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contempt, they found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart
June 17, 2014 7:56 AM   Subscribe


 
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posted by leotrotsky at 8:01 AM on June 17 [11 favorites]


contempt, they found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart

Joy Division was wrong!
posted by Cash4Lead at 8:18 AM on June 17 [37 favorites]


That's nice, leotrotsky.
posted by orme at 8:19 AM on June 17 [2 favorites]


I'm showing this to Mrs A. She told me I was adorkable because I keep saying "look, this bird", "see that mountain" and "witness how many gumballs I can put in my mouth".

I may be a dork, but I'm also a Master!
posted by arcticseal at 8:20 AM on June 17 [8 favorites]


I guessed oral sex and hamburgers.
posted by nathancaswell at 8:21 AM on June 17 [7 favorites]


Wait, no, cheeseburgers.
posted by nathancaswell at 8:21 AM on June 17 [4 favorites]


Every good hamburger is also a cheeseburger.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:22 AM on June 17 [42 favorites]


Kindness and generosity is taking the time to put cheese on the hamburgers.
posted by barchan at 8:25 AM on June 17 [12 favorites]


Every good hamburger is also a cheeseburger.

I only recently realized this when I went to a heralded new local burger joint and was singularly underwhelmed. It was only after I left that I realized that I had -- for whatever reason -- not asked for any cheese on it. That may well have been the first non-cheese-burger I'd had in my life.
posted by Etrigan at 8:27 AM on June 17 [1 favorite]


Also, the number one cause of drowning is immersion in water.
posted by JHarris at 8:33 AM on June 17 [12 favorites]


This article makes it sound like so much work (pay attention! show you care!), and sometimes it is, but if you marry someone you already like/find interesting/care about then being happy for them or involved with them is a natural thing.

And then what about couples that start out well but it goes bad? This makes it sound like you are either doomed or all set from the moment you marry, but is that always true? Or can the interest/support fade for whatever reason? I've seen marriages where it certainly seemed to be the case, but maybe they were really uninterested from the get-go and hiding it?
posted by emjaybee at 8:33 AM on June 17 [3 favorites]


This article makes it sound like so much work (pay attention! show you care!), and sometimes it is, but if you marry someone you already like/find interesting/care about then being happy for them or involved with them is a natural thing.

That's not always true, though. And as you mentioned, people can change over time.

I think what the article is getting at is the concept of "resilience", this time in a long-term relationship. What makes such a relationship resilient, so that the couple can weather the inevitable storms?
posted by KokuRyu at 8:37 AM on June 17 [4 favorites]


And then what about couples that start out well but it goes bad?

I dread the day that we're sitting on the couch, her reading, me watching a baseball game and browsing /r/aww, when I say, "Wanna see a guinea pig wearing sunglasses?" and she ignores me.
posted by uncleozzy at 8:39 AM on June 17 [24 favorites]


Every good hamburger is also a cheeseburger.

A friend of mine (late 20s) just found out this month that even though you can have a "cheese burger", which is a burger with cheese on top, a "hamburger" is not a burger with ham on top.

His defense: Why would he have ever wanted to get a burger without cheese?

posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 8:39 AM on June 17 [8 favorites]


Yeah, my feelings are in line with EmJayBee - kindness causes good relationships, but good relationships cause kindness - it's really a virtuous (or vicious) circle. It's easy to observe this behaviour, but I do wonder how easy it is to follow if you're not already in an environment which is conducive to it.

Certainly I've been in the more contempt-based kind of relationship, where on a more removed, intellectual level I've know that one or both of us had to start being kinder or shit was going to hit the fan right quick, but due to the relationship environment and simple inertia, it proved impossible to do so sufficiently to save things.
posted by ominous_paws at 8:39 AM on June 17 [8 favorites]


Seconding KokuRyu. Even the best of friends can have their bad moments. Mutual respect and a little give-and-take help strengthen the bond, to keep it from breaking under that type of stress. Regardless of how good the relationship is, none of us are perfect nor perfectly aligned in our likes and dislikes for all things, and no relationship is 100% free of tension.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:44 AM on June 17


It's not just kindness and generosity that keeps you together:

Research independent from theirs has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage.
posted by pracowity at 8:49 AM on June 17 [8 favorites]


It's not just kindness and generosity that keeps you together: ... (along with emotional stability) ...

"Our two main-- our three main tools are, ...I'll come in again."
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:53 AM on June 17 [50 favorites]


Didn't Gottman and/or Ekman already find years ago that one could predict which couples would get divorced with overwhelming accuracy, merely by having them talk to each other on camera about any subject, then checking the footage for microexpressions of contempt?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:54 AM on June 17 [6 favorites]


Without an effective plan of action, it's unlikely that you will achieve your objectives in life -- and that's particularly true of marital objectives. Yet, marriage is an area of our lives where effective planning is often regarded as unnecessary. Couples usually believe that they should be guided by their instincts whenever they have a conflict.--Willard F. Harley, author of His needs, her needs: building an affair-proof marriage.
posted by No Robots at 8:56 AM on June 17 [2 favorites]


Also, the number one cause of drowning is immersion in water.

Agreed. We really needed "science" to tell us this? Not questioning the post itself, but the fact that we need a "studies show..." for something this basic is sort of boggling to me.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 8:57 AM on June 17


Also, the number one cause of drowning is immersion in water.

Strangely, the real reason here is also contempt. The contempt water has for your puny, irritating lungs, you gill-lacking land-dweller! You fill water with loathing!
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:58 AM on June 17 [22 favorites]


I think what the article is getting at is the concept of "resilience", this time in a long-term relationship.

