Contempt: it’s one of the most poisonous patterns of communication that can wreck your relationship and is also the number one predictor of divorce. It generally comes up as a result of unresolved anger that gets built up over time. But what is contempt? And how may it hurt your relationship?
World-renowned relationship researcher and expert, Dr John Gottman, identified certain negative communication patterns associated with a divorce after observing thousands of couples quarrel in his laboratory.
He came up with the idea of “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” referring to criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
Contempt is the most harmful of these four communication patterns and the number one predictor of divorce, according to his 1992 research of couples in which he predicted which ones would eventually divorce with 93.6% accuracy.
Why is contempt so dangerous?
Contempt is the most pernicious of The Four Horsemen because it communicates, “I am superior to you” or “I have no respect for you.”
Indeed, it is so devastating that couples who harbour contempt for one another are more likely to contract an infectious disease than couples who do not harbour contempt for one another.
To put it simply, the ultimate goal of contempt is to make another person feel unlovable and insignificant.
One of the reasons why contempt is so dangerous as the number one predictor of divorce is that it essentially weakens the bond that connects a couple.
Contempt is criticism from a position of superiority. It is a level beyond criticism.
Consequently, contempt erodes respect between two partners since it is impossible to develop a connection in a relationship that lacks respect.
Over time, this lack of respect and connection leads to disconnect and hostility between two people and the relationship breaks down completely.
Love, emotional connection, and happy feelings cannot blossom in such a toxic environment, making divorce or breakup the most likely result in the end.
What does contempt look like in a relationship?
Contemptuous behaviour can manifest itself in a variety of ways, including treating others with disrespect, disregard, hurtful and critical language, and ridiculing them with sarcasm, among other things.
Contempt can also be expressed by a person’s body language, such as by rolling one’s eyes or disregarding the other, or by turning away with a dismissive shrug.
Among the observations made by Dr John Gottman in his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail are:
“When contempt begins to overwhelm your relationship you tend to forget entirely your partner’s positive qualities, at least while you’re feeling upset. You can’t remember a single positive quality or act. This immediate decay of admiration is an important reason why contempt ought to be banned from marital interactions.”Dr John Gottman
In light of this, it’s critical that a couple considers how they generally deal with feelings of distress or arguments, because the wrong response can easily lead to built-up resentment over time, eventually leading to contemptuous behaviour.
For example, if one or both spouses repress their emotions, over time, the result will most likely be contempt.
They eventually start criticizing or undermining their partner rather than articulating their anger or explaining why they are upset.
In time, that pattern of repression and built-up frustration and resentment has to lead somewhere.
Gottman argues that contempt becomes the most likely result which causes the loss of admiration for each other in the short run but disgust in the long run.
How do you and your partner communicate about or deal with anger?
Instead of explaining why they are upset, a spouse begins to show disrespect towards the other spouse by undermining them, making them feel worthless or unloved with statements like,
- “Hasn’t your mother taught you how to take care of things?”
- “You’re never on time, what’s wrong with you?”
- “Don’t you know that this restaurant is closed on Sundays? Where is your brain?”
As you can see, contempt is basically full of destructive, criticising rhetoric that makes one partner superior to another and no relationship can outlast that.
Now, it’s important to know that conflict occurs in any relationship – that’s part of life.
But nasty, critical statements such as those above can devastate both an individual’s self-esteem and ultimately the relationship.
Contempt is the number one predictor of divorce because it is a form of a negative power-play that makes the other spouse feel inferior when it is utilised, making it difficult to maintain positive vibes and connection as a couple.
As a result, it is critical to begin implementing measures to resist any type of contempt in your relationship as soon as you become aware of it.
Increased and frequent criticism is typically an early warning indication of worse things to come.
Tactics for combating the number one predictor of divorce
Express how you are feeling.
As I have indicated, unrestrained criticism and built-up resentment frequently lead to feelings of contempt.
When our relationships do not encourage open and honest discussion about how we feel about things, those feelings can begin to build up and fester over time, eventually leading to contemptuous behaviour.
As a result, welcoming the expressing of feelings is a natural and straightforward initial tactic for combating contempt in a partnership.
Feelings of unhappiness or stress do not have a chance to fester and grow when partners believe they can be honest with each other because the relationship provides a secure environment where they do not have to sweep their feelings under the rug.
At the same time, it’s important to avoid making what is called “you” accusatory statements.
“You statements” are easily misconstrued as criticism because they make your spouse feel like they’re doing something wrong or falling short of your expectations in some way.
Instead, concentrate on articulating how something makes you feel and proposing a solution. Invite your partner to do the same and provide their own suggestions.
- “When [triggering event] happens, I feel [feeling]. Would you be interested if we [offer a solution] instead?”
- “I’m feeling [how you feel], and I need [express a need]. Can we talk about a solution that works for both of us?”
