When people talk about relationship challenges people usually think about emotional volatility. High conflict couples let the fur fly as they navigate their differences. As challenging as these kinds of interactions are, this kind of conflict is not a negative predictor for relationship longevity. According to John Gottman and his research on marital stability, contempt is far more damaging to relationships than volatility.
Couples who have high levels of contempt in their relationship may not have high conflict. Often these are couples who say they don’t fight. Their relationships are often characterized by distance. There is frequently functional stability that allows the day-to-day running of the household and family responsibilities to be maintained. But, there is usually also a lack of feeling close and intimacy along with high levels of hostility and aggression. These feelings are just not outwardly expressed. The resentment and contempt are kept under wraps and the stability is maintained through distance and superficial communication. The distance is a coping mechanism for avoiding the pain of conflict, but the lack of intimacy provides another kind of pain.
According to Gottman, these relationships have a much less likely chance of surviving in the long-term even though they can look stable on the surface. The lack of intimacy, goodwill, and rapport take their toll on the couple. Often times each member of the couple really wants the relationship to work, they just can’t see how to move forward. The distance feels safer. The surface calm seems safer even though there are strong currents of hurt and anger under the surface.
For these couples, it is often invisible to them just how much they are suffering. They don’t see how much energy is required to keep things under wraps. They are often not aware of the constant maintenance contempt requires in order to be sustained. This all makes sense if it looks like survival is at stake. No one chooses to suffer. This kind of suffering looks like the least of two evils. The other choice being more suffering navigating outward conflict that does not look like it can be resolved or dissolution of the relationship.
When these are the options on the table, distance and lack of intimacy although not ideal might look preferable. However, these are not the full range of options on offer. And this kind of coping style does not just result in distance from your partner it also leads to distance from one’s Self. There is a vigilance required to not let one’s guard down, to keep one’s heart closed, and to maintain enough resentment so that doesn’t happen. We are not designed to live this way. We are naturally compassionate and empathetic. Our hearts are naturally open. Kindness is normal. They also feel good to us. We only sacrifice and override these qualities if it looks like our safety and wellbeing are at stake. Basically, we get scared of intimacy. We are terrified of the loss of control. We are afraid of vulnerability. We don’t want to get hurt. Even though we are already hurting. The hurt we are used to looks better than the potential hurt we might not be able to survive.
The irony is that the hurt of maintaining distance and the illusion of control is far greater than surrendering to love. The energy required to maintain enough contempt to keep the distance in place is exhausting because it is not who you are. Also, the judgment required to fuel the contempt is like living in a dark cloud of personal thinking. You have to keep looking at the resentments to keep the cloud in place because if you let it go the cloud will pass and before you know it your natural state of kindness and love will emerge and put you in perceived peril. By having to focus on the personal upset, you have to keep looking at what is wrong in the relationship and what is wrong with your partner. All of this is done innocently as a means to protect yourself from succumbing to your essence of impersonal love that looks terrifying to the very personal ego.
However, there is a HUGE misunderstanding at play here. The misunderstanding is that vulnerability, love, kindness, compassion, and empathy are unsafe. And because they are unsafe we need to put on our armor in order to survive our intimate relationships. In fact, the greatest safety lies in an open-heart. It lies in the peace and wellbeing that is within each one of us. It is not the kind of safety that the ego thinks it needs in terms of certainty regarding outcomes and control of variables to try to maintain happiness. It is the kind of safety that comes from knowing you are fundamentally okay inside. It is the peace that results from realizing who you are at your core. It is the resilience of understanding the infinite potential that is who you are. This is universal and impersonal. It is not something you have to work at. It is not something that can be earned. It is you.
In the misunderstanding, we forget this. We forget who we are. We forget our invincible nature that is pure love. And in our forgetting, we come up with strategies to cope with the pain and suffering that results from forgetting who we are. It doesn’t matter to us that the strategies themselves are causing pain because that pain seems inevitable and far less than the pain of acknowledging we feel lost, alone, unworthy, and flawed. Judging our partner and having contempt for his or her perceived inadequacies feels far more comfortable than coming face to face with what we think are our own limitations. We escape our fear we think will come from really seeing ourselves by focusing on the limitations of others.