Thank you so so much for not saying "resiliency." Onward!

posted by mudpuppie at 8:58 AM on June 17 [5 favorites]


I dread the day that we're sitting on the couch, her reading, me watching a baseball game and browsing /r/aww, when I say, "Wanna see a guinea pig wearing sunglasses?" and she ignores me.

Just call my name, and I'll be there.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:59 AM on June 17 [5 favorites]


Why would he have ever wanted to get a burger without cheese?

I just need to address this, because my favorite burger doesn't include cheese. Start with a lightly-toasted bun with a thin layer of mayo on the bottom half, topped with a little fresh-ground pepper and a single very-ripe slice of tomato. Above that goes the well-seasoned, medium-rare patty, dripping grease and meat juice onto the tomato and mayo to create the perfect sauce. On top, maybe a bread-and-butter pickle chip or two, but not at all required.

I'm not saying that cheese isn't nice, sometimes, but even every good cheese can get lost to the point of superfluity when you've got a really good hamburger underneath it.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:00 AM on June 17 [5 favorites]


I guessed oral sex and hamburgers.
posted by nathancaswell at 8:21 AM on June 17 [3 favorites +] [!]


Wait, no, cheeseburgers.
posted by nathancaswell at 8:21 AM on June 17 [3 favorites +] [!]
So...you're saying it's hamburgers AND cheeseburgers?
posted by yoink at 9:01 AM on June 17 [4 favorites]


Agreed. We really needed "science" to tell us this? Not questioning the post itself, but the fact that we need a "studies show..." for something this basic is sort of boggling to me.

I would say yes we do. Not because we couldn't guess at the answer which is sort if obvious, but having a rigorous study confirming a seemingly obvious result has value. Sometimes those studies turn up counter-intuitive results, and sometimes they just let you move on to the next idea.

Also I was not disappointed by the guinea pig wearing sunglasses...
posted by TwoWordReview at 9:03 AM on June 17 [27 favorites]


The thing is, there's a ton of different "obvious" answers to this question, and they can't all be right.

If the result of these studies had been, like, "Shared values are the number one factor that keeps couples together" (or "respect for each other's opinions..." or "financial stability..." or "sexual compatibility..." or "a supportive community of friends..." or whatever) there would have been plenty of people — maybe not you, but plenty of others — reading it and going WELL DUH, I ALREADY KNEW THAT.

So if there's umpteen different "obvious" answers, and a study lets you zero in on one of them, then the study was informative even though its outcome was "obvious."

(Also: "kindness and generosity" is an oversimplification. They're talking about a narrower and more specific set of traits and behaviors in this research.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:05 AM on June 17 [39 favorites]


"Wanna see a guinea pig wearing sunglasses?"
This is why we need the IMG tag back.
Maybe if we all chipped in a few more dollars...
posted by and they trembled before her fury at 9:05 AM on June 17 [2 favorites]


I think one of the things that comes with a foundation of kindness and respect is an assumption of good intentions. So when the inevitable conflict happens, there's an expectation that you really are on each other's sides and it's likely a misunderstanding or misperception and not, say, malice or disrespect behind the conflict.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:05 AM on June 17 [25 favorites]


So...you're saying it's hamburgers AND cheeseburgers?

Only for the polyburgerous.
posted by Sublimity at 9:07 AM on June 17 [7 favorites]


Polyhamorous, Shirley.
posted by ominous_paws at 9:08 AM on June 17 [34 favorites]


We really needed "science" to tell us this?

We have common sense ideas about lots of things. Some of them are right, while others are wrong. Without doing the "science, " complete with scare quotes, how do we know which is which?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:10 AM on June 17 [10 favorites]


If you want to know why it is so difficult to do the obvious, check out the next post, which is about Schopenhauer's clear-eyed view into sexual love and its illusions.
posted by No Robots at 9:16 AM on June 17


Didn't Gottman and/or Ekman already find years ago that one could predict which couples would get divorced with overwhelming accuracy, merely by having them talk to each other on camera about any subject, then checking the footage for microexpressions of contempt?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:54 AM on June 17 [+] [!]


this made me think of how i sometimes think "i like each of these people but i don't like them together" even though there's nothing overt. it usually happens with people i just meet who seem otherwise happy together. and then a few months later shit hits the fan and there they go. i think there's something about their happiness that seems faked but it's hard to put a finger on it and maybe the microexpression thing is it.
posted by sio42 at 9:17 AM on June 17 [1 favorite]


It seems useful for science to break successful relationships down into their component parts, especially to be able to teach people who didn't see successful relationships modeled much, and show them exactly where that kindness muscle is and how to exercise it.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 9:20 AM on June 17 [5 favorites]


We really needed "science" to tell us this?

The headline simplifies the actual findings. What Gottman's research shows is that it's our day-to-day responses to a spouse's 'requests' that most greatly affects the health of the relationship. Moreover, he asserts that a key skill in this is to understand what a 'request' is; it won't always be phrased as a request, spouses need to be sensitive to their partner's signals.

To me, this is not an obvious answer. Gottman is telling us that the most important factor in our relationship is our mundane, day to day treatment of our partner, not shared values, activities, or goals. It's really simple: be nice to each other, every day. Listen for requests and respond to them with enthusiasm, love, and support. This is the platform that you build a happy, long lasting relationship on. Everything else follows from this foundation.
posted by sid at 9:22 AM on June 17 [67 favorites]


And magic makes it all complete!
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:39 AM on June 17 [1 favorite]


Thank you so so much for not saying "resiliency." Onward!

