Familiarity Breeds Contempt

“Anyone who knows me, should learn to know me again, for I am like the moon, you will see me with a new face every day” ~ Rumi, 12th-century Persian poet

These words by Rumi are a reminder to never stop getting to know your partner. What if each time we spoke with our partner, we didn’t filter everything from past experience?

We’ve all heard the expression “familiarity breeds contempt.”
But what does it really mean?

Familiarity with our partner can create respect, closeness, intimacy and friendship. However, too much of it can cause the opposite; disrespect and rudeness. Typically, when familiarity goes too far it can manifest as contempt. Contempt is a lack of respect for what your partner has to say. It’s the presumption that they have nothing to add, that you know best, and anything they say that is contrary is dismissed as ridiculous and typically ends in an argument. It’s an extreme form of arrogance.

If too much familiarity is breeding contempt in your relationship, then one of you probably assumes you know what your partner’s experience of the world is and are not respecting the other’s perspective.

The antidote to familiarity breeding contempt is curiosity.

Curiosity is a state of active interest or genuinely wanting to know more about what your partner has to say-creating openness and thus greater opportunities to experience joy in the relationship.

Curiosity is something that can be nurtured and developed by finding novelty in the familiar. We do this by noticing what is happening in the present moment, without judgments, opinions, or assumptions, regardless of what it looked like before or what we might have expected it to be. The goal of discovering the unfamiliar in the familiar is to suspend judgments and opinions and attend to how things are, not how you expect them or wish them to be.

It’s easy to prejudge our partner and what s/he has to say because we think we have heard it all before… so we expect it to be more of the same and we begin to feel bored or uninterested.

Exercise in Seeing the Unfamiliar in the Familiar

The next time your partner tells you a story and it seems familiar, try to identify three novel or unexpected features about what they’re saying. See if there’s one thing that is surprising to you. Keep in mind that, even though recurring conversations may feel very similar on the surface, any conversation has some degree of novelty each time it occurs. Be on the lookout for even the tiniest thing that is different, special, or notable, and chances are good that you’ll find something.