July 13, 2017

Breaking Out of the Death Spiral of Contempt

Gary Thomas — 

Before being appointed commissioner of Major League Baseball in 1989, Bart Giamatti already had an impressive resume as a professor of English Renaissance Literature and president of Yale University.

Unfortunately, his tenure as commissioner of Major League Baseball was cut painfully short when he died of a heart attack just five months into his service.

The night before Giamatti died, he was at a baseball game, sitting in front of a cardiologist. The cardiologist noticed Giamatti’s fingernails and became alarmed. He warned him that he needed to see a heart doctor right away.

I’m not a doctor so I don’t know what the cardiologist saw, but to a trained eye, the symptom of heart disease was all too obvious.

Within hours, Giamatti was dead.

The “heart disease” of marriage is contempt, and there are tell-tale symptoms that we ignore in our own marriage (or others) at our peril. Remember that cliché, “familiarity breeds contempt?” Nothing is more familiar than marriage. Marriage to a less than perfect person, absent an understanding of grace and a commitment to cherish each other, can lead to disappointment, which leads to frustration, which leads to bitterness, which leads to contempt.

Here’s how it works spiritually:

Disappointment à Frustration à Bitterness à Contempt

This is a spiritual journey before it is a marital one and it’s a terrible one at that. Contempt unleashes the “death spiral” of disappointment leading to frustration, frustration leading to bitterness and bitterness exhibiting itself in contempt. This cycle is like a living snowball that feeds itself and gets hungrier as it grows.

I’ve seen couples look so lovingly at each other on their wedding day. It always inspires me. But I also see plenty of couples who come into my pastor’s office with eyes blocked by cataritic contempt. Instead of gazing at each other as the couples on their wedding day do, couples with contempt stare like a dagger at the ground, or off to the side, when their spouse is talking—they can’t bear to look at each other except when they’re ready to pounce back with a verbal assault. Just think about how sad this is: getting absolutely no pleasure looking at your spouse; instead, you look to attack, not to adore.

Contempt-laden eyes are locked and loaded, ready to fire. You’ve never seen impatience like you’ve seen it in the eyes of a spouse who is just waiting for her spouse to stop talking, to take one-tenth of a breath, so that she can jump in and explain how he couldn’t be more wrong, and she has proof.

It even leads to bizarre behavior. An angry wife literally screamed at her husband in my office with the accusation, “See, you don’t listen to me, you won’t even answer my question!” after he had just gently and calmly answered her question. Her contempt was so thick she couldn’t hear what he was saying, even though that was her critique of him. She was, at least at that moment, blinded and deafened by her contempt. That’s why I call it “cataritic” (cataracts) contempt. It’s blinding. It affects our vision of each other. It has to be cured if the marriage is going to survive.

Dr. John Gottman, a marriage expert from the University of Washington, believes that contempt is the “single best predictor of relationship breakdowns.” He defines contempt as an attitude of superiority, evidenced by speaking down to your partner through name calling or direct insults. This is, of course, the exact opposite of how we have defined cherish, which opens our eyes to our spouse’s excellence, which is why cherishing is the best antidote to contempt.

Ironically, an attitude of superiority and “speaking down” to a partner is one of the most common failings of people who consider themselves mature Christians and who are married to “less mature” believers. Because they see themselves as “better” (they’d never use that word, but the concept drives their thinking) in the Lord, they start to define their spouse by their sins and failings, and leads them to an attitude of superiority and hyper-negativity. They don’t realize that their own attitude is the single biggest assault on their marriage, even more than what they’re criticizing in their spouse. They think they are the mature one for noticing the fault, not realizing they are the most destructive partner for obsessing over the fault.

Couples committed to cherishing each other do go to war, but never with each other. They go to war against contempt, especially their own.

I wrote Cherish in part to offer a plan to overcome the destructive impact of contempt. Rather than focus on avoiding the negative (contempt), however, I’d rather focus on the positive (the delight of cherishing the person you’re married to). But sometimes, as in this post, we have to describe eradicating the disease before people can even imagine what a healthy marriage might look like.