I am sure you would enjoy being married to me.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:44 AM on June 17


We really needed "science" to tell us this?

In case you haven't checked out AskMe in a little while, there are a ton of people wondering where the fuck everything went wrong in their relationship, and I think this problem extends outside the relatively closed world of the MeFi treehouse.

So maybe there is some value in investigating and discussing this sort of thing.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:45 AM on June 17 [9 favorites]


To me, this is not an obvious answer. Gottman is telling us that the most important factor in our relationship is our mundane, day to day treatment of our partner, not shared values, activities, or goals. It's really simple: be nice to each other, every day.

This is also, often, an answer to the puzzlement people often feel about happy relationships where the two partners have radically different political outlooks or interests or what have you. And, conversely, those sad situations where two people you independently admire and respect just can't make a functioning couple: just because you agree with someone's worldview and respect and admire their work in the world doesn't mean they have a clue about nourishing a relationship.
posted by yoink at 9:46 AM on June 17 [5 favorites]


We really needed "science" to tell us this?

There's a huge difference between believing and knowing.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:50 AM on June 17 [5 favorites]


I, for one, appreciated the article and believe that those who think this is so obvious are either lucky or being prideful or deluded. In any event, a relationship is made up of two people. Both need to be aware of and practicing this for it to be a real success. I appreciated this comment below the article:
"It may be obvious to you, but apparently it came as a revelation to at least some people. "Be kind to your partner" is not as specific as "respond positively when your partner requests your attention."

People who didn't grow up with a healthy relationship model need the instructions to be quite specific sometimes."
posted by spock at 9:51 AM on June 17 [47 favorites]


We really needed "science" to tell us this? Not questioning the post itself, but the fact that we need a "studies show..." for something this basic is sort of boggling to me.
I think a lot depends on the role models people grow up with in terms of relationships; my parents are approaching their 50th wedding anniversary, and each of their parents were also in long, stable relationships. I was lucky enough to grow up intuitively understanding that yes, kindness and respect is part of the deal when you're in a long-term relationship with someone. But there are plenty of people who grew up in an environment where unhealthy dynamics are the norm.. and if all you see growing up is that kind of subtle (or not so subtle) contempt then why wouldn't you assume that's just how relationships are?
posted by usonian at 9:52 AM on June 17 [2 favorites]


just because you agree with someone's worldview and respect and admire their work in the world doesn't mean they have a clue about nourishing a relationship.

With each other. See ask vs guess culture, which seems very relevant here.
posted by iotic at 9:53 AM on June 17 [2 favorites]


I agree that this is not at all an obvious answer when you get down into the details of it. At least, not obvious to me. My household growing up was extremely dysfunctional; consistently abusive. The only thing that kept my parents together was my mother's belief that if she divorced my father for any reason other than sexual infidelity--even though he beat both her and us--the sin of divorce would condemn her to unending hell when she died. So my role models for marriage were two people who hated each other, argued and insulted one another constantly, and stayed together because the only other option involved literally going to hell. (If she had been a cleverer fundamentalist, she would have had the affair, filed for divorce, and then sought forgiveness for the infidelity. Alas, a missed opportunity.) This, it will not surprise you to learn, left me with a lot of good intentions about my future role as husband/father, but horrible instincts. I knew a lot of what I didn't want to do (anything I saw in my parents) but what actions I should replace those with was just a complete blank slate to me. Something as simple as "when your partner points something out to you, turn and acknowledge that with interest" is super helpful to know, and when you do it long enough it becomes a habit. Gottman is one of the people I read obsessively to help with this stuff. In fact, I just this morning delivered a mini-lecture summarizing Gottman's findings for the students in my Intro to Communication course.

One of my students was asking me, after class, some questions about communicating with his stepdaughter, and he outlined some of the struggles they had. One thing I told him is that I have become a really outstanding father, but I didn't start off that way. I'm not naturally a good father at all. A well-intentioned one, but not inherently skilled at it, like some people are. What I am is someone who, when things aren't working, will do the work to figure out why and adapt. Research and make changes, again and again. Do that for a decade or two and you learn some things. For people like me who start off in the "I want to do relationships well, but I'm seriously clueless" stage, this kind of research is life changing. I suspect that if your parents were pretty solid and you just emulate them, it doesn't come across as nearly as interesting or significant.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:58 AM on June 17 [101 favorites]


contempt, they found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart

Very interesting ... I came-up with this idea on my own (or so I thought) a few years ago during one of my periodic "what's-the-really-big-big-picture-really" brain-tilt episodes. I shared it with a nice advice-seeking just-married couple at Burning Man, who told me someone else had just told them the same thing!
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:06 AM on June 17


Coming on 20 years married here. My only addition to the conversation is that kindness and generosity can become habitual through practice. The kiss as you walk past in the kitchen, the genuine "how was your day" (followed by listening), the playful banter, all become part of the warp and weave of your lives together. It take conscious effort at first, but then it just is.

Also--one sharp word or act of inconsiderate behaviour can undo a LOT of good karma. So hold your damn tongue.
posted by LarryC at 10:09 AM on June 17 [42 favorites]


I've spent the last 21 years unlearning everything I learned about relationships during my first 21 years. Judging by the environment I grew up in (with parents who have been grimly married for almost 50 years now), the family unit exists because it's an efficient way to provide humans with their basic needs. If you must have something more -- love, affection, respect, concern -- you should look elsewhere for such fripperies. As for "happiness", well as long as nobody is actively beating you, you may as well stay where you are because all relationships ultimately become equally grey and utilitarian.

