I once read about a study on marital stability as predicted by facial expressions. Researchers examined videos of married couples second by second, frame by frame to identify facial expressions. It was claimed that the expressions allowed researchers to predict with 90% accuracy which couples would be divorced in the next four to six years and which ones would still be together. The study found that the biggest marital killer is contempt. If contempt was expressed, even minutely in the videos of conversations between married couples, the couple was almost certainly doomed. While it may make sense to separate yourself from a contemptuous marriage, I have been thinking that having to deal with contempt or unpleasantness in other areas of our lives might actually be good for personal growth.
While we don’t have to stand for contempt or unpleasantness from our friends and spouses, we often don’t have a choice in the rest of the world. We encounter contemptuous people in school, work, the neighborhood, and within families. In some of these scenarios where there is no easy exit, we may be forced to figure out how to live with it and even be authentic and happy in that situation.
I worked for a small telecom company for more than a decade and felt deep respect and affection for many of my co-workers. My boss felt we needed to expand the sales team to include a database administrator, taking that off of my plate so that I could get back exclusively to the sales role I had had before. He told me it was really important for me to get along well with this person in order for it to go well. The woman that was chosen for the job turned out to have a problem getting along with other women. I tried to bond with her right from the beginning but was rebuffed by her every time. She had no interest in getting along well with me or any other woman in the company. One day I passed her in the hallway and she smiled at me in fake, sacchrine-sweet, sarcastic smile that conveyed nothing but contempt. I uncharacteristically returned one of the same back at her and kept walking. Oddly, from that moment on our work relationship was much easier and more pleasant. From then on I decided to stop trying and just accept the fact that we would not be friendly but that we WOULD continue to work together. It could be acrimonious or not, depending on how I chose to make it. My goal was somewhere between pleasant and neutral. Although we were never friends, we seemed to be able to work together fine after that. I think she was surprised that I had that in me and had confused my friendly overtures with neediness or weakness. I am not sure what she thought, but I know that radical acceptance of the way things really were dramatically improved my work life.
I saw a movie called “Away From Her”, about a couple that deals with Alzheimer’s disease. The husband does not want to send his wife to an assisted living facility but she insists. After a short time in the facility, she no longer remembers who her husband is, despite his daily visits. She and another man in the facility become very affectionate and spend all of their time together. At first the husband is upset and resistant, trying to control things, but gradually he starts to accept what is and even reunites the two when they are separated and they both deteriorate in their grief. The husband, once accepting what is, begins to work out for himself a life that includes loyalty and commitment to his wife, as well as a personally fulfilling relationship with someone else. It was that radical acceptance that helped him maneuver through such a challenging time, with full presence and integrity.
In both of these cases, leaving was not the best option and facing up to the way things are with radical acceptance was critical to finding contentment in the midst of a difficult situation. When we choose not to leave (or can’t), HOW we show up makes all the difference. These two examples surfaced to remind me in a timely way that when faced with a difficult person that is here to stay, I will accept what IS and stop trying to make it be something different. Learning to show up with full and equanimous presence and integrity might just be the gift that an easy exit can't give.