Repairing a Marriage: A Journey From Contempt to Forgiveness

July 27, 2020 Updated: August 10, 2020

The person you marry is not, strictly speaking, the person you will spend your life with. This is because people grow and change.

In a good marriage, people change for the better—but very often, growth is preceded by hardship and mistakes.

Sometimes, couples make each other miserable for years before making the effort to change, as in this example from the marriage help book, “Fascinating Womanhood”:

“We were both very strong-willed. I think there was an unconscious power struggle to see who could get the upper hand, the last word, and ultimately win the argument. … Marriage left me so depressed and disillusioned with life. … I was so discouraged and tired of it all. After considering divorce for the umpteenth time because I was unfairly yoked to an impossible man, I found [the book] Fascinating Womanhood.

It has opened my eyes to see the truth about myself and my marriage relationship. Acting on the principles of F.W. has saved my marriage and home. … [My husband] is much more tender and gentle now. Even when he occasionally gets angry with me, it’s different. He is kinder and not as harsh. He is so thoughtful and generous, too. I know now he was always like that. But I had to learn to love and understand him in order to find out.”

“Fascinating Womanhood” was published in the mid-1960s by Helen Andelin, a wife and mother of eight. Andelin brought together ideas about marriage and femininity from Christianity, classical literature, and women’s advice pamphlets from the 1920s. These ideas—such as appreciating inherent differences between the sexes, embracing masculine and feminine roles, and working on one’s character—brought great joy to her marriage, and the book became a best-seller.

The book shares many stories from women who wrote to Andelin about how their marriage transformed after they began treating their husbands differently.

Tensions and Contempt

Every healthy marriage has its points of tension, and if not properly dealt with, they intensify.

The old proverb “familiarity breeds contempt” reminds us that close association with a person will very likely lead to a loss of respect for him or her, as we see human frailties play out. If you’re married, you’ve probably experienced contempt for your spouse in small things—irritating habits like laundry left on the floor—or perhaps in serious character flaws such as financial irresponsibility.

If allowed to run unchecked, contempt can ruin a good marriage. It eclipses the admiration and respect you have for your spouse, and he or she becomes the sum of their faults in your eyes.

When in the midst of this contempt, it is difficult to see beyond it to feel emotionally connected and empathize with the pain and struggles of your partner.

Yet these annoyances, frustrations, negative cycles, and even some serious character flaws—are an invitation for growth—perhaps individually and/or as a couple.

And with the right tools and circumstances, many unhappy marriages can become happy.

Citing a study from the Institute for American Values, Diane Medved, psychologist and author of the book “Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage,” writes, “Nearly three out of four spouses who rate themselves as ‘unhappy’ in their marriages but stick it out say they’re ‘happy’ or ‘very happy’ just five years later.”

Some marriages might take longer to become happy and require more effort, as in the story from “Fascinating Womanhood” below:

“My husband and I had been married for fifteen years. Eleven of those years were spent struggling with the disease of alcoholism. Anyone who has ever had to deal with the baffling problem with a friend or relative knows the agony of watching those you love destroy themselves. But looking back, I can see that my husband’s problem with alcohol was a very convenient scapegoat for my own shortcomings. I could always blame his drinking for my attitudes.”

Her husband finally stopped drinking of his own accord, but after two more years of floundering, she thought herself in love with someone else and they agreed to separate in three months. Then, she began to read “Fascinating Womanhood” and realized she had a lot of misconceptions about men and marriage. It was a struggle at first to accept and appreciate her husband, but she did.

“It was a beautiful thing to see my husband respond. … In January there was no talk of separation. In fact we took a weekend trip with friends. … As we walked along after breakfast, he said, “I think I’m falling in love with you again.”

The Right Tools

There are many tools—therapies, self-help books, and counselors—available to help you if you have a rocky marriage. Some will certainly work better for you than others. Find ones that fit with your values, offer hope, and help you look at your own challenges, vulnerabilities, and shortcomings.

Just like marriage, repairing one is also a journey. It will probably mean adjusting your expectations, looking at yourself from your partner’s perspective, and understanding how elements of your temperament, character, background, expectations, fears, and insecurities are fueling the tensions.

It also means listening more deeply to your partner and understanding their fears, needs, hopes, and priorities. It may leave you vulnerable and shocked at how much you were unintentionally hurting your partner. You may learn that doing just a few small things for your partner each day will make them feel loved.

Even marriages in which one partner has made serious mistakes can be repaired if the will and desire are there, even if the desire is only one-sided to begin with.

“If you want your relationship, you really have to be willing to deal with the fact that you have hurt and scared your partner,” says Sue Johnson, psychologist and creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy, which helps couples understand and transcend negative emotional patterns by fostering understanding and connection.

“And your partner has to be willing to talk to you about all the difficulties that happen as a result of that, how hard it is then to put yourself in the hands of a person who has violated your trust.

“People can have these conversations. They are difficult conversations, but they can have them. But unless you have a certain ability to create safety and really show the other person that you care about the impact you’re having, it’s pretty difficult.”

Learning How to Love

In times past, cultures in both East and West talked about temperament as being one aspect of human beings—and understanding how different temperaments are prone to different strengths and weaknesses.

Depending on your family situation, loving someone else may or may not come naturally to you. And even if most aspects of love and marriage are easy and natural, you may have some that are really subpar. If you are willing to learn and improve, almost any shortcoming can be transformed into, if not a strength, then at least a real competency. 

Like anything important and dynamic, a good marriage needs some maintenance.

If we are honest with ourselves, probably some of the qualities that attracted us to our partner are also the opposite of some of our qualities, and can rub us the wrong way.

For example, your husband might like to do things very fast, and you admire how quickly he works, but you can feel rushed when he wants you to go at his pace.

Forgiveness: An Antidote to Contempt

When we look honestly at ourselves, we will see many faults. We all have work to do. The humility that comes with seeing and correcting our faults washes away contempt and helps us forgive ourselves and those we love.

Gary Chapman, in his book “Love as a Way of Life,” writes about the power of forgiveness:

“The challenge of living a life of true love is that in this tension we must offer forgiveness to those who have done us wrong, even as we acknowledge the hurt they have caused. The husband whose wife left with another man later told me, ‘She returned after three months and told me that she had made a terrible mistake and wanted work on our marriage. I didn’t think I could ever forgive her. It didn’t happen overnight, but as I realized that she was sincere, I found the ability to forgive. Today we have a great marriage.’”

Our important relationships are hard because we are vulnerable in them. It takes courage to face our demons but becomes much easier as we build a stronger connection to our partner.