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Relationships, Familiarity, and Contempt

ContemptAbout 10 years ago, an adorer called our home to let us know that he and his wife were not going to be able to cover their holy hour.  (For the purpose of this article, I’m going to call him Frank.)  At the time of the call, Frank and his wife were in their late 70s.  Since no one was home to answer the telephone, Frank left a message on our answering machine.

In his message, Frank started out by telling us that he and his wife had recently attended a local community theater play that some of our children were in.  The tone of his voice was gentle and kind.  He complimented me and my wife on the way we were raising our children, and went on to say how much he and his wife enjoyed seeing our children in the play.

After he finished talking about the play, Frank said that he and his wife were not going to be able to cover their weekly holy hour because they were going to be out of town.  After he finished his message and said goodbye, his wife yelled in the background, “Make sure to tell them that we enjoyed seeing their kids in the play!”

Not realizing that he was still being recorded, Frank yelled back at his wife in an angry tone, “I already told them!”  His wife either misunderstood him or ignored what he said and repeated her command, “I said to make sure to tell them that we enjoyed seeing their kids in the play!”  In a tone of voice that was dripping with contempt, Frank mumbled, “Ah, shut up.”  Then he hung up the telephone.

My wife and I were surprised by the exchange that took place between Frank and his wife.  They were good Catholics who always got along well in public.

There’s a saying in the business world that “familiarity breeds contempt.”  The saying stands for the proposition that the more familiar you are with a person, the more contemptible that person becomes.

As a general rule, after we have known a person for an extended period of time, we become more familiar with the person and are more aware of their defects and weaknesses.  Over time, we are exposed to and become tired of their excuses, bad habits, broken promises, lack of respect, mood swings, angry outbursts, and lack of gratitude.  Our patience wears thin, and the slightest infraction causes us to treat them with contempt.

The word “contempt” is defined as “the feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn.”

There is some truth to the “familiarity breeds contempt” saying.  In addition to applying to long-term business relationships, it also applies to long-term marriages.  Couples who have been married for a long period of time (e.g., 30 or more years) tend to sometimes treat each other with contempt.  (Depending on the strength of their relationship and their current situation, this also applies to couples who have been marred for shorter durations of time.)

As couples grow older together, they are forced to deal with unexpected personal setbacks and medical problems.  They become discouraged because they tire easily and no longer have the energy and drive they had in their youth.  They realize that many of the dreams they once had for themselves will never materialize.  They no longer have young children around the house to make them feel needed.  They long for the “good old days” when life was “simpler.”

It is difficult to remain upbeat, patient, and forgiving when you’re dealing with physical and emotional age-related problems.  It’s easy to adopt the attitude that you’ve put up with your spouse “all these years,” and you’re “not going to take it anymore.”  You resolve that you are no longer going to allow him or her to hurt your feelings.  You’re going to say what’s on your mind, regardless of how insulting or hurtful your comments may be.

This type of attitude leads to disrespectful and contemptuous behavior, which can easily spiral out of control.  It is harmful to a marriage when a husband says to his wife (under his breath), “Ah, shut up!”  It is also harmful when a wife insists on repeatedly telling her husband what to do, even though she knows her behavior may make him angry and cause conflict between the two of them.

If you’ve been married for 30 or more years, you know what I’m talking about.  To keep your marriage fresh and vibrant, and to avoid treating your spouse with contempt, you need to get in the habit of practicing four specific virtues — heroic patience, angelic sweetness, ardent charity, and profound humility.

•    Heroic Patience – One definition of the word “heroic” is: “supremely noble or self-sacrificing.”  The word “patience” is defined as “bearing pains or trials calmly or without complaint.”  Is it better to lash out at your spouse and put him or her in their place, or to practice self-restraint and accept and tolerate the pains and trials he or she brings into your life?  You know the answer to that question.  You also know how difficult it is to practice heroic patience.

•    Angelic Sweetness – One definition of the word “angelic” is: “one who manifests goodness, purity, and selflessness.”  The word “sweetness” is defined as “having a pleasing disposition” and “being lovable, kind, or gracious.”  How do you think your spouse would respond to you if you were kind, lovable, selfless, good, and gracious toward him or her?

•    Ardent Charity – Some synonyms for the word “ardent” include: passionate, strong, enthusiastic, devoted, and fervent.  The word “charity” is defined as “a loving feeling, especially toward those in need; generosity and helpfulness; leniency in judging others; forbearance.”  Would your spouse appreciate you more if you were lenient in judging him or her, while continuing to passionately and enthusiastically express your love for him or her?

•    Profound Humility – The word “profound” is defined as “penetrating beyond what is superficial or obvious; heartfelt; intense; earnest.”  A good definition of the word “humility” is “a quality by which a person considering his own defects has a humble opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God’s sake.”  You’ll never be able to consistently and effectively practice the virtues of heroic patience, angelic sweetness, and ardent charity, unless you first develop the habit of practicing profound humility.

If you’ve been married for 30 or more years, you deserve to be congratulated; however, in some respects it is now harder than ever for you to remain loving and devoted to your spouse.  You need to work harder than ever at maintaining a healthy and loving relationship.  Are you up to the task?  Of course you are, so get busy learning and practicing the four virtues.

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2 Responses to “Relationships, Familiarity, and Contempt”

  1. Sister Roberta Houlihan, CSJ Says:

    My dear Harry and Georgette –
    I love your article! Wonderful advice to anyone – married or net. I do need to smile, though, when I think of my “marriage” to God!! God has never treated me with anything but LOVE AND VERY GENTLE CARE! Makes me ask myself – have I ever treated God otherwise? I am so grateful for my vocation and for friends such as you. Love, Sister Roberta

  2. Rich Flavin Says:

    Hello Harry,
    Quite the article and quite the timing. I read it from a different point of view. It reminds of my situation of being a caregiver for a family member. “familiarity breeds contempt” is something I experience on ocassion. I think you given me some tools to work with. I’ll let you know.

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