When my husband Josh and I were newly engaged we underwent a series of pre-marital counseling sessions with a therapist. While I wish I could tell you what I remember from that expensive experience, I cannot. We probably checked a mental box of “reassurance about us being okay” and moved on. Some weeks before our wedding, Josh’s bishop in Atlanta asked to meet with us. Years later, that meeting is something I consider on a weekly, if not daily, basis.
Here’s what he said: if true contempt enters into a marriage, it is over. After years of counseling to-be-joyfully-wed couples, this man knew a thing or two about what made Holy Matrimony stick. He actually said that if there was an extramarital affair, but contempt had not become a fixture in the marriage, it could theoretically be saved. However, if somehow the basic routine of domesticity (laundry, dishwasher, sex, feed the dog) had become a breeding ground for the slime that is contempt and disdain, things were basically over. I remember being transfixed by the bishop’s words and also thinking he was totally and utterly bananas.
My 24 year old self wanted to follow his advice. Yet I struggled with what it really meant. If we couldn’t be resentful, then we must be the opposite of resentful: 24/7 Super Nice. Of course, I’m not sure I made it out of the parking lot with that theory working. I could be forgiving and loving right up until the moment when my husband made me mad. And then, sorry buddy, all bets were off. Up until this point, I had come to think of scorn and resentment as a hard-earned right. And here it was, all torn down with nothing to replace it. And that was the thing I learned that day. You actually can’t replace contempt with anything. Because the opposite of contempt is vulnerability.
Something changed in me that day, and I’ve been unable to think about my marriage, or any marriage, in the same way ever since. The bishop unknowingly led a pre-emptive strike on contemptuousness that continues to this day. I am convinced he saved my marriage before it had even begun.
Some of this has been up for discussion in the Condon household because of our recent obsession with the new televised mini-series of Fargo. If you have the stomach for it and you like seeing Billy Bob Thornton be even creepier and more frightening than normal, you must tune in. Still, the character that has most captivated my attention is the mild-mannered insurance salesman, Lester Nygaard, a man one reviewer brilliantly described as “The Unheroic Anti-Hero.” In the first episode, Lester and his wife Pearl have a showdown that has to be seen to be believed.
Early on the writers of Fargo want to establish that this is an incredibly unhappy relationship. Pearl belittles Lester at every opportunity. And he responds sheepishly. Frankly, they both come off as sad and disconnected. As in all great Coen brothers storytelling, this quiet discomfort leads to a domestic pièce de résistance for Lester. As he tries to fix their washing machine, his wife reminds him:
Pearl: You’re not a man, Lester. You’re not even half a man.
Even as Lester picks up the hammer lying beside him, she taunts him, “What are you going to do? Hit me?” And then he does. Lester hits his wife in the head with a hammer, repeatedly. He kills her with a common tool, in their basement, in front of a broken washing machine all the while saying “Oh jeez” (Minnesotan for “Oh my God.”)
At the risk of sounding incredibly dark, it felt like I was watching the implosion that every marriage has the capacity to undergo. I’m not saying that murder is the inevitable result of a contemptuous marriage. But I do think there is a kind of resentment warfare or silent violence that, despite our best intentions, can take hold of a relationship and suffocate any love which once was there. A grace-less, list-keeping, lack of forgiveness that can grow into the devil in our midst.
I once heard a fellow clergy spouse wonder aloud how marriages ever survived outside of Christianity. And while my experience of other couples (Jewish, Agnostic, and otherwise) tells me her musings were somewhat misplaced, I do get where she was coming from. The almost scary vulnerability that married people have with one another can, outside of the mercy of God, so easily turn into its opposite. Of course, in Jesus we are given vulnerability in its most painfully hewn form. Our God died violently, on a cross, at the hands of people seething with contempt and anger. Yet instead of retribution, God offered us forgiveness.
I caught a powerful glimpse of the vulnerability inherent in marriage during my time as a hospital chaplain. I had the privilege to stand at many bedsides where one spouse stood caring for their dying beloved. No matter how much they wanted me there, I always felt like I was intruding on something otherworldly. It was the elderly couples that haunted me most. So much had existed between them. Years before their middle-aged children were even born these two people had met and fallen dramatically in love. They had survived years of joy and heartache with one another. Who really knew the secrets and experiences that knit them together?
Early in my ministry there, I was asked to be present to a wife being pulled off of life support. And while I am sure I mumbled through some prayers and offered a listening ear, all I can truly recall is the husband. As his wife slowly died, he was uncomfortably bent over the bed with his arms cradling her vulnerable body. We were all worried he would pass out. And yet, every time his adult children would try to make him sit down he would gently say to them: “She always loved it when I held her. So I’m going to hold her now.”