If you find yourself (or if you know a couple) in the death spiral of contempt, just know that it doesn’t have to be fatal. There is a spiritual cure, and it begins with an ancient goal of marriage, rooted in our vows: “I promise to love and to cherish until death do us part.”

This blog is not written for women in abusive marriages. The advice offered in these posts will challenge both husbands and wives, but the advice could be counter-productive if it is applied in an abusive relationship.


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28 responses to Breaking Out of the Death Spiral of Contempt

  1. Sacred Marriage is hands-down the best marriage book I have ever read. It has helped save my marriage through major disappointment: porn, addiction, and affairs. It was up to him to surrender to the Lord and get healed but it was up to me to love God more than my rights and to remember the covenant that I made not just with my husband, but with God. This was only possible though because my husband did finally repent and change. I’m glad I’ve walked through the pain and didn’t walk away. Cherish has now helped me look beyond his sin and my disappointment and see him through God’s eyes. I’m praising Him and I thank you, Gary, as well.

  2. Thanks for the great article Gary. I cringed while reading it, recognizing some of the same traits in myself. On that, I have a question? After 6 beautiful children and being married for 14 years we got divorced 10 years ago due to financial reasons. (I take full responsibility for that because I put our financial problem before our marriage. That was the only way we could see our way out of loosing everything at the time). The deal was that we would remarry within a year with the right contracts in place, which never happened. Between then and now, my ‘husband’ has had various affairs and done some other very hurtful things. He is passive aggressive, condescending, emotionally distant and unavailable (always been) and has no interest or intention of remarrying any time soon, even though he KNOWS it will make the world of difference to me. I’m stuck in the middle. I want to be a good wife. I want to do the right thing. I want the type of marriage you sometimes describe. Yet I am not a wife. Not in the godly sense. I dont feel like a wife and because of the constant undermining, disappointment, broken promises, hurt, I do feel contempt. How do I overcome this? And how do I teach my children that living together without being in covenant with G-d and each other is not G-d will for us, yet we are doing the exact same thing? I’m confused, frustrated and stuck.

  3. Butterflykissz0505 July 13, 2017 at 6:30 pm

    I spent over a decade in a contemptuous relationship. Resolution was not possible. Believe that you are worthy of being cherished, just as God designed. It starts with cherishing yourself and having a relationship with God. It is there that you will find peace and love you deserve.

  4. Spot on.

    However, I have noticed that letting go of the bitterness and contempt and yet continually being repetitively let down, lied to and betrayed by my husband leaves me caring less and less for him and about his actions. It seems to be making it feel easier to leave him, easier to see life without him in it… becoming more apathetic towards him with each “blow”.

    We’ve been to counseling time after time, more deep discussions & promises of change than I can count and after thinking on it, the “dimmer switch” on my desire to care was the last time I tried to discuss with him a fight we recently had and requested we meet for a day long, Intensive Christian marriage session that I had already looked into because I felt we both needed to really sit down and hash things out for more than an hour at a time every week or so in order to work on our marriage. I didn’t realize until then how unwilling he was to work on ‘us’. Band-aid fixes to apease me were okay territory… but actual work and grit… that kind of effort seems to be reserved for the things he does that cause destruction to our family. I finally realized it doesn’t matter how many counselors try or how much I try… he just doesn’t want ‘this’… he is okay with us remaining right smack in the middle of the muck. It hit me that being bitter/contemptful had not only been a waste of my time and energy but that all the effort I had been putting into not doing so had changed me, allowing me to feel more in control of me and my emotions and my future. My plan was not disconnect… but to better our marriage through changing my own attitude towards his actions… my plan however has failed… but I am not angry and bitter and their has to be some sort of silver lining to that.

