Malcolm Gladwell’s recent best-seller, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, tells the story of the “Love Lab.” The “Love Lab” began around 1986 when Dr. John Gottman joined the University of Washington Department of Psychology and started the Family Research Laboratory to investigate the health of relationships between couples. In his work, he has studied thousands of couples, bringing them in to be interviewed and studied. They are videotaped as they are interviewed. Researchers are trained to identify numerous emotional states as they review the tapes. These states are encoded and stored, describing a few seconds at a time of the video with a Specific Affect Coding System (SPAFF). The laboratory also uses video heart rate monitors, measures of pulse amplitude, jitteriness and skin conductivity. All this information is combined and entered into mathematical models to assess relationships and predict their trajectories. Over the years, Dr. Gottman’s techniques have proven remarkably effective in predicting the success of relationships. One emotional state, if identified in the video taping, has proven to be the most powerful predictor of marital trouble: contempt.
Researchers are trained to identify even brief moments of contempt. Rolling of the eyes as the partner speaks, for example, can be a sign. But when it is there, trouble is brewing, on the average.
Actually, four factors are important predictors of trouble: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt (Gladwell, pp. 32-33). But contempt is the most important: if a partner expresses contempt toward the other, the marriage is in trouble. Gottman has noted that contempt is far worst than criticism, for contempt is speaking from a superior plane, and it’s far more damaging and degrading to the partner. It puts the other on a lower plane than you.
Gottman has found, in fact, that the presence of contempt in a marriage can even predict such things as how many colds a husband or wife gets; in other words, having someone you love express contempt toward you is so stressful that it begins to affect the functioning of your immune system. “Contempt is closely related to disgust, and what disgust and contempt are about is completely rejecting and excluding someone from the community. The big gender difference with negative emotions is that women are more critical, and men are more likely to stonewall. We find that women start talking about a problem, the men get irritated and turn away, and the women get more critical, and it becomes a circle. But there isn’t any gender difference when it comes to contempt. Not at all.” Contempt is special. If you can measure contempt, then all of a sudden you don’t need to know every detail of the couple’s relationship.
Contempt is an emotion that also seems to be far too common in religious conflict. It’s fine to disagree with another religion – this can be done civilly and with respect. But when the critic looks down on the adherents of another faith and sees them as utterly beneath him or her, as fools and clowns to be mocked and despised (i.e., “ministered to in love”), then we’ve got trouble.
There are some online forums where contempt is the name of the game. Don’t think you are going to learn anything meaningful about another religion from a source filled with contempt, even if the source appears to have credibility because they used to be belong to the religion under attack. They may cite factoids and scripture and historical events, but the spin will be that of an enraged ex-spouse right after a bitter divorce explaining, after a few beers, why his former sweetheart always was the devil incarnate.
Latter-day Saints must also beware the Satanic trap of contempt. Yes, we have something to offer the world, but other religions have plenty to offer us, and have wonderful traditions and reasons for membership that we cannot glibly discount. We can disagree with their views on critical topics and discuss what we have to offer, but never assume we are on a higher moral plane than someone else, Christian or not, and never speak or think from a position of contempt for what they have or who they are.