My family is a bit like Costco: great for stocking up on toilet paper and mayo, not so great for inspiring warm feelings towards others.
posted by atropos at 10:28 AM on June 17 [14 favorites]


But what makes a good spouse tag?
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:32 AM on June 17 [1 favorite]


Also--one sharp word or act of inconsiderate behaviour can undo a LOT of good karma. So hold your damn tongue.

Amen. Ten to one, at least.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:58 AM on June 17


Didn't Gottman and/or Ekman already find years ago that one could predict which couples would get divorced with overwhelming accuracy, merely by having them talk to each other on camera about any subject, then checking the footage for microexpressions of contempt?

That part of their research is discussed partway through the article:

By observing these types of interactions, Gottman can predict with up to 94 percent certainty whether couples—straight or gay, rich or poor, childless or not—will be broken up, together and unhappy, or together and happy several years later. Much of it comes down to the spirit couples bring to the relationship. Do they bring kindness and generosity; or contempt, criticism, and hostility?
posted by Dip Flash at 11:17 AM on June 17


Something else that was very unintuitive to me came at the end of the article - how we act in GOOD times is just as important (if not more) than how we act in bad times. It makes sense, really. If you can't celebrate together, then the only times you're coming together are in the bad, hard, maybe dysfunctional times. Which means that's what gets reinforced as the natural state of your relationship. I would have placed much more value in how you're there for each other in the bad times than the good, and I can see how that's been a dysfunctional attitude in many of my relationships.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:42 AM on June 17 [7 favorites]


This was really interesting; thanks for posting. One thing I've sometimes struggled with in my relationship of 10 years is how to balance practicing the type of communication that helps keep a relationship strong (for example, expressing gratitude and not nagging or scorekeeping) with my feminism and strong desire to not slide into traditional gender roles where I slowly pick up more and more of the cooking, cleaning, and homemaking. It's a hard balance, and from conversations with my mid-30s liberal city-dwelling friends it's an issue that a lot of us face. Constantly pushing your partner to pick up his share of the housework or childcare tends to involve a lot of nagging or fights but the alternative often seems to be resigning oneself to doing most or all of the shit-work in the house in the name of not creating toxic communication patterns with your partner.

It's kind of eye-opening in the best way to read this and realize that I could be focusing more effort into upping my game in responding with attention and enthusiasm to my partner's bids for attention (I definitely could improve on this in some specific areas *cough* World Cup talk *cough*) rather than agonizing about whether to remind him for the second time this week that he still hasn't cleaned the bathroom like he promised.

Anywho. I just wanted to respond to YOUR bid for attention, and they trembled before her fury, by letting you know that I did RTFA and I really liked it.
posted by iminurmefi at 11:42 AM on June 17 [28 favorites]


I need to check in with Mr Pocahontas tonight! Thx for the post.
posted by Pocahontas at 11:48 AM on June 17 [1 favorite]


I have found that our relationship is held together by deep, continued loathing of each other.
posted by greenhornet at 11:51 AM on June 17 [2 favorites]


I think this is the study that I heard discussed on NPR, and the example they talked about made a lot of sense. They're talking about little mundane moments, like - say the husband is a big fan of birdwatching, and the wife is kind of take-em-or-leave-em about birds.

So - say you've got them both at home; she's reading a magazine or doing the dishes, and he's raking leaves. And he calls to her - "hey, honey, look! There's a yellow warbler in the birdbath!"

The subtext for him saying "come look at the yellow warbler" is "please connect with me in this small but quirky and unique-to-me way". Which is why, if the wife responds with a sincere, "oh, hey, look at that! Cool!" it's a good thing, because the subtext for that is "yes, birds are your thing and I love you so I appreciate the things that make you happy". But if she responds with "whatever," that feels dismissive.

But by the same token, if she's deep in the middle of something really complicated, and he knows it, him telling her to look at the yellow warbler right then can feel demanding, and him waiting to tell her about it until she's done is generosity on his part.

But it's the little throwaway moments that the study is talking about rather than the grand gestures, which is where I think the novelty of this particular study is coming in; most people would say it's obvious that generosity about the major matters is important, but not everyone considers the kind of "oh, cool, look at the yellow warbler!" generosity as being a factor.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:52 AM on June 17 [25 favorites]


Being consciously kind and respectful just seems like one of those things one must do for someone one loves -- whether as a friend or as a lover. As a recipient of endless thoughtfulness and kindness from my Bear, I'll add I adore him for that quality alone. (His humor, smarts, and gifts for cooking, gardening, art making and travel arranging are just added bonuses.)
posted by bearwife at 11:57 AM on June 17


I read this article last night and was blown away. As others have said, my parents had a horrible relationship, and my over-riding life goal has been to avoid their fate at all costs. I always knew you had to be kind to your partner, but the specificity of "listen for requests and answer them" was something I never thought about before. I can see how I have not been doing this in lots of my relationships, and I'm eager to put it into practice now.
posted by maggiemaggie at 11:59 AM on June 17 [6 favorites]


The little nice gestures not only become habitual, but addictive. Such that if one person is angry/too busy to kiss you, you feel deprived (and vice versa). We tend to work/read in the evenings at our computers in separate rooms, but both habitually find excuses to go hug/kiss the other one/say something to them periodically. It's not even conscious anymore. And we do have to take time to hang out alone together, because it's like recharging batteries to talk uninterrupted and not just in the typical Verbal To-Do List conversations that can happen when you're busy.

Thoughtfulness can actually be a little tricky; different people have different definitions of it. It's easy to get judgy about what the other person "should have known" you want/expect.
posted by emjaybee at 12:11 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


Research independent from theirs has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage.

oh shit

you didn't specify that qualifier in the summary


One way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions.