    • Sandra L Tarr July 14, 2017 at 4:49 pm

      CE, I was in an abusive marriage for a long time. It nearly destroyed me. Needless to say that I went to Pastors for counseling. Then I went to A Christian counselor. With the Pastors I got prayer and sad looks. This was in the 60s – 80s. The Christian counselor was very helpful and helped me get my life back. I tried everything that was recommended but nothing helped the marriage. HE DID NOT WANT TO CHANGE! I left and have a much better life. Along the way I became a Christian Counselor myself. I found something in the Word of God that blew me away when God opened my eyes to see it. In Matthew 18:15 – 20 Jesus is talking about how to handle when a brother sins against you. Very well known passage and I always had used it to the go to whenever I had conflict with people. I never thought of using it with my husband. I of course did the first part but I never followed up with any other steps. It never occurred to me to think of my marriage in that context. This works and saves a lot of wasted years. If any one will ever change or realize how destructive their behavior is to those who love them is to make it quick, clear, and with instant consequences. After 26 years of emotional agony and despair I realized that after 5 years of marriage counseling my obligation to live under the same roof was over. The sin against me began 20 hours after our vows were said. I learned a lot but it was no longer necessary for me to try to make it work was long over. I rented a room and had peace at last. You sound like a very smart lady and have chosen a great attitude. You are free to leave or stay. God wants his children to live in peace. Bless you!

  5. My husband just sent me this article. He has been emotionally abusive for 20 years but I just figured out what it was 2 years ago. For years I was afraid of going to counseling with him bc I was afraid he’d take on that attitude of superiority and make me out to be pathetic – and at that time I was trying so hard to be submissive and was tongue tied about defending myself. We’ve been to various counselors in the last 2 years, including a NIM Intensive and counseling with experts in emotional abuse. At the NIM intensive he dubbed himself the kind of stonewalling. The counselors have all said the same thing – that I need to set firm boundaries to stop him from crushing my heart and that he needs to learn empathy and deal with his anger/ hardheartedness. When I try to use the “I feel” statements, he doesn’t want to hear me – he becomes defensive and it becomes about me hurting him by telling him he hurt me. He’s told me my tears are pathetic and when he’s grabbed me in anger he’s mocked my fear. He has stone faced told me I’ll fail in whatever I do when I asked for his help with a big decision and then he stonewalled me for weeks afterwards when I told him how hurtful that was. When I confronted him that I didn’t feel comfortable with his staying with a female coworker while we were separated, he rolled his eyes and mocked me and slammed me for judging him and trying to control him. The past few weeks on date nights (something a marriage program he likes recommended) I’ve barely looked at him bc before the date night I told him I felt ignored and abandoned bc I’d begged for his help with a big decision again and he ignored me. He basically told me he had every right to ignore me bc he didn’t want to deal with it or help me and then expected me to have fun on the date. I was so hurt I figured it was better to be silent than to risk being ignored again.
    So he took the example in the article and interpreted it based on that. That my confronting him at all or bringing issues to him or telling him I feel hurt or begging him to care and to keep his promises or to stop stonewalling me or my my ever expressing anger about the consequences and loss from his broken promises or my withdrawing and not carrying the conversation is contempt – bc no matter how I say it he feels attacked if I confront him or expect anything from him. I know that our situation is not why you wrote the article but it fed his denial and lies.

    • Frustrated, I’m so sorry. A hard hearted man will use anything as a weapon–even an article that should convict him (as he’s treating you with contempt) he’s using against you.

      I don’t know what kind of counseling you’ve received, but not all counseling is the same. Here’s one, based in Escondido, California, that would help you get the answers you need:


    • Brenda Spencer July 16, 2017 at 4:28 pm

      I have been through exact same thing. I am crying as I read this. My husband left 6 months ago and I have never been happier. Its been hard yes but Im healed from so much now. And I was pondering yet again if it was right thing to do to go thru with divorce. Just reading this caused pain to well up in me from the past I been thru with him and hurt I have not had has resurfaced. Suffice it to say this shone a light. I cant go backward. I can only go forward. Thank you for sharing. I will pray for you.

  6. Thank you.

  7. I’m posing the same question as a few others: after offering forgiveness and attempting to move forward in unison, how can you respond lovingly to a husband’s repeated destructive behavior for 25 years? By destructive, I mean a neglectful lack of love towards his wife and children which has had devastating effects on our spiritual, mental, financial, physical health and more.

