I am not a fan of living in a world of contempt. How can I make a difference without falling into my own trap of contempt toward others? What is the opposite of contempt?
Appreciation. Sounds simple, right? Say some nice stuff to others; maybe bring them a cookie once in awhile? Good start, but let’s delve deeper.
According to Dr. John Gottman, a researcher who has dedicated himself to studying the institution of marriage, the #1 predictor of failure is when couples treat each other with disrespect and contempt.
Research indicates that decent marriages and disastrous ones have about the same amount of conflict, which surprised the heck out of me. I figured that marriages with lots of conflict broke up and the lucky ones with less conflict remained intact. Not true according to Gottman’s research.
It turns out that marriages that create a culture of appreciation for small things makes for a firm foundation and guards against toxic contempt. He calls it a habit of the mind - developing the practice of scanning the environment for ways we can express praise and appreciation. Gottman suggests we should work hard to catch folks doing right and call attention to it through affirmation. Constantly.
I would add a caveat. Beware of manipulative praise. When my grandson went through a brief phase of temper tantrums and the excessive use of the word “NO!”, our family chose a strategy of response. As a team we chose to not respond or give any attention to foot stomping and loud profanity-sound-a-like shouts of “NO!” We would avert our gaze, go still and wait. He caught on pretty quickly that all the drama didn’t serve him well. But it took a LOT of practice to rid himself of the impulse to respond so robustly to his passions.
When he remembered that his hissy fit was not serving him well, he would turn on the charm. I particularly loved how it worked with me. He would bat his long eyelashes and stare lovingly into my eyes, raise his pudgy little arms for an embrace and with the sweetest sing songy voice EVER say, “MEEEEEEEEEEEM (translation for those who don’t speak 18 month language, he is saying Meme).” Oh my gosh. So cute.
But I would not give into my inclination to gush over his charming entreaty because the little dude was working me. I don’t think this is what Gottman has in mind. He is not saying that we flatter and cajole and charm anytime we find ourselves in conflict. What he is suggesting is that we develop the habit of sincere affirming and praising and appreciating whenever possible, even over the smallest matters, as a way of life.
I may not be able to stop every impulse I have to think contemptuously (progress not perfection) but I CAN become a person who becomes more alert and responsive to appreciating those around me.