I was going to make a wisecrack about generously giving my partner the benefit of the doubt, and it turns out to be true!


Not everyone is perfectly validating all the time though. This is where you use your words. "Honey I know you're busy but this is really important to me." or "I know you hate birds but I need to share this with someone!" and so on.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:12 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


I am naturally a sarcastic bitch and I need to work on this. So I did find this article helpful. It's the little things. And I fail at those little things too often. I just sent my SO a text asking him to meet for dinner with some xxoooxx at the end. It's ridiculously simple, but then I think how pleased I am when I get those from him.
posted by Kokopuff at 12:18 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]


This is a great article and it really emphasizes some things that took me a long time to figure out on my own - the small stuff really matters and how we act in good times is as important as how we act under stress. Beyond how we treat each other, these sorts of things are important in how we treat ourselves and how that relates to our sense of well being, at least it does with me. When I can find gratitude with the little things in life and ignore the annoyances I am much more centered and happy, and when I can do that with my wife and we are much more centered and happy. On the days when I find that impossible but she finds it possible then I am more quickly able to regain my center and so are we. I wish I had read this article twenty years ago. So many things seem obvious, but I frequently find it good to have the obvious replayed for me - I am such a good forgetter on the obvious it seems.
posted by caddis at 12:20 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


My ex- showed lots of small signs of contempt, while professing love and affection. Doubt that I could have seen it, but, in retrospect, it explains a lot. Also, I like the gerbil wearing sunglasses and I, too, miss the img tag.
posted by theora55 at 12:55 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


Right, MetaFilter. Is this something that you just noticed? Everyone else but you knows this already. You can be so stupid sometimes. I don't know why I even keep reading you.

No, no, don't cry. I'm sorry. I don't know what got into me. I love you. Of course I respect you. My membership to you is the most important thing in my life.
posted by BlueHorse at 1:02 PM on June 17 [19 favorites]


I'll just nth the idea that if you had good models or just perhaps good sense, you are way ahead of me in this department, and this article really helps to remind me of all the things my therapist and I worked on for over a whole freaking year, while I tried to save my relationship. (It worked! We're now legally married after ten years of love-but-difficulty.)

I am pretty sure I've never seen my mother treat my father with anything approaching generosity of spirit or obvious love, and they are still together. When I was a religious child, I prayed for my parents to divorce just so the cruelty would end. As they approach their elderly years, they have reached a sort of detente, which is only possible because my mother spends most of her time on opposite coasts from my father.

Being kind, giving my partner the benefit of the doubt, allowing him to "fuck up" in a minor way without feeling like I should pack my bags (figuratively but more often literally)--these are all things that are *really hard* for me, and I have to constantly remind myself to DO ALL TEH NICENESS rather than what comes up instinctively.

One of the things I think a lot of people don't realize is that this "contempt" thing is something people like me carry with us--it isn't something dependent upon a relationship, but rather something we default to when comfortable enough to be "at home" with a partner. They don't make it clear in the article, but I think the "fight or flight" response they recorded is something that those of us who were in emotionally abusive family systems live in *every day* when it comes to those who are closest to us. Learning to navigate a relationship when you feel that way all the time is really really difficult. It takes a lot of work. I am lucky enough to have a partner who isn't a pushover, but also could objectify what was going on with me. He can find it in himself not to "blame me" when I go all mean, but help me in the heat of the moment realize when I've gone off the rails. In other words, he doesn't react like a normal person would, but can say things like, "You need to treat me like you love me right now, not do the whole lizard brain thing."
posted by RedEmma at 1:02 PM on June 17 [26 favorites]


Yes, emotional stability is very important or you can't be kind or generous. Unfortunately, I was not raised by anyone with such stability. So in consequence, it has been very hard for me not only to be able to give, but also to receive. I've not tried to be in a romantic relationship in a long time; A) I didn't want to choose any more men like my unfortunately unstable primary caretakers, and B) it's stressful enough as I learn to be kind to myself, so I don't want to subject some poor fellow to that. My fear of being taken advantage of or abandoned because I was showing vulnerability, being generous or showing kindness definitely ruined one relationship, and choosing men like my primary caretakers meant the others I'd been in were doomed as well. It's hard to keep friends, also, when you think that people actually don't want to be bothered with you, so you don't contact them for fear of bothering them! Logically knowing this vs. knowing this on an emotional level in order to actually reach out in a real and unsuperficial way to people has been very difficult since I was a kid.

My upbringing left me always waiting, not only for the other shoe to drop, but also wondering when someone's mood would change in an instant and then they'd simply just stop speaking to me for days without telling me why (when things had seemed to be perfectly fine only moments before the silent treatment), whether someone would walk away and not return with no explanation, and getting yelled at for showing friendly gestures because that person didn't know how to give or receive and thought they were being manipulated. As a matter of fact, I was explicitly taught that kindness would be taken for weakness, so I had to be "strong" and not let anyone see anything, or leave myself open and vulnerable. And then they inadvertently taught me that also by treating me like shit no matter what I did. So I stopped trying to show love; there was no one around to tell me to not stop trying, but to stop trying with people who treated me with contempt to begin with.

I am lucky in that my natural inclination is to be kind, I'm learning that it's OK to be kind, and that it doesn't mean I'm trying to "trick" someone into doing something for me or giving me something they don't want to give me or vice versa - or worse, that they're twirling their metaphysical Dan Backslide mustache saying, "Aha! You care about me and are being generous! Well, now I can use you however I like and you'll be my bitch forever!"

