underlying contempt” Martin Luther King Jr.
Contempt is a painful cocktail of anger, disgust, and grandiosity. Within the seed of contempt lies the healthy desire to be seen, accepted, and valued. It’s strategy for self-validation, however ineffective. Contempt reacts to the expression of diverging voices with attempts to dismiss, invalidate, and even destroy. It says “I want to be validated so badly that I’m willing to put a sour expression on my face, roll my eyes, attack and dismiss your ideas, and even challenge your worth as a human.”
Dismissive contempt is the most serious red flag a couple can wave. It signals death unless heartfelt efforts are made to re-establish cohesion and care for the system. As a couples therapist I aim to move each member beyond an endless cycle of attack, withdrawal, and retaliation.
Healing contempt in couples involves helping each partner manage emotional arousal, learn restraint to minimize further attack, solidify behavioral agreements, clarify purpose of the relationship, repair old wounds, build healthy esteem, check grandiosity, let go of need to be right and control the narrative, and regain a culture of mutual respect, cherishing, and generosity.
Larger systems such as families, cultures, and nations also suffer from chronic patterns of contempt. What if the most transformative action we can take as citizens is to stay engaged and express our truth without dumping more attack into the system? Comparing the functioning of a couple to the functioning of our nation makes me wonder, what is the collective purpose of our nation? Do we want to care for each other, even our chosen adversary? Are we willing to transform this culture of contempt?
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