A Uniquely Powerful Predictor of Marital Trouble: Contempt

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.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

10 thoughts on “A Uniquely Powerful Predictor of Marital Trouble: Contempt

  1. well, good luck with that, but it ain’t gonna happen. Institutional arrogance comes with boldly proclaiming that the LDS church is the ONE TRUE CHURCH. By definition other churches must be false.

  2. Anonymous,

    There exists the possibility of arrogance among members of the Church because of the fact that we claim to be the “one true Church,” but that isn’t always the case nor should it be. We can make that claim and still recognize that people of other faiths are good, perhaps even more so than some of us, and that their beliefs consist of many truths. I have at times felt a bit of an arrogant spirit because I felt my beliefs were superior, but have been humbled when I’ve seen others from another faith living their religion perhaps better than I. It is also humbling when speaking with people about the differences in our beliefs, only to learn that our beliefs really aren’t that different in a lot of very important ways.

    But I think anyone who takes the position of telling another person that their beliefs are wrong, runs the risk of being arrogant, even if they don’t claim that their Church is the “one true Church.” They are in essence saying that their beliefs are superior to another’s. I’ve had discussions with people who may not claim to belong to the “one true Church,” but they are very clearly arrogant in their approach that their beliefs are right and mine are definitely wrong, and their words are full of nothing but contempt.

  3. Anon, Christianity itself boldly proclaims that it is the one true way – that Jesus alone is the path to eternal life. But this message does not require contempt of those outside Christianity. It’s possible to have contempt, certainly – but Christ calls us to proclaim this bold message of divine truth with humility, love, and respect for others.

  4. Having the truth about the Gospel is something like knowing that you need to buckle up to drive safely and legally. We should teach others to buckle up – it’s nice to share that kind of knowledge, even zealously – but those who choose not to buckle up can still be our friends, and we don’t need to look down on them, just because we feel that they are missing something in the way they drive. Some people don’t know the law and don’t understand what might seem obvious to us. Don’t despise the non-bucklers!

  5. There is a Hindu temple around the corner from our LDS chapel. Our Gospel Doctrine teacher’s husband is from India and is a practicing Hindu.

    I went to the Hindu temple for lunch one day (it’s open to the public) and overheard someone say that his wife was Mormon. It was him.

    I think I’ll join the Hindu temple. You don’t have to profess any belief in Hinduism to be a member of the Hindu Temple, therefore it shouldn’t be in violation of anything LDS. It appears you can be just a social member.

    I read somewhere that the LDS church officially donated something like $25,000 to the construction of a Hindu temple in or near Salt Lake City.

    So if the church can give them $25,000 towards a Hindu temple, I think I should be allowed to contribute $50.

    I like Indian food, so I’ll probably go there once or twice a month.

    The Gospel Doctrine teacher’s husband introduced me around to some people at the temple, including a part-time lay Hindu priest. That particular priest, and many of the other devout Hindus are or have been high-ranking scientists at a very well-respected local-based pharmaceutical company.

    These are some very intelligent, and very successfull men who are movers and shakers in science and industry.

    When I read some of the derogatory things that people have said about Jeff, and “how can someone so smart believe in the supernatural doctrines of Christianity?” it makes me think of the people who are (very likely) even smarter than Jeff who are devout Hindus and even lay Hindu priests. (Kind of like how Jeff was/is a lay minister/bishop.)

    When the one anonymous emailer called Jeff “not smart” for believing in Christianity (as opposed to being atheist), such an accusation belittles the many intelligent (even genius level) men and women who are devout Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews, etc, etc.

    The original post above shows that Jeff still has much “The Bishop” in him: wise, level-headed, and having a calming effect on others. The original post causes me to think that I’ve been perhaps more than a little harsh in some of my comments too.

  6. Anonymous @ 6:20 AM:

    Indulge me in a hypothetical — what if there really is an “only true church” [not necessarily the LDS church], with ministers who communicate with the real and living God, who have been charged by that same God to proclaim a message to the world, and with real saving authority from God himself? How would you expect the members to behave toward others? Would you expect them to proclaim their church to be the only true church, or to somehow mute the message, or suppress it altogether?

  7. I read somewhere that the LDS church officially donated something like $25,000 to the construction of a Hindu temple in or near Salt Lake City.

    To be precise, the LDS Foundation provided assistance with the Hare Krishna temple near American Fork. You can read about it here in what I think is a great sermon.

  8. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and for the most part its faithful members, behave in a manner that is consistent with their declaration of truth, that it is the only true and living church on the face of the earth. There is no intentional arrogance or contempt in that simple statement. Most of us who belong are humbled that we should be so blessed, and are sometimes discouraged and disappointed that others accuse us of arrogance and contempt as we strive to share that most important message with our friends and neighbors.

    All churches contain some amount of truth, some more than others. However, but one is authorized by God and led by living prophets who receive direction and authority from Him to act in His name.

  9. Great sentiments, Jeff. I think it’s hard for anybody to do this with their primary myths, be they Christian, Muslim, Hindu or atheist. Even tolerant people have little tolerance for the intolerant. I think Mormonism (along with many, but not all, other sects) makes this harder for its members by encouraging proselyting (and therfor active comparison). But obviously many Mormons realize that the statement “true church” means about as much as the statement “true chair.” They just face some cultural hurdles when it comes to showing that ecumenical understanding. Even two or three GC talks emphasized comparisons between Mormons (or our beliefs) and other religions, usually in a disparaging sense (from memory: “we should be the best homemakers in the world,” or “how can anyone understand that theology” kind of stuff). It makes me sad.

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