There's hope for me yet, though! Slow as it has been, I am learning, so studies like this are very helpful to me and people who've had similar situations in battling these awful old lessons.
posted by droplet at 1:13 PM on June 17 [23 favorites]


> Fantastic comment, @iminurmefi - "Constantly pushing your partner to pick up his share of the housework or childcare tends to involve a lot of nagging or fights but the alternative often seems to be resigning oneself to doing most or all of the shit-work in the house in the name of not creating toxic communication patterns with your partner."

I'm a feminist who grapples with these issues, too. I've noticed that a lot of otherwise thoughtful people seem to think that arguing with one's male partner over the housework is some sort of a feminist statement -- as in women are somehow giving up their power by not taking a harsh stand in their own homes and we just need to FIGHT more because fighting = how to gain equality. No.

Why not negotiate over the housework instead of argue, nag, or cajole? There is a whole range of peaceful ways to respectfully negotiate with your male partner that don't involve anyone thinking themselves some sort of a "bad feminist." Such as using I-statements, for starters.

Also John Gottman and Nan Silver's fantastic book “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” has a really useful checklist of every single chore one could possibly think of, and asks two questions: Who does it now? Who should ideally do it? Each spouse fills out the questionnaire. It leads to great talks and certainly greater awareness - because there is a real tendency for so-called "women's work" when done well and on-time to appear completely invisible to her male partner.
posted by hush at 1:14 PM on June 17 [15 favorites]


“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained in an interview, “which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”

This is interesting to me, because I think there is a natural bias toward noticing and focusing on the negative that in a lot of situations is adaptive, but to nourish a healthy relationship you really ought to fight against that.

Because it's so much easier to see the negative because it stands out as being out of place (well, I guess unless you're in a terrible relationships and it's actually more noticeable when someone is nice).
posted by Asparagus at 1:33 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]


Wait, no, cheeseburgers.

A great example.
posted by juiceCake at 2:48 PM on June 17


I don't remember where I first heard "contempt is the death of love" but it was years before I married. It is a good thing to remember in trying times.
posted by 41swans at 3:41 PM on June 17


I have been married for five years, with Shepherd for eight. Our marriage is amazing, but I also don't take it for granted. My parents divorced not so amicably when I was young, but my mom got the partner she deserved the second time around: a warm, caring man that was generous and loving to her and to us, two kids who weren't even his. I carried a lot of awful mental baggage from a fractured relationship with my father--we've since repaired our differences--into so many relationships in adulthood, that I used it in some fashion to sabotage them. Shepherd is the patient loving person I didn't know I deserve and since we've been together, I am learning to be a better spouse and person all around. I can be sarcastic and hurtful by not filtering the things I say, but I stop and take time to assess how my words will affect my partner.

So I liked this article. It reminds me I am lucky and I am applying those principles to the best thing that ever happened to me.
posted by Kitteh at 4:09 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


So: Be excellent to each other...?
posted by sfred at 5:10 PM on June 17


there is a real tendency for so-called "women's work" when done well and on-time to appear completely invisible to her male partner

In Brigid Schulte's Overwhelmed, she notes that one of the sources of friction in a relationship is not only the physical labor of women's work but the mental labor as well:
mothers can delegate tasks on the to-do list, but even that takes up brain space— not simply the asking but also the checking to make sure the task has been done, and the biting of the tongue when it hasn’t been done as well or as quickly as you’d like.
[And before anyone says, "So don't check, just trust your partner to do it," sometimes, that's not always optimal (i.e. when your partner doesn't pack a lunch for the kids & you discover that on the way out the door the next morning).]

So-called "women's work" requires no small amount of attention and time. In my recent experience -- when the addition of a baby hit our childfree-for-a-decade household -- we had to work hard for a year to continuously communicate what needed to be done and who needed to do it. LOTS of tedious communication to hash out the expectations and to-do lists. Because when we didn't, resentment crept in, and resentment is the cradle of contempt.
posted by sobell at 5:17 PM on June 17 [18 favorites]


Among Brigid Schulte's many, many great recommendations in Overwhelmed (page 283) are:

"Create family systems and automate routines to cut down on arguing, nagging, and resentment. Share the load. As a family, figure out what needs to be done to keep the house and your lives running. Set standards that everyone can agree to. Then divide the load fairly, making sure your sons and daughters do equal work. Monitor. Assess. Keep working at it. Do NOT sigh, gripe, moan, and do it all yourself, muttering and resentful the whole time."

[And before anyone says, "So don't check, just trust your partner to do it," sometimes, that's not always optimal (i.e. when your partner doesn't pack a lunch for the kids & you discover that on the way out the door the next morning).]

The kids can and should start packing their own lunches once they're old enough. A developmentally-normal 6-year-old is fully capable of it. (This revelation was a total game-changer in my house, but YMMV of course.)
posted by hush at 5:47 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


I dread the day that we're sitting on the couch, her reading, me watching a baseball game and browsing /r/aww, when I say, "Wanna see a guinea pig wearing sunglasses?" and she ignores me.



If that ever happens, GET OUT OF THE HOUSE, because that means she has been replaced by some kind of evil robot or alien pod or something.


I'm serious. RUN.
posted by louche mustachio at 5:49 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


I just tested Mr. Mustachio. I asked him and he said "yes" and showed him the picture and he went "HUEEEE!" so everything is cool.


