When Contempt Threatens a Marriage {Three Ways to Respond}

    Tucked into the Old Testament book of 2 Samuel is the somewhat well-known Bible story of King David bringing the ark of the covenant back into the city of Jerusalem and dancing down the streets before the Lord Almighty, praising Him.

    This little gem is found in 2 Samuel 6:16 – 23. If you read below and look closely, you’ll also find the story and hear the sound of a marriage derailing.

     “As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, and she despised him in her heart. . . .  And David returned to bless his household. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David and said, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants”  female servants, as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!” And David said to Michal, “It was before the LORD, who chose me above your father and above all his house, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the LORD—and I will celebrate before the LORD. I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in your eyes. But by the female servants of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor.” 2 Samuel 6:16, 20 – 22

    Ouch! Did you hear it? Can you see it? Michal “despised him in her heart.” David returns to bless his household. He is ready to share joy with those who matter most to him. He singles them out for special blessing, after he has blessed the nation. What is Michal’s response? Sarcasm, jealousy, and shaming. I can see David’s face transform from glorious joy to disappointment and sadness, to anger and hurt in the blink of an eye. Ouch is right.

    And David gives us a name for it—contempt.

    Contempt is the opposite of honor and respect. Contempt devalues. And not shockingly, today’s marriage experts* identify contempt as one of the number one killers of marriage. Of course they do; it’s biblical Truth.

    So, what does contempt look like in our marriage? Beyond criticizing, contempt can look a lot like:

    • Sneering,
    • name-calling,
    • eye rolling,
    • a stink face,
    • mocking,
    • hurtful humor,
    • disgust,
    • dismissiveness, and
    • (a personal favorite) sarcasm.

    These sound kind of harsh when you look at the list, but if you separate them, I think you will find that it’s much easier to find a little bit of Michal in all of us, whether husband or wife.  

    We want to be heard and understood. We want our spouse to get the point, to see from our perspective. The thing is, we get so desperate to make our point sometimes, to be heard, that we trample over the very one we treasure. Eye rolling and biting words are very common in our culture, and we can pick them up and use them so easily, because it seems like a normal way to communicate.

    Friends, it may be normal, but it is not Christ.

    Jesus never looks on us with contempt. He listens when we whine, He bottles our tears; He hears our rants. He created marriage to be His picture of the love He shares with His people, so our marriage goal is always a little more Jesus.

    Here’s a way to address it:

    1. Know that you’re guilty—Think of a time when you “pulled a Michal;” threw a little unnecessary sarcasm into a conversation, asked what in the world your spouse was thinking, gave a good eye roll. Don’t think of when your spouse did one of those things; I’m sure you can, but don’t.
    2. Know that Christ covers it. He came and died for such as this. He sent His Spirit. Shame and guilt are not invited to this marriage fix. Forgiveness is free and true and new every day, every moment—For us and for our spouse.
    3. Let the honor God has bestowed on you, as His loved and valued child, roll off your tongue. There will be moments of contempt. Call them what they are: “Whoops, I had a Michal moment there. I apologize.” And try again immediately. Give a hug, hold a hand, take a deep breath, and identify that you are trying really hard to hear your spouse’s perspective, and it’s hard.

    We don’t hear anymore about Michal and her marriage after verse 23. But we can’t walk away judging her and her struggle. Instead, we have compassion and mercy, knowing we have been there, and thanking David and Michal for helping us give language to a struggle that crosses the breadth of time. Contempt kills; Christ raises us up, raises our marriages up, and brings new life wherever it is needed.

    *See the research of Dr. John Gottman, professor emeritus at the University of Washington,  and cofounder of the Gottman Institute.

    *No Michals were hurt in the writing of this blog post. If your name is Michal, know that you are highly valued and precious in the Lord’s sight.


    Deaconess Heidi Goehmann, MSW, LSW, serves as deaconess to ministry wives for Grace Place Wellness Ministries. 

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