Contempt: the Relationship Canary

I froze.  The man on the radio said his research enabled him to predict, within half an hour of listening to them talking, which couples would split.  And the killer clue was: contempt.  I froze because I knew I spoke to my husband with contempt.  Sometimes.  (I like to think I could have managed half an hour in a research project without.)

I was sitting on the edge of my bed.  My saintly husband was downstairs. The moment of panic passed.  I knew my husband would never leave me (and of course it never for one moment occurred to me to leave him!)  He loved me.  We were married, with children, and he was a catholic.  It wasn’t that so much, though, as the complete certainty that he was a good person.  Kind, reliable, sensible.  But the guilt remained.  I knew I sometimes treated him badly. I hated myself for it.  (Well, for that and many other things.)

Why did I sometimes speak to him contemptuously?  When I was so completely in awe of him?  I thought the sun shone out of his very backside.  He was so clever!  So mature!  So loving!  Compared with him I was nothing.  ‘My husband this’, ‘my husband that’.

And when he left, sure enough: I was nothing.

It’s been four years now since the note on the mat.  And only now, incredible as it seems – even to me – am I beginning to answer questions with what I think, rather than trotting out his pearls of wisdom.

So the contempt is kind of inexplicable.

In one of the rare couple’s counselling sessions to which he turned up after he bolted, I pulled out the card he had given me on our 20th wedding anniversary.  The ink had hardly dried on it the day he left.  It said he loved me as much as ever and hoped we would one day be celebrating our fiftieth.  The counsellor asked him: ‘How do you explain that?’  And he shrugged.  (It was noticeable how this was his default reaction to any question from us at that time: he literally, defiantly, shrugged it all off.)  When, prodded by her, he eventually spoke, he shrugged his shoulders again and looked at the ground before staring at me with a ‘you-and-whose-army’ look. ‘Doublethink’.  The therapist appeared not to want to accept that answer.  But I did.  I was beginning to realise how extremely easy it is to hold two opposing views at the same time.  To hide the truth from yourself, as Arnold Bennet describes it in The Old Wives Tale. (And I refer you also to Helen Titchener in The Archers, which held up a mirror to me.)

‘Her pride induced her to put Gerald in the right and herself in the wrong, for she was too proud to admit that she had married a charming and irresponsible fool.’ 

Even now, sometimes, a thought intrudes.  Like: ‘he is a complete idiot’.  It feels like such a naughty thought!  When he graduated Dean’s List from INSEAD, and knew the dates of all the kings and queens of England and in fact had an opinion on everything.  It gives me a jolt.  I don’t know what to believe, even now, but I realise how so much evidence pointed to his being a complete idiot for years, only I really couldn’t countenance it.  My erogenous zone (if I have one) was always the brain.  Always attracted to ‘cleverness’. (Why?)

So I made a big mistake.  I believed him, not me, and I fall into the trap even now.  Assuming other people are right, better, more worthy, better informed, whatever.  It’s mostly bullshit.

When he left, an acquaintance told a mutual friend: ‘She never liked him’.  I believed myself head over heels in love!  But now I think she was probably right, not me.

Image: Cartoon by Crowden Satz appeared in Dec 2016 issue of the excellent  Prospect Magazine; I saw it today and it made me laugh.


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Florence Feynman

I am a middle aged, middle class woman, thinking.

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