The Danger of Contempt

July 22nd, 2011

Previously, we talked about Gottman’s first “Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—danger signs in the relationship—criticism. While criticism is more harmful than complaints, contempt takes criticism even farther and can be very damaging to the relationship.

Contempt is when someone is intentionally trying to insult or psychologically abuse their partner. This can be with words or body language with the intention to harm your partner’s sense of self as much as possible. Gottman says what fuels these contemptuous actions are negative thoughts and feelings about your partner—he or she is stupid, disgusting, foolish, or incompetent. This message then gets expressed in direct or subtle actions along with criticism.

When we discussed criticism, we talked about ways to overcome being critical by focusing on the positive attributes of your partner. However, with contempt, the negative feelings can be so overwhelming that you forget entirely your partner’s positive qualities, at least while you’re feeling upset. Some signs of contempt are: insults, mockery, hostile humor, and negative body language, such as eye rolling and sneering.

Contempt is the worst of the Four Horsemen. It can create a hostile and abusive environment if it goes ignored in the relationship and makes it impossible to solve problems. Studies have shown that the biggest predictor of divorce is the presence of contempt between couples. Now probably everyone responds contemptuously on occasion. Apologies can fix those occasional mistakes. It’s when contempt becomes a frequent way of interacting that the relationship is in danger. Frequent contempt says that I think you are a person unworthy of my respect. Love can’t survive long in that kind of toxic atmosphere.

Let’s use the previous example of household chores to illustrate what happens in a contemptuous relationship.

You come home from a long day at work/school to a messy house. You expect your spouse to help you clean because you had a hard day but he or she decides to sit down and watch T.V. after a long day. An argument quickly ensues over whose turn it is to do the dishes or vacuum. As the conflict gets more heated, you start rolling your eyes at your spouse who is trying to explain how he or she had an equally difficult day. You start thinking to yourself, “They never put forth any effort. They are so lazy and annoying. I can’t believe I am with them. They are ruining my life!” You start rolling your eyes at him or her and finally say, “Oh, don’t bother to get up and help. I’m sure your day was worse than mine and your time is more valuable than mine. I’m happy to be your slave.”

Does that seem extreme? Unfortunately, this kind of exchange really happens in relationships. And it probably doesn’t stop there. You can imagine the dialogue for part two of this interaction as the dissed partner fires back!

Here is a better way to handle the situation. First, remember your partner cannot read your mind and though you have in mind something you wish to happen, you should not expect your partner to do something that hasn’t been discussed openly (like the house should be clean when you get home).

Second, take the time to try and gain your composure. Remember your feelings are a reflection of the situation, not of the relationship as a whole. You can be upset your partner isn’t helping but that doesn’t make him or her a horrible person. They just may not have realized you wanted something to begin with (see step one).

Finally, communicate your needs with your partner. You can say something like, “I was hoping the house could get clean before we make dinner tonight. Would mind cleaning the dishes while I vacuum?” Be direct and honest. Instead of pushing blame onto them for not helping, help them understand how you feel about the situation. Communication is also about listening. After telling your partner how you are feeling, remember also to listen to their point-of-view and feelings as well. Also, keep an open mind with their side of the story. There are two people involved! Sometimes it may be worth it to make a sacrifice to show love and devotion to your partner, as long as this does not become completely one-side and unfair.

Today I actually had an experience where I realized I was starting to feel a little contempt against my husband. (Thankfully, I was in the middle of the writing this post and so it helped keep my feelings in check.) I was at home sick with our 1-year-old son when my husband came home from school early. My son was playing well by himself and I was feeling better so my husband decided to go lay down for a bit. He asked me before he went in the room if I was okay with it or if I needed his help but I said it was fine.

A little while after he laid down, my son, decided to be cranky and started screaming at me. I was getting so frustrated with the situation and started blaming my husband for leaving me alone to deal with this. “What, is he deaf? He can’t hear the baby screaming?” I then remembered that it was me who told him it was okay to lie down and so he wasn’t purposefully neglecting us. This helped me keep my emotions down and not start blaming my husband for being “selfish” or “a jerk.” When he woke up, I told him honestly and calmly how I felt and he apologized. And that was the end of that.

Sometimes it is hard to not get caught up in such strong emotions. But when you start to constantly think less of your partner and look down on him or her, your relationship will fail! It is important to stop this way of thinking or risk destroying the relationship.