Criticism is anger expressed. Broken pots and pans, and abusive relationships, often follow. But Gottman and others have found that while contempt may seem more dignified than anger, it is the single best predictor of an impending divorce. Of all the horsemen, it is the worst. Human beings, it turns out, will live with black eyes and bruises sooner than they will live with disrespect and disgust. Telling someone, "You piss me off," is not as bad as telling them, "You repulse me."
Couples in marriage therapy invariably have loads of evidence to justify their feelings. If you could haul liberal and conservative America into a counselor's office, the left would produce loads of evidence showing that conservatism is regularly anti-intellectual when it comes to questions of evolution or global climate change. Sarah Palin really did evince a limited knowledge of foreign affairs during the 2008 election. George W. Bush really did say "misunderestimate." Conservatives would tell the counselor about how liberals are always slow to see threats to national security, always "blaming America" and always quick to support international institutions such as the U.N. and the International Court of Justice.
What couples learn in counseling is that their conflicting visions are accurate, but accurate in the way caricatures are accurate. They miss nuance and fail to see how different underlying dreams prompt each side to value things differently. Surely underlying personality and different upbringing have much to do with the desire among so many liberals to see a president who is, first and foremost, smart, and the desire among so many conservatives to have a president who is, first and foremost, a patriot?
I'll be the first to admit that marriage is not an ideal analogy for politics. Liberal and conservative America don't need to love each other for the country to work. They just have to get along. And it is not as if the complex emotions that liberals and conservatives feel can be simplistically divided into one-side-is-always-angry and the-other-side-is-always-contemptuous. Liberals are often angry, and conservatives are regularly contemptuous. But as liberals and conservatives bring their warring marches to Washington this fall—demanding, alternately, a return to honor and a return to sanity—it is quite clear that the marriage research does have something useful to tell us about our unconscious scripts.
How can a country function when each partner constantly wants to show the other the light—and the door?