Contempt–The Kiss of Death

I shared a post on Facebook today regarding infidelity and the profound impact that our response can have toward our capacity for creating healthy relationships in our futures.  And I felt that the intensity and amount of responses deserved more time than a simple reply.  Ultimately, I’m honored to be sharing in the dialogue with so many passionate, well-educated people who are willing to dig a little deeper, look a little closer at something that impacts us all on a profound level.

The post was this:

Consider this: If your partner (or an ex-partner) has cheated on you and you have, in response, bad-mouthed that person, the research on relationships would say that your actions are actually MORE DAMAGING than the act of the other person. Difficult to grasp, right? And you might think, well, I don’t care because I wouldn’t want to be with that person now anyway! And yet, statistically speaking, that “emotional habit” of yours puts you smack dab in the middle of a group of people destined to continue to have unsuccessful relationships. So…. How’r them apples??

I appreciate all of the passion and emotion behind this dialogue!  I had a feeling it might ruffle some feathers!  The best conversations do, right?  And I love the variety of opinions, the support being offered, the challenge and wisdom behind so many of your personal experiences.

That begin said, I’d like to offer some food for thought.

Number 1)  Let’s consider the difference between “someone who’s cheated” and “a cheater.”  Right off the bat, the idea that someone has cheated immediately calls to mind (for many of us anyway) the most disrespectful kind of person.  And the facts just don’t support that.  The people who cheat are….  Well, “all of us.”  Certainly there are the “serial cheater” types—those who use infidelity like they do any other addictive behavior or drug—as a means for avoiding life and intimacy.  However, most people who cheat, or who have cheated, are people just like you and I…  they are people doing their best to live happy, productive lives.   They are the next-door neighbor, your kid’s school teacher, your best friend, the woman who sings in your church, the lawyer, the student, the house wife, the doctor, a parent!  People—real people, good people—cheat.

And that doesn’t negate the intensity of emotions that you’re all sharing and that so many feel when confronted with this topic, let alone the embodied experience of betrayal.  Infidelity–Sexual betrayal–can wreck us at such a deep level.  It can break our hearts and tear open our lives.  It can take us to the edge of who we are.

So often, either working with someone in therapy or simply sharing intimate dialogue with a friend, I’ll hear the words, “I would NEVER cheat on my partner!”  And those same people, sometimes, are eating their words a few years later.  Not to say that everyone has or does ever cheat on a partner but I’d challenge that most of us have either been cheated on, have cheated at some point in our “not-so-resourced” lives, or know someone very well who has cheated or been cheated on.  And of all “those people”…  “they” are not all despicable, right?  They are not all “worthless human beings who don’t belong on this earth.”

The significance of this statement, however, is more about the foundation–and ultimate potential–of the core emotional habit and what science claims it represents in a person’s “relationship potential.”  Whenever a person has the feeling that they simply “do relationship” better than their partners, that belief represents contempt–And what science has found, over decades of research, is that contempt is The Kiss of Death for relationship–like one person stated in response to my post, Contempt is like Relationship Kryptonite!

Sidenote:  To point to one difference in perspective—cheating means different things to different people.  For some, it is actually cheating only when one is married, or only if one has vaginal intercourse.  (Oops, now what about those in same-sex relationships?  Different rules?)  For others, if you’re in a partnership—on-line sexting equals cheating.  There are no hard and fast rules, right?  Is emotional infidelity as damaging as physical?  Some would consider it almost more so.  And so when we have black-and-white opinions about who another person IS, based solely on an idea of that person “having cheated,” a little caution and self-reflection might be in order.

The Reality of Infidelity

Very often, when people cheat, it is because they are absolutely CoupleFighting4“at their end.”  They are miserable, done, and don’t have the coveted resources—or strength, or understanding—to know how to ask for what they want.  And often, they don’t have the strength to walk away. And maybe, just maybe, there is a profound opportunity in their staying.  Research shows that we choose our mates based on internal qualities of equality–meaning we tend to choose people who have equal capacity to “show up,” to be emotionally attuned and available.  And while some people’s bad emotional habits are easier to see, more obvious, we tend to contribute just about 50% of the damage to our relationships.  This idea, for many, is a hard one to grasp.