    • Angela,

      I’m so sorry. It’s one thing to bear the lack of love in a husband. It’s an additional level of hurt to watch your kids’ father do the same to them. Double grieving, but five times the hurt, I’m sure.

      I can tell you this: if this lack of love has been going on for 25 years, it’s not going to change unless there are consequences felt by him. That’s something you need to work out with an experienced counselor.

      • it’s tough to find a consequence short of divorce when that is the only thing that might (might) wake him up but he knows that biblically it’s not an option.

        • You may not want divorce but separation can be an effective consequence. I don’t know your situation but a trusted counselor can guide you. An earlier blog post by Gary Thomas had one sentence that clarified some things for me.He said something like ” God loves the person more than the institution of marriage.”
          I hope I’m not speaking out of turn here. It seemed that your comment might have been overlooked. I hope you have support via girlfriends. I’m praying for you right now.

      • Sandra L Tarr July 14, 2017 at 4:56 pm

        Matthew 18:15 -20

        Gary is so right . Loving confrontation, immediate consequences, Divorce Care is an awesome recovery program whether you stay together or make a life apart.

  8. Thank you for your article. I have struggled with this as I have experienced severe lack of love, cherishing, truth telling in our marriage. Recently all this was acknowledged as outcome of men’s intensive along with disclosure of affairs years ago and porn. We’ve had no intimacy due to harshness. Still words are easy in apology letter but still experiencing same destructive actions.
    How do I show love and look at my husband in counseling when his actions are so harmful?
    We’ve been married 30 yrs and I’m worn out. I don’t see fruit of repentance.

    • Amie,

      There’s a difference between “contempt” and a natural response to ongoing, unrepentant evil. if you are sure your husband is repenting and working the repentance, then books like Sacred Marriage and Cherish can help bring healing. But if your husband is still on a destructive path, the issue is about calling him to account and perhaps even to necessary consequences. These aren’t questions that can be dealt with fairly in a blog post, but they should be taken up with your counselor.

  9. How would this apply to a wife who has experienced 15+ years of domestic abuse (verbal, emotional, and physical) from her husband?

    • Kristen Johnson July 13, 2017 at 9:30 am

      I would encourage you to get some godly men and have an intervention. The abuse needs addressing first. You might want to separate until he’s willing to get counseling…

    • LH,

      For that issue, I’d point you toward my blog post “Enough is Enough” and Leslie Vernick’s “The Emotionally Destructive Marriage.” The way you describe it, you’re a victim of contempt, not the perpetrator, and that requires an entirely different response.

  10. Yes Yes Yes Yes , God has relieved me of this horrible spiral, years of dissappointment and shredding each other! “Seek and you shall find” it is written and thy will be done.
    Gary, the one sentence on the cover of your book, Sacred Marriage, “What if God created marriage to make us holy?”, opened my head, heart and soul to a new way of being married,
    a new way to understand relationships of all kinds, a definite turning point idea! “With God ALL things are possible”. Thank you for honesty, cutting edge boldness in the presenting of your gifted understandings. Love has come back home to my marriage, my friendships and my family.

  11. Great follow up from the the post about embarrassment. I recommend “Cherish” to my guy friends. It helps to learn to cherish the good qualities rather than fixate on the issues.

  12. After reading this most recent blog, I can hardly breathe because it so pointedly defines in words the cancer that has eaten away at my marriage for over 30 years. The pain of disappointment is excruciating, Please tell me how to stop the force of the free-fall in the death spiral. It is an endless crazy cycle that steals not only joy in life, but physical health.

    • Kathy,

      This is a re-worked excerpt from my book Cherish. In that book, I offer much longer answers (the kind that aren’t possible in a blog discussion). If money is an issue and is the only thing keeping you from checking out the book, please email my assistant, alli@garythomas.com. and we can get something to you.

  13. Thanks for sharing this wonderful word , I truly needed to hear this message. God bless