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Anger in Marriage: Compassion Failure, Contempt on the Rise

Why should they care if you don't care?

Most marriages end in a whimper, not a bang. The final rupture is not caused by too much anger or abuse or infidelity. Rather, most marriages die a slow, agonizing death from too little compassion.

Compassion is sympathy for the hurt or distress of another. At heart it is a simple appreciation of the basic human frailty we all share, which is why the experience of compassion makes you feel more humane and less isolated.

Compassion is necessary for the formation of emotional bonds. Think of when you were dating someone you eventually came to love. Suppose you had to call that person and report that your parents had died. If your date responded with, "Well, that's tough, call me when you get over it," would you have fallen in love with that person? Chances are, you fell in love with someone who cared about how you felt, especially when you felt bad.

Most of what you fight about now is not money or sex or in-laws or raising the kids. Those are common problems that seem insurmountable only when you're hurt. What causes the hurt—i.e., what you really fight about—is the impression that your partner doesn't care how you feel. When someone you love is not compassionate, it feels like abuse.

As compassion decreases, resentment automatically rises, making common problems insoluble. If unfettered by the better angels of our nature, resentment inevitably turns into contempt.

Contempt is disdain for the hurt of others, due to their perceived lower moral standing, character defects, mental instability, ignorance, or general unworthiness. Contempt is powered by a low but steady dose of adrenaline. So long as the adrenaline lasts, you feel more confident and self-righteous in blaming your bad feelings on some defect of your partner. But you also feel less humane. And when the adrenaline wears off, you feel depressed.

Both compassion and contempt are extremely contagious and highly influenced by projection. If you're around a compassionate person, you're likely to become more compassionate. If you're around a contemptuous person, you're likely to become more contemptuous, unless you make a determined effort to remain true to your deepest values. If you project onto others that they're compassionate, they are likely to become more considerate. If you project contemptuous characterizations—loser, abuser, selfish, lazy, narcissistic, irrational, devious, etc.—they are likely to become more so.

By the time couples come to our boot camps for chronic resentment, anger, or emotional abuse, they have developed entrenched habits of protecting their respective vulnerabilities by devaluing each other. They try to justify their contempt with "evidence" that the partner is selfish, lazy, narcissistic, crazy, abusive, etc. Mutual contempt makes them feel both chronically criticized and attacked, although neither really wants to attack the other. They feel like victims and rationalize their bad behavior as reactions to the other's awful behavior.

Their defenses so automatically justify their resentment and contempt that they cannot possibly see each other. Neither can they see that their resentment and contempt have cut them off from their deeper values and made them into someone they are not.

Once defenses become habits, they run on autopilot and resist change through insight. They will likely recur in any future relationship that stirs guilt, shame, and anxiety—that is, any close relationship.

The only way out, whether the couple stays in relationship or not, is to focus on compassion—not to manipulate change in the other, but to feel more humane and reconnect with their deepest values.

The problem is that most couples are afraid to embrace compassion once they've been hurt.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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