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The #1 Sign of a Doomed Relationship

[This is another of my posts in my “On Second Thought” blog for “Context with Lorna Dueck”]

On Valentine’s Day we celebrate romantic love—or we mourn its absence from our lives.

Some of us, however, live tensely in between: in a love relationship, yes, but one we fear is fading…or curdling into something awful.

Prof. John Gottman of the University of Washington built a predictive model of marriage success and failure partly on the work of Prof. Paul Ekman, the psychologist famous for analyzing “microexpressions,” those fleeting, almost invisible, indicators of how we are truly feeling.

Gottman and his team filmed couples, together and separate, and followed the paths of their relationships. Among the top four predictors of failure were what you’d expect: stonewalling and defensiveness—lack of connective communication.

The other two, however, were much more grim: criticism and contempt.

In fact, those two are even more similar than might first be apparent because the criticism Gottman singled out is the criticism of another’s person and personality, not just of this or that action he or she might have committed. So the criticism is of who you are, not just of what you have done.

This week’s program features an author telling us that marriage success depends upon maintaining vulnerability. Another author says that good sex is rooted in the affirmation of the other for who she is, not just what she can do. Contempt, alas, is exactly what kills any openness to the other, any sense of feeling safe and genuinely valued.

Love in the Bible is not primarily about feeling wonderful toward the other person. Otherwise Jesus couldn’t sanely command us to love our neighbours, whoever they are, and even to love our enemies.

No, love is not primarily emotion, but care. Love is esteeming the other person as being worthy of our attention and deserving of our exertion.

Contempt is the exact opposite: an arms-folded-across-the-chest dismissal of the other person as unworthy of even a courtesy, let alone a kindness.

The microexpression research shows that we pick up on each other’s feelings, even if only subliminally. No matter what phony smile or manipulative tone of voice we affect, our actual disregard for the other person leaks through and eventually poisons everything. He or she recoils from the threat, and the relationship descends in a death spiral of mutual injury and blame.

Do I really matter to you? Do you really care about me? Am I someone you respect, or am I just something to exploit, or endure, or escape?

The Christian view of persons says that each human being, no matter how apparently contemptible, is made in God’s own image. That means that each of us, at least potentially, is a creative, useful, joyful, loving being.

Of course we must protect ourselves against harmful people. Of course we will disagree with each other’s actions and dispute each other’s opinions. Of course we will have to work hard sometimes to get along.

Every day cannot be a Valentine’s Day full of hearts, flowers, smiles, and gifts. But every day challenges us to get past the hurt to the heart.

The temptation that lurks in the dark corner of our pain is to give up on that other person, to stop our suffering by killing the source. The rolling eyes and muttered “whatever” are the seeping arsenic of relationship. That’s what contempt does: It renders the other person dead to us.

If you can still see your significant other as a person, however, and not just as a threat, or an annoyance, or a disappointment, there is still hope for love.

Happy Valentine’s Day, then, and especially every day after.

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