Jill was angry and she let Tom know it.
"You never do anything right!"
Tom, not one to be outdone, went on the defensive.
"It's your fault we're in this situation!"
But Jill was a seasoned professional, quite capable of dodging his accusation and parrying with her own.
"If it wasn't for you and your wild ideas..."
Sound familiar? The specifics of their argument aren't important, but one thing is for certain -- many of us at one time or another have had arguments like this, and these arguments occur over the most trivial of matters to the most serious.
Do you see what holds true throughout their argument?
At no point during their argument do Jill or Tom ever dismount their high horses and realize that maybe -- just maybe -- the entire blame for their current predicament doesn't wholly rest on the other person's shoulders.
It's this kind of self-centered contempt that kills relationships.
When I talk about contempt with my clients, I discuss it as a way to "one-up" another person by making myself "better than." How that translates into real life is what you read in the opening illustration. Jill places blame on Tom to make herself feel better about her particular role in their current situation. Tom does the same to make himself feel better. Both of them are fooling themselves into believing they're "winning" the argument in that moment.
But no one's winning. In addition to not fixing the situation, such vocal contempt for each other also accomplishes something much more damaging: it subtly fractures their relationship. Contempt erodes trust. If a marriage is already on shaky ground, such a fight could result in an earthquake from which the relationship never recovers. Over time, unrelenting finger-pointing brings death to a relationship.
If contempt poisons relationships, what's the antidote?
It's an easy answer to say -- humility -- but all too often it's not such an easy answer to put into practice in the red-hot heat of the moment, and especially if you believe you're "the right one."
Practicing humility ultimately means taking ownership of your own behavior. Regardless of what your spouse says or does, there's only one person responsible for how you react to their words and actions: you!
This means realizing that, even though you do not exist in a vacuum and others people's choices affect your life, you cannot blame them for how you respond. Your spouse does not make you do anything; you always have a choice. Opting to make wise, humble choices in how you respond to difficult circumstances speaks volumes about your character. It's even more life-giving to your marriage, as responding in humility helps cure the sickness of contempt.
Sure, it may be difficult to do so (and there's a reason the cliché is "swallowing your pride"), but the end result -- a better marriage -- is well worth whatever pride you have to stifle.
How can you know whether you exercise humility in your marriage?
• Ask yourself whether you take ownership of your part in a conflict.
• When you've been wronged, or have done the wrongdoing, do you try to make amends?
• When you realize that you've wronged your spouse, are you proactive about healing the relationship?
Remember this too: humility doesn't mean making yourself "less than" the other person or constantly bending to their demands, feelings, or actions. Rather, it means being able to admit when you're wrong and taking ownership of your own behavior. Part of learning to stand on your own two feet means that, in addition to asserting your own thoughts and feelings, you also have to own up to where you fall short in the relationship.
By no means am I suggesting that this is easy, but a healthy and thriving marriage requires hard work from both partners. Sometimes this hard work means each spouse laying down his or her arms and finally admitting, "It's not you. It's me. I messed up. How can we make this better?"
This works when one person chooses to exercise humility, but it tends to work even better when both spouses act humbly toward each other. After all, when you mess up and take responsibility for a problem, don't you want your spouse to show grace in the moment? Be sure to treat them the same way when they mess up. Own what you can own, and remember that you always have a choice in how you respond to trying circumstances.
How does humility show itself in your marriage?
For more on this topic, pick up a copy my book The Stories We Tell Ourselves. Send an email to Scott with questions or comments: firstname.lastname@example.org