But the truth is there is nothing to fear. If you stop running from your own perceived inadequacies and actually look and see what is there with an open mind and an open heart you will see and experience the depth of your misunderstanding. You will feel the relief of realizing you were wrong and instead wake up to the infinite beauty that is your make up. It isn’t the personal you, but it is you. It is us. It is everyone even the partner you are maintaining contempt for so as to keep your distance to try and feel safe.
Do you see how ludicrous this is? There is no distance possible. There is no need for safety. There is just the energy behind life expressing itself. There is no controlling that. There is no controlling you let alone controlling your partner, but you don’t need to. That is not your job. Everything is as it should be and conspiring for the experience of waking up to who you are.
Your partner is the perfect playmate to help you wake up to your true nature. I am not saying you have to stay with your partner or condone their behavior, but can you open your mind and heart to being grateful for the gifts they offer you from being themselves?
I am grateful for all the things I used to judge in my husband Angus. I am grateful that he can be angry. His temper helped me to see that my wellbeing is present within no matter how he is behaving. I am grateful for him not being a sole provider. This forced me to step forward out of my comfort zone and find a way to be of service in the world. I have learned more from these qualities than I have from his monumental love, commitment, generosity, kindness, caring, compassion, loyalty, chivalry, honesty, integrity, creativity, and genius. I am, of course, very grateful for those as well, but these qualities did not force me to wake up to my own limiting beliefs and go beyond the confines of my righteous ego. They did not challenge my fear. They did not challenge my perceived sense of a separate self and my illusion of controlling the wellbeing of that separate self.
It was only when my ego was threatened that I went beyond it. I realized that I was trying to protect and improve something that does not exist and that is impossible. What seemed so precious to me was a bundle of thoughts about who I am. The personal me is not a fixed entity that exists. There is no consistency or continuity. There is just the idea of a personal me that I experience moment to moment. So I was diligently protecting an illusion from being hurt and in my attempts to protect it I was strengthening the idea of me being separate, alone, and fragile.
Angus’s love did not wake me up from this, but his anger helped. His anger helped me to look beyond who I thought I was so I could experience more of who I am. And just a small glimmer of that transformed my understanding, and with the shift in my understanding, my experience of our relationship changed. Neither he nor I changed. I just saw that I didn’t need to protect myself anymore. I saw there was no me to protect. There is only love, and anytime it looks like there is a me I need to preserve, I know I am fighting for the limited story of my personal self.
I am so grateful to wake up to this and to see the practical day-to-day ramifications of no longer needing to fuel judgments and contempt as a way to try to keep the idea of me safe. This was an exhausting endeavor because it is impossible. There is no way to protect the imaginary. It is like trying to protect Santa Claus and keep him safe. How would you even go about trying to do that?
So if you are experiencing distance and a lack of intimacy in your relationship and maintaining the status quo via judgment and contempt, are you open to considering that you are just scared? And rather than looking to assuage your fear through trying to protect a bundle of beliefs, what about relaxing and letting go? What about surrendering to the present moment and looking within to who you really are beyond your ideas about yourself? What about leaning into the feeling of essence — love, compassion, peace, and wellbeing. Looking beyond the personal you to the impersonal? The you that isn’t just you but is universal. What about looking in that direction and seeing what it does for your relationship?
Rohini Ross is co-founder of “The Rewilders.” Listen to her podcast, with her partner Angus Ross, Rewilding Love. They believe too many good relationships fall apart because couples give up thinking their relationship problems can’t be solved. In this season of the Rewilding Love Podcast, Rohini and Angus help a couple on the brink of divorce due to conflict. Angus and Rohini also co-facilitate private couples' intensives that rewild relationships back to their natural state of love. Rohini is also the author of the ebook Marriage, and she and Angus are co-founders of The 29-Day Rewilding Experience and The Rewilding Community. You can follow Rohini on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To learn more about her work and subscribe to her blog visit: TheRewilders.org.