In an op ed piece in the New York Times recently, Arthur C. Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, wrote that the polarization of politics is leading people to act with contempt towards those with whom we disagree. In reading that piece, I couldn’t help thinking that many of the actions he related are similar to the ways in which too many people interact with an ex-spouse.
As Mr. Brooks noted, there is too much nastiness involved in what should be a collaboration. You do not have to either agree with or like a person to work with them towards a mutual goal, such as raising healthy, happy, children, or following the terms of a contract or a court order. Regardless of one’s personal feelings, if you and your ex-spouse will be having interactions into the future, for your own personal sanity if for no other reason, you need to be respectful and treat the other person with what good manners and common courtesy dictate as acceptable.
Two of the most destructive feelings people act upon towards an ex spouse are anger and contempt. While they may seem similar, they are actually very different. Anger is often caused by a belief that there has been an unfair negative outcome caused by the other person. Contempt is a belief that the other person is worthless or has inferior traits. (Fisher & Roseman, 2007; Hutcherson & Gross, 2011). Anger and contempt are both destructive. Anger has as its goal retribution for the perceived wrong and deterrence from any such actions in the future. The anger can dissipate over time and eventually lead to a long-term reconciliation. Contempt, on the other hand, leads to condescension and trying to exclude the other person from the group. The goal is the termination of the relationship and is much more difficult to overcome than anger.
So what should you do if you are either the one expressing the negative feeling or the one receiving it, or both? Mr. Brooks asked the Dalai Lama who is accepted world wide as an expert in cooperation and consensus building. The Dalai Lama noted that most people look too much at the actions of others and not enough at their own actions. Take a good look; the only person you can really change is yourself. Set aside your bitterness, your anger, your contempt, and the first thing you will find is something that was missing, your self respect.