You can never be to careful, especially considering the shenanigans Google has gotten up to lately.

posted by louche mustachio at 5:56 PM on June 17 [5 favorites]


Forgive the length, but the following seems relevant:

Constructive Fighters, Destructive Fighters, and Avoiders all employ this basic form of marital conflict: The wife is typically the confrontational partner, while the husband tends to be wary, self-contained, and hesitant to engage in open disagreement. But Constructive Fighters are the only ones who know how to use conflict to promote long-term marital happiness. To the untrained eye and ear their fights may look and sound like everyone else's. But in the middle of serious disagreement each partner gets an opportunity to air his or her thoughts on important issues and to ventilate frustrations and grievances.
I suspect that what makes Constructive Fighters virtuosos of the form is their mutual affection and regard. Simply put, they both love and like each other, and during arguments these feelings serve them in two important ways. One is by preventing them from crossing the inviolate line that transforms an argument from a forum for airing and resolving disputes into a street fight whose only aim is to inflict punishment. The recent research shows that both men and women emit certain distinct signs when they feel they have or are about to be grievously injured in a fight and want it to stop. In men these warning signals include whining, defensiveness, and agitated attempts to withdraw - instead of slowly backing away towards the door the husband lunges for it. In women these signals include sadness and fear. Studies also show that when these signs are ignored, often the injured partner "loses it" and the fight spins out of control. Constructive Fighters will argue right up to these warning signals, which provides both partners with plenty of room to air frustrations and upsets. But once one of these signs appears, the attacker, unconsciously sensing danger, backs off and gives his or her opponent room to make a graceful retreat.
The second characteristic of Constructive Fighters also arises out of their high mutual regard. For most husbands and wives the chief priority in an argument is winning. While this is also important to Constructive Fighters , just as important is the desire to end the interruption of their happiness. And research by Dutch psychologist Cas Schapp shows that this desire makes Constructive Fighters different from other squabbling couples in a second important way. Even in the midst of the most heated arguments they continue to offer olive branches to each other in the form of concessions and compromises.

What characteristics characterize Destructive Fighters?
Their arguments also follow the basic form of marital conflict. Usually the wife initiates the discussion of problems in their relationship and the husband tries to withdraw. But the feelings Destructive Fighters bring to their disagreements lead them to do very different things with the form. Typically there are a lot of grudges and resentments in their marriages and insufficient mutual regard or affection to temper these. Among other things these negative feelings make them much more likely to ignore the warning signals of spousal distress or even notice indices of spousal consideration and understanding. This tends to be especially true of Destructive Fighting wives. On our tapes they can be heard ignoring their husbands' olive branches and signs of distress, such as whining, defensiveness, and withdrawal, and getting increasingly irritated in the process.
A few years ago when Dr. Jessica Bell of the University of California asked a group of such wives why they pressed home their attacks so ferociously, she got a surprising answer. In almost every case the women reported that their aggressiveness was really an expression of powerlessness. They said their husbands subtly controlled the pace and tempo of arguments through their stonewalling. Frustrated at not getting through, these wives said they often upped their attacks in hopes of breaking though that wall and evoking some kind of human
response - some kind of connection. Typically at some point in the conflict the Destructive Fighting wife does get through, and just as typically the result is a cycle of escalation and counterescalation. Annoyed that his distress signals have been ignored, the besieged husband launches a fierce counterattack, producing sadness and fear in the wife, who after regaining her momentum then launches a more ferocious counter-counterattack. At that point the argument usually spins out of control and becomes about nothing but inflicting misery and pain on each other.

* * * Belsky, Jay, PH.D and John Kelly. The Transition to Parenthood. New York, Dell Publishing: 1994.
posted by dragonsi55 at 6:07 PM on June 17 [12 favorites]


I've been grumpy all day and I just finally looked at that guinea pig picture and it made me laugh out loud. It's really something. I can't wait to show it to my boyfriend.

I feel like MetaFilter had developed a new test for relationships, but I'm too tired to flesh out my theory/hypothesis/correlation/Science!.
posted by sio42 at 7:49 PM on June 17


Thanks for this FPP. I naturally am kind and express interest in what my partner says and cares about. Now, early 40s and never-married. I may never marry. I recognize the sorts of positive attitudes discussed in the article as essential to having a good relationships and have left people because they weren't present. I see contempt in nearly all the long-term relationships I'm aware of. (Or at least lack of respect.)

Anyway, I saw the wreckage of divorce everywhere when I was growing up in the 70s. I see so few good long-term relationships around me. (Though some mefites give me hope!.) A lack of kindness is not uncommon in people I've dated. (It's not the norm, but it's common-enough to where I'm on the lookout for it.). So, I'm skittish. And single.
posted by persona au gratin at 8:21 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]


The kids can and should start packing their own lunches once they're old enough. A developmentally-normal 6-year-old is fully capable of it. (This revelation was a total game-changer in my house, but YMMV of course.)

I'll be sure to circle back to this advice in three years, then.

(I apologize if that sounds testy, but come on. I use one small item as an example of a larger scenario in which someone's lack of diligence makes life harder for people who are not them, not because I'm in desperate need of lifehacking or labor division ideas.)
posted by sobell at 9:10 PM on June 17 [5 favorites]


I haven't felt contempt for any of my ex-partners. Oh wait... they all dumped me. And I was always so kind, dammit.
posted by Decani at 12:50 AM on June 18


Let your partner be human.
posted by Devils Rancher at 2:08 AM on June 18 [2 favorites]


I love Gottman's books and get a lot out of them.

Re: the subject of parents modeling bad relationship behavior.

One of my earliest memories, shortly after I learned to read, is a newspaper clipping that was stuck to our fridge. It was a Dear Abby column. I don't remember the question, but from what I remember of the answer, it was something to do with dividing up housework. A lot of the answer was things like: pick up after yourself, do your part without demanding praise, be very clear about what chores are involved in "cleaning the bathroom" if you're the neater one, etc.