Does that excuse infidelity?  Absolutely not.  In fact, infidelity is at the top of the list as one of the most damaging things that one person can do to another, within an intimate relationship.  This is an act that is clearly wrong (in most people’s opinion).  However, it is not “the kiss of death.”  And actually, the odds that a partner will feel remorse, or conversely, that the partner would commit a similar act in the future, are both directly related to the response given by the person who was betrayed.  What’s also determined by that response is the probability for the betrayed person to experience a similar betrayal in the future, by their current partner or by someone else.

Here’s the tricky part—those people who have had happy relationships for eons…  the ones whom researchers have looked at and said, “what are you guys doing differently, that we could all learn from?”  Those folks actually have some infidelity in the mix as well!  In successful, happy, long-term marriages, infidelity has sometimes occurred.  In fact, for some, it provided the necessary turning point that made their relationship success a  possibility!  So….  Clearly, infidelity is not the end-all-be-all issue for everyone, right?

The thing is, one emotional habit these folks do really differently than the folks who don’t ultimately have successful relationships is that when their partners screw up, and when the screw up is “that bad,” they respond without contempt.  Meaning—they don’t make their partners into horrible people for having made a mistake.  They look at what they were also doing to contribute to the downfall of their intimacy.  And …big one here:  They stop business as usual (Atkinson).  They don’t just cow down and play like the innocent victim.  They take ownership of both what they’ve done as well as what they want—and they put a stop to what they won’t tolerate.

Sometimes infidelity ends relationships.  And for folks who’ve had unfaithful partners and choose to leave—without contempt—those people are set up for future success, at least in that regard.  However, not more so than the people who stay but ultimately do the same thing—put a stop to “business as usual,” take responsibility for their own part, and don’t make their partners into bad guys.

What We Think is More Powerful–And More Important–Than What We Say

Here’s my number 2)  The things we’re thinking about our partners (or our friends or our children’s other parent, or, or…) are much more powerful than the words we use.  I’ve had so many clients and friends say critical or sometimes “mocking” kinds of things about their partners and then say, “But I’d never actually say that to him/her!”  And I challenge them with the very real facts that our internal voice comes out loud and clear.

Research shows us that there are universal forms of body language and subtle facial expressions that we are reading, literally every nano-second.  We have strengthened these skills since first entering the world—knowing how to read the subtle non-verbal cues of others is a survival mechanism.  So…  do you not think your partner knows exactly what you’re thinking when you say, “Oh, nothing’s wrong honey,” when inside you’re fuming because, once again, he’s left all the condiments out on the counter or because, just like “always,” she’s nagging about everything you didn’t do?

Contempt is TOXIC

—Weather spoken or not.  Actually, it can be much more damaging when we hold it in, as it will find it’s own way out…  somehow and someway.

Most of us have been taught to have contempt for most of our lives.  This is an unconscious teaching—not many of us would actually admit to being contemptuous, right?  Consider some of the phrases we’re given throughout our lives when faced with certain challenges:

  • Be the bigger person
  • Don’t lower yourself the his/her level
  • Take the high road
These statements are really the epitome of contempt.  In fact, to share a bit of personal history—I was a master for most of my life at being the victim…. And being the victim goes right along with having a contemptuous attitude.  The wrongdoings of others were so “obvious” that how could I have done anything different?  (This was an unconscious attitude).

About eight years ago now, I did my first post graduate training with Dr. Brent Atkinson, a leading researcher and psychologist dedicated to helping people rewire emotional habits in their intimate relationships.  As I was learning all about contempt, for the first three days (I’ll humbly admit) my primary attitude was, “Wow, my partner really has a lot of contempt for me!”  (!!!)  Midway through day number three, it was like I got slapped in the face with a brutal truth—my own contempt became glaringly clear.  And wow, that was one of the most painful–and rewarding–“aha!” moments of my life.

