By Trish Propson
Times Villager, January 2017
“I wish I could tell my mom to shut up – she’s beyond annoying.”
“I wish my dad would tell me he was leaving – I can’t stand him.”
“I wish my son would tell me why he is so violent and rude.”
“I wish I could tell my dad he is worthless.”
We can’t possibly know the backdrop to these comments from the rekenekt graffiti wall. Nor can we understand the context in which they were written. What we can discern is that these comments are rooted in contempt – the silent killer of relationships.
Contempt is considered the number one destroyer of marital relationships and predictor of divorce. This dangerous relational habit also translates to severe conflict and destruction in parent/teen relationships. Contempt, along with its equally nasty counterparts, disdain, disrespect, hatred, and resentment are the top reasons cited for conflict among parents and teens.
Contempt by its very definition holds the answer to why this one feeling can destroy relationships. The word contempt comes from the Latin word contemptus, which translated, means scorn. Contempt is the feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn. Disdain is the closest synonym, which is defined as the feeling that someone or something is unworthy of consideration or respect. Together contempt and disdain create a toxic mix of disgust and anger that poison relationships.
Robert C. Solomon in his book True to Our Feelings explains that contempt is an evaluative judgment imposed on another person. Contempt is born of a place within us that says, “You are worthless and I am superior to you.” Resentment and anger are closely related to contempt. Solomon writes that resentment is usually directed towards an individual in authority over us, as in the case of a teen who resents their parent’s rules. Anger is usually projected on individuals we see as peers such as feelings of anger between co-workers or toward another driver. Contempt, on the other hand, is imposed on someone you treat as having a lower status as an individual. When a teen exhibits contempt towards a parent, the emotional pain causing feelings of arrogant superiority may be rooted in something unseen and may need professional attention. Contempt must not go unaddressed.
According to Susan Heitler, Ph.D, for Psychology Today, “Empathy and contempt are polar opposites. Empathy involves caring about others’ feelings and concerns. Contempt is arrogant … disregard, dismissal, and denigration of others’ concerns. Empathy nurtures relationship bonds; contempt invites relational division.”
How can you determine if you are living with contempt?
Look for signs of contempt in your relationship with your son or daughter. While sighs, subtle eye rolling, and occasional rudeness are normal between teens and parents, contempt goes deeper.
Eye rolling that is accompanied by mocking, sneering, sarcasm, or any disrespectful verbal attack that includes rejecting another person’s perspective, or maligning their character suggests contempt. Interactions that exhibit ignoring, dismissing, or laughing in the face of another family member’s distress or showing disregard for their well being are other signs that contempt is controlling the interaction. A physical posture of standing over or above another person can also indicate contempt.
Contempt destroys relationships because it devalues another person. Parent/ teen relationships where contempt is present can have long-term irreparable relational consequences that can lead to other relational destruction. Contempt unchecked is destructive to the relationship, the contemptuous individual, and the recipient.
Have you been living in a toxic environment controlled by contempt? Maybe the New Year is a good time to address contempt and disdain and attempt to restore respect and grace in your home. Consider these five action steps to try to remove the silent killers from your parent/teen and other relationships.
Action Steps: Take Five
- Take it seriously. If patterns of contempt are present in your home, seek professional help. Chances are it will not go away by itself and may escalate. All family members affected by contempt may need professional counseling.
- Be aware. Is your teen aware they are contemptuous? Have their behaviors gone unchecked for so long they feel entitled to their contemptuous attitude? Make a list of contemptuous behaviors for one week or longer. Describe the time, place, people impacted, and what was done or said.
- Own your own contempt. Is contempt present in adults or older siblings in the home? Contemptuous teens often witness contempt modeled. Be willing to take a look at your own behaviors to see if they fall into the category of contempt.
- Set boundaries. Be willing to calmly and respectfully confront your teen with the list of contempt you have observed. Is a mutually respectful conversation possible? If not, share the definition of contempt and explain to your teen contempt will no longer be tolerated in your home. If things escalate, seek professional help.
- Be part of the solution. Contempt did not happen overnight. It is a long learned process. Be willing to proactively find solutions to the problem of contempt and then see it through. It will be hard work, but the benefits of rooting out the silent killer will be worth it.
Rekenekt with Trish Propson is a monthly column devoted to raising awareness between parents and teens and helping people reconnect with hope across generations. Trish Propson is a local author, speaker, and family advocate committed to reconnecting families, one conversation at a time.