One minor line near the end of the advice column was the line "When you use up all of the toilet paper, replace it with a new roll immediately!" Of all of the advice given, my mother had apparently picked this line to highlight, underline, and draw arrows pointing at before passive-aggressively sticking the column to the fridge without otherwise discussing it.

My parents divorced when I was six. It took me decades to realize that clipping out advice columns, highlighting the thing you wanted to say, and silently posting them around the house was not how healthy couples communicated. I didn't connect the dots that this was something couples who were about to divorce did. Reflecting on it now, it's a complete microcosm for why my parents' marriage failed. My father was inconsiderate, and my mom was shitty at communicating. But it's not always apparent, especially if you absorb this stuff at an age where you don't have any other examples of normal.
posted by almostmanda at 7:50 AM on June 20 [6 favorites]


Just realized recently that I have absolutely no firsthand experience with a solid relationship. Parents who were physically and emotionally abusive to each other made me extremely skeptical of marriage. When I thought their violent, angry behavior was normal, it didn't bother me that they were barely affectionate, considerate, didn't work together to solve problems, etc. When they got divorced, a textbook case of parental alienation occurred. My mom actually shrugged when I asked why she got married....

So studies like this are a nice reminder of what to do b/c I can't end up like my parents. I have extremely strong friendships that unintentionally followed these "good marriage" principles. I take the end of a friendship pretty hard, compared to a breakup. So all hope is not lost!

Thank you science.
posted by Freecola at 6:52 AM on June 21 [3 favorites]


Freecola, I'm reading Gottman's Seven Principles book right now and he talks about that shrug. He says when a marriage gets bad enough, changes happen in the brain and the couple literally can't remember positive things about their early marriage. Asking how a couple got together ends up telling you a lot about their current relationship.
posted by heatherann at 2:16 PM on June 22 [3 favorites]


God damn it, you've got to be kind.
posted by homunculus at 3:44 PM on June 22 [2 favorites]


I realized sometime in the last few years that:
A) I would get out-of-proportionally upset over things in my romantic relationships because it seemed like every little disagreement was either something that would slowly grate at me for all eternity until I was a shell of a person (maybe I had heard too many toilet-seat-left-up cracks or maybe I was just looking to share something like the birdwatching spouse and felt rejected) or we were going to break up and I was going to be so sad and miss you SO MUCH because I loooove youuuu. :( This was actually solved, in part, by a rule we created that said that anyone who threatens to move out of the apartment or leave town must do so immediately, no backsies. But mostly we seemed to just grow up a bit and get over this.

and, more importantly
B) If Best Friend did whatever little thing Boyfriend did to break my heart, I probably wouldn't even notice. This is because I am not vigilantly watching out for how she is going to break my heart. I actually trust her to continue to be in my life for, like, ever. I don't look at every move she makes as a (probably negative) reflection or symbol of her feelings about me.

That was the thing that made me share this article on FB, the part about appreciating intent. In the article, the example is of a wife running late because she stopped to get a gift, but I think you don't need to have that overtly good thing (the gift) to balance out a small mistake. You can be open about not liking something someone did once you both know that that doesn't mean you don't like them.

This has, of course, been awesome for my relationship with my partner, but also with other people in my life. I rarely get angry at strangers anymore (like while driving or waiting in line or something) because I stopped assuming negative intent on their parts. It is so freeing.

Upon reflection, it is also a huge part of how I was taught to make my classroom a safe space for learning (which can be scary and discomfiting). Relationships are important for learning and you have to establish them quickly, because this group may only be together got a few months. I openly and explicitly talk about how we respect each other, even as relationships are just getting started. And we can make mistakes together. And I welcome them to our classroom every day and let them know that I am glad they are there. I thank them for taking chances and I always try to ascribe positive (or at least neutral) intent to their actions.*

Long story short, I am trying to love the world like I love Best Friend and it's really good.

*This doesn't mean excusing bad behavior. Quite the opposite, I expect my students to do their best work and treat each other with kindness. When that's not happening, we need to find the reason and work on it.
posted by MsDaniB at 11:59 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]


Additionally, I went to one of those self-help cult seminars, and the best thing I got out of it was that you have to actually ask if you want something or want to understand something. This is a life changing revelation for me. I spent a lot of time thinking people hated me because they weren't responding to the pleas for attention I was making in my head.

Now I have conversations like:
Me: "Hey, look at the bird! What a weird bird!"
Boyfriend: ...
Me: "Hey, I'm trying to share my experience of the world with you! Do you hate it when I point out weird things?" [Note: this line is a direct quotation.]
Boyfriend: "No, I like it. I am just trying to watch this video game speed run right now, though, so I'm distracted. Can you hold off talking to me until it's done?"
Me: "Sure." *Looks at birds and doesn't even think Boyfriend hates me.*
posted by MsDaniB at 12:07 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


I went to one of those self-help cult seminars, and the best thing I got out of it was that you have to actually ask if you want something or want to understand something.
Ask Culture vs Guess Culture?
posted by and they trembled before her fury at 8:43 AM on June 25


Ask Culture vs Guess Culture?

Yes! A combination of Midwestern polite indirectness and a mom with a short fuse for requests made me feel like an asshole for asking for anything for a long time. Then I would do that awful TV/movie girlfriend behavior of getting mad at someone for not reading my mind. Asking has made me a much more calm person. And it, wonderfully, has made it easier to say no to requests from others.
posted by MsDaniB at 9:02 AM on June 25 [2 favorites]


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