My last blog elicited quite a few responses asking how we should handle our contemptuous hearts. Remember, contempt is the number one marriage killer. It’s not something to take lightly.

Tackling an answer in a blog doesn’t do the problem justice. One size does not fit all. Still, I’m going to offer an approach by sharing what’s helped identify and root out contempt in our marriage. Bear in mind that this was after we came to the realization that we both needed help.

  1. Ask your spouse, older children or friends where they’ve witnessed contempt in your marriage. Just so you know, I’m not asking where they’ve seen this in all areas of your life. We’re just focusing on marriage here.
  2. Acknowledge the specific areas where you wrestle with contempt.

Other-centered contempt: Other people are the problem. “If they weren’t that way, I wouldn’t feel this way. They deserve what they get. They are to blame. If they followed the rules, we wouldn’t have these problems.” It can also be found in laughter and jokes at other people’s expense.

Body language: defiant stance, eye rolling, and sighs of exasperation.

Example: “How could someone let themselves get that fat? It’s disgusting. I don’t even feel sorry for them.”

Example: “Honey, where did you put the keys? They belong in the bowl by the door and they aren’t there!”

Example: “Well, I’m just trying to help, but why don’t you have a place where you keep your phone, like other functioning adults, so you won’t keep losing it?”

Self-centered contempt: I’m the problem. “Even though I want to do the right thing, everything I say or do ends up wrong. What’s wrong with me? I hate feeling like this. Yet I keep screwing up.”

Body language: head down, shoulders slumped, complaining and/or tearful tone of voice.

Example: “I can’t believe I’ve let myself gain this much weight. I’m disgusting.”

Example: “Oh no, where did I put those keys? I can never keep track of anything. No wonder he gets frustrated with me.”

Example: “Man, I’m going to be late again, but I’ve got to find that phone. Think! Where did I put that phone! I’m such a loser!”

Ring any bells? Or, if you’re like us, you may be “ambi-contemptuous” and adept at using both self- and other-centered contempt with astonishing proficiency.

  1. Plan a holy moment when you both officially commit to a contempt-free marriage. Agree to name contempt in yourself and each other when you hear, see or feel it. And learn to trust each other when your spouse throws the “yellow card” for spotting contempt. Be aware that coming to (and keeping) this agreement will not be easy. But it will be life giving.

   About ten years ago, John dragged me to a marriage intensive led by Dan Allender. I had spent the previous twenty years trying to get John to go to a marriage seminar, marriage counseling, or any kind of marriage help. The very idea that he was now ready, and then innocently questioning why I was opposed to going, was enough to trigger my contempt. Was he really that clueless? Could he not recognize the insult of leaving me desperate for years and now, suddenly acting as if it was a splendid idea to go to a marriage intensive? The very idea left me cold, and then furious.

   Yeah, I’m sure it’s obvious that my thinking, attitude and words mark me as a prime example of other-centered contempt. John and I had a lot of history to work through, with forgiveness to seek on both sides, but at the Allender intensive we made a holy commitment to a contempt-free  marriage. That was our enormous first step.

  1. Commit to trusting your spouse when he or she feels your contempt. When  your spouse senses contempt and you don’t see it, don’t defend yourself. Don’t talk. Just become curious. And if you can’t manage that, give each other some space so you can think, pray and process. Make no mistake: this isn’t an easy thing. Most likely, you’ve been trained in and committed to this way of living all of your life. So you know it’s going to take time, work, prayer, effort, and forgiveness to work through your broken ways of relating to each other. (If you are in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship, you will need outside help.)
  1. When you point out contempt, do so with kindness (not venom) and don’t feel like you have to talk it out at that moment. A gentle, “Hmm, that comment had an edge to it or felt disdainful. Something happening in your heart?” is sufficient. This allows the spouse to consider what is going on in his or her heart at the moment. (John is wise to name it and then leave it to the Spirit to do the convicting.) Later, return to the conversation when you and your spouse aren’t on the defensive. After years of marriage, the patterns of contempt that John and I had developed were so engrained that our first response was to deny when it was pointed out. And that’s still our first response. J But we have great hope. The gap is lessening from when contempt is first pointed out and when we acknowledge it. Remember, we are only doing this in our marriage, not every time we see other-centered contempt in our spouse. The goal isn’t to point out each other’s faults but to remind each other of this holy commitment.
  1. Repentance has many looks. Sometimes it’s a slight turn, a softening, even a longing for change. Repentance refuses to give up hope. So, if you don’t have the desire for change, don’t give up. I used to like my other-centered contempt and didn’t want to give it up. It gave me a feeling of being right. And powerful. Don’t we all want to be right! It even gave me energy to tackle what I believed was wrong with the world. I was honestly afraid that if I gave it up, I would have no reason to live, no energy to get out of bed each morning. I had to ask God for the desire to change.

Consider asking yourself these questions:

  • What is going on in my heart?

Sometimes John will figuratively sit his contemptuous self down next to him and ask his pseudo-self what is happening. What is he feeling and thinking? Getting underneath eventually boils down to seeing the two-pronged pitchfork of unbelief and pride. Repentance isn’t just saying “I’m sorry” or feeing remorseful. In fact, sometimes saying “I’m sorry” is a way of avoiding repentance, and remorse may just be another way of hating yourself.

  • Can I name pride in X or unbelief that Jesus will actually do X and Y?

Repentance is going to the source of the lies my heart believes and why my sinful self chooses contempt. Contempt is my way of rejecting Jesus as my sufficient Lord and claiming lordship for myself. It’s me trying to get even and make a just world in my own twisted way. Refusing to point out contempt in your spouse may be your way of keeping peace (being a peace-faker), or in other words, really not trusting Christ.

  • What words do I need to use as I go back to my spouse?

“When I patted you on the back and said, ‘Bless your heart,’ I wasn’t trying to comfort you. I thought I was better than you. You are correct in telling me that my action was demeaning. I was dismissing you as an intelligent person created in the image of God on par with me. I am wrong and so sorry that I treat you this way. I want to change. Thank you for pointing that out to me.” While this may sound horrible to admit to your spouse, believe me, your spouse already knows it. For you to admit it even though it may sting will begin to restore sanity to your marriage. You may not have all those words figured out so a start may be, “I know there is something going on when you feel my contempt. I just don’t see it yet. It must be really hard for you to point it out, especially when I’m not getting it. Thank you for sticking with me in this and not giving up on me.”

Be aware that you will need to make this a practice and that using contempt will happen over and over again. Be gentle with one another, looking for the best moment to point out contempt. When you find yourselves getting into old habits, stop and remind each other of the commitment.

Eventually, a commitment to a contempt-free marriage means telling stories of our first experiences of contempt. We uncover these stories not to judge our parents, but to see how the evil one put us on the path of contempt.

A commitment to a contempt-free marriage demonstrates the strong gospel that turns us from a commitment of “you for me” to “me for you.” We can truly begin to apply grace to the deepest structures of our heart. Though it sometimes feels like death, true repentance is life giving, joyous, and even fun.

What have you found helpful for dealing with contempt in your marriage?