The thing was, I hadn’t been willing to see it before because being a victim served me.  I got my friends involved, I felt justified and vindicated and supported and assured.  And I was still “doing my work” but that necessary piece hadn’t yet come to the surface.  I feel that now, in my work as a partner, a parent, and a therapist; I am constantly practicing getting clear on how contempt can quietly creep into my thoughts and take up residence.  I still have some hardwiring to work through!  And I’d put the challenge out that most of us do.

In fact, the research out there states that only about 1 in 4 people have actually developed the habits necessary for really creating healthy, thriving relationships.  These habits include being clear on how powerful contempt is, and how to avoid it.  I’ll be getting to other skills in future posts!  And the beauty is that the habits and skills necessary for cultivating a positive response from our partners is all stuff that can be learned!

My final thought:  Number 3)  Remember my initial post

Consider this: If your partner (or an ex-partner) has cheated on you and you have, in response, bad-mouthed that person, the research on relationships would say that your actions are actually MORE DAMAGING than the act of the other person. Difficult to grasp, right? And you might think, well, I don’t care because I wouldn’t want to be with that person now anyway! And yet, statistically speaking, that “emotional habit” of yours puts you smack dab in the middle of a group of people destined to continue to have unsuccessful relationships. So…. How’r them apples??

My challenge in rereading this would be this:  I’m simply stating research—not making infidelity okay, not sharing a belief that it is not an act of complete betrayal, and NOT—definitely not stating that one should stay in relationship when it has occurred.  I’m sharing thoughts to inspire all of us to look at creating healthy relationships in our futures.  I’m sharing because so often when infidelity occurs, and we look at the “betrayer” as the sole culprit in the downfall of relationship, more than likely we’re going to recreate similar situations in future relationships!  (Another fact research would support).  And so my intent in looking closely at these facts and sharing is to deepen our understanding of the power we hold in responding in ways that set us up for relationship success in our futures—whether with the same or different partners.  We are undeniably powerful and sadly, we sometimes react to emotional pain by giving our power away.

Modeling Healthy Relationships

As far as modeling healthy relationship patterns to our children?  Again, when they see us giving our power away and becoming victimized—when they see us giving sole responsibility to “the other person,” they learn how to do the same.  However, when they see us owning our own part of relationship downfall, when they see us not tolerating bad behavior and simultaneously being able to love their other parent—(we did choose them, right?  We did help to create these beautiful beings with them, right?  When our kiddos experience us making their other parent out to be “the bad guy,” they can internalize some ugly feelings toward themselves, since they are “half” of each of us).  –When our kids see us modeling the steps necessary to create healthy, authentic, empowered and passionate relationships in our future, they have the foundation to do the same.

I read about people having anger toward those who have been unfaithful, in response to my post.  And questioning whether I believe anger is okay.  (And just to point out, while I have a lot of experience and education in these areas, and a passion for understanding—I don’t claim to be the expert.  I do, however, like to share dialogue about what the experts have found!)

So…  We can get angry—anger is a core emotion and is a necessary aspect of a healthy ability to feel and to express our inner worlds.  The ability to express anger is part of a healthy emotional repertoire.  Yes!  I’d say infidelity would require some really intense anger!  I know it would from me anyway.  And like some others pointed out, there is a big difference between anger and contempt.

Community–communing with our clan, our family, our friends, sometimes especially when we feel betrayed; this is something that can bond us and help us feel “a part of” something bigger.  I believe it’s actually a very necessary process to healing, for most of us anyway.  Some, of course, need to reach out more than others.  And again, there’s a big difference between sharing with those we love–with those who can help us to hold the hurt and help us process and vent and heal, and making the other person into a villain and giving away our power.

I’d like to invite further dialogue and exploration into the sharing…  this is one way, for me anyway, of expanding my own emotional repertoire!

 

For the Love of Your Life!

Angie

 

 

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