By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW
Certain life skills are baffling to many people. How to keep a tidy home or cook a reasonable meatloaf or pick a flattering dress are all skills that come with practice and by practice I mean screwing up. This is all well and good and in some ways the only justice in aging: we’re not as hot as we used to be, but we’re a heck of a lot more sensible and competent. Twenty-somethings dinner parties suck, while fifty-somethings dinner parties are delicious AND interesting.
There are certain areas where screwing up costs a lot more emotional coin than a lousy diner or an ugly dress. I’m talking about intimate relationships and the discernment it takes to decide whether to stay and invest or sever and heal. Most of us were never taught how to assess the quality of our love relationships and that makes it hard to decide when things are bad enough to leave.
Without a functional paradigm to make this assessment, we may find ourselves bouncing between distress and hope when our relationship is troubled, telling ourselves “maybe it will work” and “I hope it will work” and “I just don’t want to start all over again.” Many good-hearted people with a lot to offer (as in folks who can find love again) will stay in preoccupying and damaging connections due to two factors of human nature: our universal reluctance to change and our universal fear of being alone.
Here’s how emotional attachments are supposed to work: we meet someone we feel a natural affinity for. They have enough qualities in common with us that we easily connect to them, and enough qualities different from us that they are interesting. We spend time getting to know them before becoming physically involved. Why delay jumping into bed? Not because our grandmothers would disapprove, but because good sex is so captivating—our very cellular biology is interested in the perpetuation of the species and doesn’t give a hoot about compatibility– that if we are having it we won’t pay attention to major incompatibility markers.
A healthy connection progresses over time from purely delightful to durable and real. Along the way it loses some of its magic sparkle (wah!) but develops into a deeper and richer thing of mutual understanding and enjoyment, comfort, a shared history and vision for the future, and a sense of safety. There is conflict (always!) and it is managed in a way that allows both parties to tell their truth, to listen and learn from one another, and maintain their own dignity. The most vital overriding emotion of a good relationship is mutual gratitude. Gratitude happens naturally when both parties value the connection, feel seen and loved by one another and know that the other doesn’t have to, but chooses to be there.
The opposite of gratitude is contempt. Contempt is the active expression of disrespect and stems from feelings of superiority and judgment (secretly the contemptuous party actually feels bad about him or herself but that’s for their therapist to deal with and not something their romantic partner can repair).
Contempt is a subtle but poisonous emotion. It manifests in scornful communication, eye rolling, rejecting or disregarding reasonable requests, avoiding contact, saying cruel things, private rage and public politeness, and withholding information about why one is upset. No one is contemptuous all the time and this makes things even more confusing. A contemptuous partner is a Jekyll and Hyde routine and you never know who is going to show up.
If you are in a relationship with someone who treats you contemptuously, first check yourself: are you showing up respectfully? Are you making requests and not demands? Contempt can be a (lousy) defensive strategy by people feeling attacked and judged. If you are communicating with respect and being met with contempt, ask your partner to get help. If they are unwilling, ask yourself if you can tolerate living the rest of your life giving in to a bully while biting your tongue or enduring explosive conflict to stand up for yourself.
Intimate relationships require daily collaboration and decision making between two different people with separate agendas and experiences, differing skills and deficits, therefore relationships will always have problems to solve. Conflicts arise from two people rubbing together through time and space and sometimes rubbing each other the wrong way.
If those inevitable conflicts can’t be discussed and solved in a manner that honors both parties’ legitimate human needs for dignity, that’s a good reason to go.