Friday, July 08, 2005


According to Malcolm Gladwell, University of Washington psychologist John Gottman can predict with 95 percent accuracy whether a couple will still be together fifteen years later if he analyzes an hour of their conversation. If he watches a couple for fifteen minutes, his success rate is around 90 percent. He has gotten so good at predicting the success or failure of a relationship that he can be in a restaurant and eavesdrop on a couple one table over and get a pretty good sense of whether they are going to make it. He finds most of what he needs to know about a couple by focusing on a set of emotions that he calls the Four Horsemen: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism and contempt.

But even within the Four Horsemen, there's one emotion that Dr. Gottman considers the most important of all: contempt. If Dr. Gottman observes one or both partners in a relationship showing contempt toward one another, he considers it the single most important sign that they are in trouble.

"You would think that criticism would be the worst," Dr. Gottman said, "Because criticism is a global condemnation of a person's character. Yet contempt is qualitatively different from criticism." With criticism, one might say, "You never listen, you are really selfish and insensitive." The partner will respond defensively, and that's not very good for problem solving and interaction. But if one speaks from a superior plane, that's far more damaging, and contempt is any statement made from a higher level. A lot of times it's an insult - "You are a bitch." "You're scum." It's trying to put that person on a lower plane than you. It's hierarchical.

Dr. Gottman has found that the presence of contempt in a relationship can even predict such things as how many colds the couple will get; in other words, having someone you love express contempt toward you is so stressful that it begins to affect your immune system. "Contempt is closely related to disgust, and what disgust and contempt are about is completely rejecting and excluding someone from the community."

Is it any wonder, then, that I was sick almost the entire month of April as my relationship with L. ended? I had long felt that L. was putting me on a lower plane than her, and her contempt was obvious in the way she ended the relationship via email while I was in San Francisco and over the telephone when I had returned home. She had reached a point where it seemed that she felt it was no longer even worth her while to come see me or have me over, and the stress that it caused me was probably a contributing factor to the poor health I experienced last spring.

But my objective here is not to engage in criticism. Dr. Gottman's observations on contempt, discussed in the book "Blink," resonated with me due to my own personal experience as described above, and also reminded me of the wisdom of the Buddha dharma. Contempt, as Dr. Gottman points out, is hierarchical, and reinforces the delusion of the separation of self and others. This sense of separation, fueled by contempt, causes one to speak of the faults of the other, so as to put that other on a lower plane. This in turn, reinforces the sense of separation, and fuels the run-away illusion of an ego-self.

For this reason, Zen initiates, as well as other Buddhists, take the precepts, including "See the perfection. Do not speak of the faults of others," and "Realize self and other as one. Do not elevate the self and blame others." By adhering to right speech, part of the Noble Eight-Fold Path, we avoid behaviors that reinforce the sense of separation, which gives rise to contempt, and which is so deleterious to our relationships and to our health.


Linda said...

Wonderful post!

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