In May of 2009, I had three weddings in the month of May. After attending the first, it was all I needed to confirm what I did not have and what I needed to do.
A week later, I told my then husband I would not be traveling to the next wedding with him. That I would never be traveling to another wedding with him. That I was leaving him. I started the month as a Mrs. and ended it as a Ms.
The summer of 2009 saw several more weddings. With the exception of my cousin’s, I attended zero. My standard line was that I was declining to prevent awkward moments. The truth was that my wound was still raw. Attendance would be too painful.
All these lives were beginning as I felt that mine was crashing to an end. I knew I was doing the right thing. I repeatedly recited my reasons to myself:
I left for the lives of unborn children. It would have been selfish and irresponsible to bring little humans into our dysfunctional relationship.
I left for the sanctity of marriage. We were undermining the institution. It was irreverent to stay in a dysfunctional marriage for the sake of staying married. (Important to note here the difference between “marriage being hard” and a dysfunctional marriage. For a long time I tried to tell myself our struggles were due to the former. In reality, our relationship was the latter.)
I left for our health and happiness. I ran countless miles down the Charlotte sidewalks trying to reconcile how I would find peace, even a sliver of it, in that relationship for the rest of my life. It became evident that was only possible if we went our separate ways.
But logic did not bring relief to the persistent pain.
I felt like a failure for not seeing these things before the wedding. I felt like I had wasted my first marriage. I was not optimistic anyone would want me. Nor did I feel like I deserved anyone.
Even though divorce was so unfathomable to me, it should not have surprised me. On our honeymoon, I finally began reading Blink, Malcolm Gladwell’s second book. Its early pages cite the work of John Gottman’s lab where his crew watched and monitored couples’ interactions. Through their work they pinpointed the telltale signs of divorce. The strongest factor being contempt.
The hallmarks of contempt are: sarcasm, eye-rolling, dismissal, arrogance and power. Opposed to listening, appreciation, gratitude and affection.
As I read, I paused for a moment and looked to my left at the person driving the car, my new husband. Contempt was at the heart of our interactions – from both of us. Uh-oh, I thought to myself, why didn’t I start reading this book months ago when I bought it?! Note to self: I have to stop procrastinating!
He had no idea what I had just read. I told myself we’d be different. Despite our contempt, we’d make it. I was wrong.
Gottman’s research is oft-cited by others. This article is easy to read and provides practical guidance on how to apply it to real life and all relationships. The article also uses Wikipedia to define contempt as, “…a mix…of the primary emotions of anger and disgust.” But Robert Solomon’s explanation resonates most with me. He places contempt, resentment and anger on the same spectrum. While distinguishing them by the perceived status of the person on the receiving end. “Resentment is anger directed toward a higher-status individual, anger is directed toward and equal-status individual; and contempt is anger directed at a lower-status individual.”
I can quickly spot contempt. I lived it for years. It makes me wince when I see couples who do it to each other, cringe when I see parents do it to children and kick myself for days when I feel it creeping inside me and slip out.
But if contempt starves relationships, then believing in a person nourishes them. Believing in someone requires respect, empathy and support while fostering love.
Following my divorce and the feeling that I should be branded with the Scarlett Letter D for life, I found solace in a friend of a friend. He was the only other person I knew, my age, with a divorce on their record. Similarly, his first marriage was 18 months. Similarly, they had no children. Similarly, they got married because it was the next step.
As our friendship warmed, I warned him I was broken. I warned him I would yell at him. I warned him that he did not want these damaged goods.
He knew I had continued to see a marriage counselor. He knew I wanted to end the cycle I had learned. Despite my warnings, he believed in me. He believed in me when I did not believe in myself.
I just finished a second wedding season. All of them clustered together reminds me of the last time I had so many clustered together. Only this go around, I have someone who believes in me. Unwaveringly, unquestionably, unconditionally believes in me (as do I in him); even on the days I don’t believe in myself. He tells me I’m smart, capable, beautiful and a good mom. I know he believes it. And sometimes I believe him too.