- “I felt upset when we arrived at the restaurant and it was closed. I still feel a little [how you feel]. Can we hug?”
Build a “culture of appreciation.”
Building a culture of appreciation immediately combats contempt in a relationship since contempt seeks to depreciate and insult another person.
Actively attempting to create a culture of appreciation in which you express appreciation, respect, and care for each other is a potent tactic against contempt emerging and increasing in a partnership.
Dr Gottman also refers to this idea as a culture of fondness and admiration.
Begin by thinking about the positive qualities of your relationship (now and in the past).
Then, make it a point to express your devotion, gratitude, and appreciation for your spouse on a daily basis.
One of the mistakes that many long-term couples make is failing to practise conventional courtesies and good manners, such as saying thank you or I appreciate you doing [something].
Bringing those qualities back into your relationship and incorporating them into your usual behaviour and interactions will make it extremely easy for pleasant feelings to develop between you as a couple while making it very difficult for negativity, irritation, criticism, and, eventually, contempt to take root.
Listen with empathy and without interrupting.
As we’ve already shown, contempt is the number one predictor of divorce because it essentially shows a mindset and attitude of superiority while seeking to belittle and reject another person.
As a result, contemptuous behaviour precludes an empathetic approach to your partner, as it regards your spouse as lesser and thus insignificant.
Naturally, one proactive strategy to combating contempt is to foster an empathetic environment.
To begin, recognise that your spouse or partner may have had different experiences with any particular issue and hence may have different opinions on what to do.
For example, perhaps you both grew up helping your father mow the lawns, but you learned how to do it in different ways.
Now, odds are that neither option is the best way, but merely one way.
However, something as easy as mowing the lawns may quickly become a source of dispute, leading to criticism and, eventually, contempt.
A better way would be to make an effort to understand one another’s points of view and emotions, and then let that inform your interactions and solutions.
It is critical not to become dismissive or disrespectful because belittling your spouse is a slippery slope.
Rather than that, make an effort to understand their feelings. Discuss your points of view before making a suggestion or request.
Pay attention to your body language during an argument.
Believe it or not, nonverbal communication accounts for the majority of your communication. When couples are having communication problems, this is one of the most frequently disregarded aspects of communication.
Often, what we think we’re saying isn’t what the other person hears.
Now, you may believe that you are quite articulate and that you communicate clearly, but the true test is not what you believe, but rather what you get.
What I mean is that if your spouse frequently misunderstands you or becomes frustrated when you communicate, it’s possible that your body language is expressing something completely different from what your voice or words are saying.
And merely by changing your body language, you may be able to improve your communication and generate a better impression.
Certain meanings are communicated by facial expressions, hand gestures, and posture.
As a result, when your body language matches your words, what you say becomes far more powerful.
However, the inverse is also true.
When your words and body language are communicating contradictory messages, your body language takes precedence.
Going into the topic of body language and communication is beyond the scope of this article, but it is still vital to be aware that our bodies speak far louder than words.
Of course, the same holds true for our acts.
Telling your spouse you love them while treating them with contempt is not only contradictory but will result in the same tragic outcome.
Despite speaking nice words or making promises from time to time, contentious behaviour remains the number one predictor of divorce.
Seek professional help.
Sometimes we need outside help because we’ve gotten to the point where we can’t tell the difference between the forest and the trees.
We’ve become so attached to or associated with the circumstance that we can no longer think properly or see things clearly.
We are essentially reacting emotionally and instinctively, which usually ends in even more pain and frustration.
So, while the aforementioned tactics may help you overcome the number one predictor of divorce, namely contempt, sometimes it is too little, too late, and you require expert assistance.
If this is the case, obtaining the guidance of a professional, unbiased, and competent counsellor or coach may be the greatest way to help you both find a resolution or solution to go on.
The problem is, according to some studies, many couples wait an average of six years before seeking treatment, which can be difficult in and of itself.
Regardless, the goal here is not to discourage you, but to encourage you to seek treatment as soon as possible before things get out of hand.
And, by the way, this may entail seeking “help” or coaching well before you have any problems.
In fact, some other studies indicate that timing is often more crucial than the therapy itself.
In other words, the timing of when you seek therapy or coaching is more important than the therapy itself.
Take home idea
Your spouse’s sense of self is attacked when they are treated with contempt, which is fed usually by lengthy negative beliefs about your spouse.
Additionally, contempt always leads to further conflict, especially dangerous and harmful types of conflict, rather than to a peaceful resolution. That then creates a toxic situation that gains momentum as it feeds on itself.
Ultimately, with contempt, the message that your spouse receives is that you are disgusted with them and that you are acting in a condescending and superior manner towards them, which makes it extremely difficult to resolve any problems in the long run.
Contempt is the number one predictor of divorce because it reduces your spouse to nothing while simultaneously attempting to boost your status and worthiness at their expense, and no couple or relationship can resist that in the end.